Not All the New Cars News is Bad News

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Here’s a bit of good news about new cars, for a change: Some routine maintenance tasks are easier to do – or don’t need to be done as often. fix 1

Sometimes, they don’t need to be done at all.

For example, most new cars don’t require periodic adjustment of their fuel injection systems  – which will usually operate without a hitch for years before needing to be cleaned out or a component fails and requires replacement.

Scheduled tune-ups are also much farther apart – often just once every 100,000 miles – and fewer parts are involved. Many new car engines don’t have a distributor cap or spark plug wires – which like points and condensers used to require periodic replacement. One less thing to worry about. Several less things, actually.

Tires also tend to last much longer now – 40,000 miles or more – if you don’t drive like a Nextel Cup driver.

Mufflers rust out and fall off much less often. Most new car will go their entire lives with the same exhaust pipes they left the factory with. repair

You save hassle, time and money – making up (at least somewhat) for the higher buy-in cost of new cars.

Here are some others, in the category of easier – and less often:

* Drive belts last longer, there’s frequently just one – and it’s (usually) a snap to replace.

If you’re old enough to remember cars built before the 1990s, you may remember car engines that had a single belt for each accessory – power steering, AC, alternator – and how each one had to be individually tensioned by prying on a bracket while tightening an adjuster bolt. It was a pain – multiplied by the number of belts your particular car had.

Most new car engines, in contrast, have a single “serpentine” belt that drives all the accessories. And instead of having to set the tension via a tedious process of leveraging a bracket while tightening a bolt, then checking to make sure it’s right – now all you need to do is slip the belt around the pulleys, then over the idler/tensioner pulley – and release. The tension is set automatically – and you’re done. Some cars have screw-in adjusters, which are slightly more bother – but infinitely less so than leveraging old-style brackets one-at-a-time.fix 3

Even if you don’t do this job yourself, you won’t have to pay someone to do it often. Serpentine belts are much longer-lived than the old-style single belts – usually lasting 50,000-plus miles or more before they ought to be replaced – and failing before then far less often.

* Brake pads – vs. shoes.

Most new cars – even economy cars – now come with four-wheel-disc brakes. In the past, many cars – and most economy cars – came with drum brakes on the rear wheels – and sometimes, all four.

Drum brakes have some advantages – they’re cheap and tough – but several disadvantages, including more labor-intensive service. Replacing drum brake shoes is a dirty, un-fun job. Replacing disc brake pads is less dirty and usually, much easier. For one thing, the fine adjustments one must perform to properly adjust new brake shoes relative to the brake drum aren’t necessary when fitting new disc brake pads. The main chore is seating the caliper piston so that you can install the new pads – and then re-installing the caliper on the brake disc. But this is a straightforward job compared with turning that hard-to-see/hard-to-get-at star wheel on a brake drum while manually feeling for the correct amount of drag.fix 4

The materials used in modern brake pads also tend to be longer-lived. In many cases, you can go 40,000 or more miles before having to sweat a brake job. Contrast that with the past, when it was common to replace pads every other year – or sooner.

* Oil/filter changes.

I recently did an oil change on a new (2013) Subaru and was surprised (and delighted) to find the oil filter “right there” and readily accessible – with the exhaust piping thoughtfully routed around the filter such that it was a snap to get my hand around it – and turn it out by hand. You could change this car’s oil and filter with just a crescent wrench (to loosen/remove the drain plug).

Same for things like air filter elements. In most new cars, you can access/replace the filter without using any tools at all. The lid of the box that contains the filter is typically held in place with snaps rather than screws or bolts.fix 5

However, this is only a general trend. In some cases (BMWs being particularly notorious) it seems the manufacturer of the vehicle has deliberately tried to make serving the car harder.

Some advice, if you’re new car shopping and are the sort of person who likes to do basic service yourself: Raise the hood and take a look. Read the owner’s manual in the glovebox; see what it says about basic procedures such as oil and filter changes. Ask the salesman to show you where the dipsticks (oil, transmission fluid, etc.) are. Find out whether it’s feasible to change the oil on your own. Or will you have to take the car to the dealer?fix 6

Some cars (those BMWs, for instance) don’t even have physical dipsticks anymore. And require that the car be hooked up to a special computer (which only the dealership has) for even basic, should-be-able-to-do-it-yourself chores such as replacing a dead battery.

These are things you’ll want to know about before the car is in your driveway.

Throw it in the Woods?  


  1. Except for the new Chebby Malibu.

    to change the headlight bulbs, you have to remove both front wheels, both inner fenders and the bumper, to get to the bulbs.

  2. One thing about disc brakes to watch for is undersized pads. GM of the 1990s and 2000s cheaped out on brakes and put the smallest, thinest pads and rotors on their cars as they could get away with. I was constantly getting less than 20,000 miles out of them before replacement, along with warped rotors. Never had brake problems on work trucks, and my A3’s brakes look like new at 24K, so I don’t think it was my driving that killed them.

    Once I swapped out the factory pads and rotors for performance-level after market I was able to get about 40K out of a set, but to really fix it I should have replaced the calipers and everything.

  3. Then there’s the fittingless tie rod and ball joints with lifetime lubrication; wheel bearings; no carby tuneups, longer life fuel pumps, galvanized body panels, better paints, better waxes and car wash solutions, longer life u-joints. And lastly much better lubricating fluids which has much led to longer life car motors and other parts that have lubricants.

    • joeallen, I have an ’82 Chevy 3/4 T 4WD with a galvanized bed. I don’t guess it will ever go away. I have a ’76 that by far has suffered the ravages of west Tx. sun. The bed has been worked hard but is in good shape….but nothing like the ’82. Too bad I couldn’t get it on my ’93, the newest diesel(year before computerized FI)year model I want. The ’93 has all the good stuff drivetrain and suspension-wise. No, it doesn’t approximate the power of the new diesels but when it comes to get down and dirty really tough 4WD and power down low, it gives up very little, a good thing considering everybody I know buying new trucks are spending $43K(work truck)and way beyond.

    • Hi Joe,


      Despite spending several years in West Va. doing snow-plow duty in winter (road salt baths), my ’98 Nissan pick-up still has very little rust – and the factory paint is still shiny. It sits outside, year ’round, too.

      Remember when new cars showed rot after just three or four years? And when new car paint looked like scheisse by six years old?

  4. I enjoyed the positive news for a change.

    Fixing flats or tire leaks is a scam. It used to be that anything in the sidewall was unfixable and cause for replacement. Then it was the corner area where the sidewall met the tread area. Now it is one tread block away from the sidewall. This simply forces people to do the plug themselves. An advantage to this is that the Clovers have to pay while smart people do it themselves and save an average of $100 per tire. Economic Darwinism at work. You have to feel for Grampa getting taken… but then again it was his generation that placed our nation on its trajectory.

    Another positive development has been the return of readily available refrigerant that DIYers can charge their systems with. The last canister cost me about $15, a far cry from the 99 cent price of the early 80’s, but MUCH better that the mandatory shop visits that ran over $100 plus all the scheduling hassles.

    • Talk about a screwing, I recall in the 80’s when R-12 went out of sight. It was 69 cents a can(16 oz) and then had $32 added to it. I often went with a friend in the HVAC business to the wholesaler he used and one day noticed a sign for public view. It said We charge $.69/lb. for R-12 but the federal govt. charges $32 in tax. I can remember back when we rarely used RTV patches on tires and mainly used the old “hot patch”(many have never seen one). Once the tire was prepped and you had that patch on with a big clamp made just for that purpose, you’d stick a lit kitchen match in it and it would burn like crazy. That patch didn’t come off and neither did the good RTV patches. I’ve patched many tires anywhere they got a hole and never had one come off like the tire shops would tell you. We can’t patch the sidewall, and then the area at the edge of the tread where you catch so many things. I never had a patch come off, ever, and I put the damned things all over tires. I don’t recall ever having a blowout that the tire was worth picking up, mostly the two sidewalls left on the rim and the tread somewhere between where you stopped and where it came apart. My leaks are always slow or a new tire, very seldom in need of a boot.

    • You are right on the fixing tires. On RV tires they won’t even patch for any hole no matter how good the tread or tire, so you have to go it alone. Its obviously has to do with the sue happy people out there. Definitely nobody can reason anymore whether a tire is generally worth saving or scrapping.

      • HotRod, what the hell ever it has to deal with I don’t play the game. Put a friggin patch on it and be done with it. I’ve seen tire “techs” that couldn’t bring a tire back from a 1 oz change, not enough “visions” on their machines to record. What does this tell you about patches? Their mass is inconsequential and the only question is, will the patch come off due to flexing. No way….if you do proper prep. I used to run roofing crews and hauled countless loads of shingles, nails and detritus from roofs and had plenty little “leakers” on my 10 ply 16″ load range E tires and never had a problem of long term anything. Sure, that tire had been broken down a dozen times and an RTV patch put on it and all the rest were still there just as they had been. This isn’t rocket science lest I wouldn’t know anything about it. BTW, when I didn’t have huge loads on my truck, I’d generally be hauling ass at triple digit speeds so you can throw that out of the park too. I had a great local tire man that knew his stuff and he’d put a patch anywhere I wanted but he would tell you what the tires guys say and we both thought the same about it. Fix the tire, live and learn….and you do. He did, over a few decades just like I did. If I ran 150mph on a bike would I want to have a patched tire? Just a tiny screw or nail hole? yep, no problem, but anything that had wallowed around in there I’d want to see personally and make that call. In a perfect world our bikes never need a new tire because of punctures or out of balance or out of round. Welcome to the real world. I used to have my tires rounded, ground on a tire lathe to make them perfectly round. I lost some rubber but it was a beautiful thing when that tire/wheel combo was in motion. Cram on the brakes and know nothing would hop or any other aberration. As far as trailer tires go, I had lots more problems than patches. I’ve had axles get somewhat sideways on brand new trailers and blow the tire, no fault of the tire, wheel or anything else, just alignment from factory trailers.

    • You have to feel for Grampa getting taken… but then again it was his generation that placed our nation on its trajectory.


      Thanks, Graham, for the reminder. One cannot repeat this often enough.

  5. I certainly agree about drum brakes. Changing pads on disc brake cars isn’t much more difficult than changing a flat tire. Many newer cars and trucks are designed to give easy access to headlight bulbs ect. as well.

    • I wouldn’t go that far. I’ve seem a quite a few newer vehicles that the bumper cover has to removed to change them.

  6. Contrary to the comment regarding 100,000 tuneups, I contend that there is no such thing as a tune-up anymore. Tuning an engine in the past consisted of adjusting point dwell, ignition timing, valve lash and carburetor mixture. On most cars today none of these need to be ‘adjusted’ any longer. Points dwell no longer exists, ignition timing is mapped and set by firmware, valve lash is automatically adjusted by hydraulically controlled lifters and fuel mixture is controlled by electronic fuel injection electronics and firmware. I think the only thing left of the traditional tuneup is the ability to change the spark plugs.

    • Hi Steve,

      Yes, that’s true.

      As an aside, I personally like to pull the plugs out long before the 100k mark. Not necessarily to replace them, but to prevent them from seizing to the threads!

      • I’ve seen some spark plug boots become almost one with the plugs and had some very narrow escapes with plugs almost pulling the threads coming out. I’d agree with you but I do things like clean the throttle body, the O2 sensor(s) and the map sensor if I can get to it which is usually the case. Some vehicles have sensors others don’t so they can use a cleaning with Chemtool or something similar. I was amazed 25 years ago when a friend who is a mechanic pulled the plugs wires on a new GM car and mismatched them, fired it up and it went from barely running to purring as the ignition sorted itself, amazing.

      • As an aside here I just thought I’d mention that I have used a pure nickel anti-seize for over 30 years on nearly everything including spark plugs in iron or aluminum either without an incident. It’s sure nice to twist on that plug and have it screw out nice and smooth, esp. the new style plug with an angled face that seats to the head w/o a crush seal. I have used it on every lug nut you can imagine too. I compared torque values with a new nut and a perfectly clean stud and no anti-seize with anti-seize and found no discernible difference. I do not use an impact for final tightening to keep things from being over-torqued but mainly for the way it affects brakes and even run-out on trailer wheels.

        • I’m with you on this Eight. I’ve been using pure nickel anti-seize for at least three decades as well. It’s essential on threaded stainless steel hardware or you will have galling; no ifs ands or butts. I learned that in nuclear power a long time ago. One tune-up I had the hard lesson of a broken off spark plug in the aluminum head of a 3.0 V6 in an ’87 Toyota 4X4. I managed to chisel out the ceramic, slit the plug body with a ground down hacksaw blade and remove it in pieces. But the threads were mangled to say the least. Fortunately, Helicoil makes a really cool kit called Save-A-Thread (P/N 5334-14) that allows you to chase out the old threads and cut new threads in one pass. Then you install and set a solid steel insert in the aluminum that restores both tapered or crush washer style spark plug holes. THEN you put nickel anti-seize on the new plug when you install it and you won’t have that happen again.

          • Boothe, I guess any old wrencher has been saved countless times by Helicoil, great product. ” I learned that in nuclear power a long time ago. ” Hey, I’m still using the original can that came from Glen Rose near Ft. Worth. Just a bit goes a long way and I’ve used it on everything I ever worked on. I’m finally near the bottom and that can is 31 years old. It’s ridden so many miles there’s no finish left, went from one truck to the next.

          • Boothe, here’s a leg up on “penetrating” oil. One brand I found that will get into a millionth of an inch, does what all the rest claims. I’ve used Kano Kroil to loosen things no amount of other oils, heat, cold or anything else would set free. When I became a died in the wool believer was working on an old JD 4020 that the lift arms adjusters had become seized on. Nobody could get it free with anything including huge wrenches and heat nor any sort of penetrating oil. I pulled it up to the barn one day and said I was going to get them loose or else and figured “or else” might be the final solution. A friend and I worked for hours with all sorts of things as well as heating the outside with a torch. Not a wink. I pulled out a new can of KK I’d just bought and ran some into the seal cracked between the arm and the insider adjuster. We beat it some more, added more oil, wrenched on it with a big 36″ Ridgid pipe wrench, whipping it with a 2 lb shop hammer, nada. We were worn out so I said we’ll just put some on it again and give it a few licks, attack it in the morning….so we did. Next day, I put a bit more on, struck it a couple times and then we got nasty with the big wrench like we had the day before. We’re both watching it really close and both said at the same time “I think it winked”. And damned if it hadn’t. Not really enough to see but enough to make those marks not quite lined up perfectly and the feel through the wrench. We went back the other way, definitely a wink, then back and forth and occasionally putting more KK on it. In the end both adjusters got screwed completely out, slicked up with a knotted cup brush on a side grinder, took a 12 gauge copper brush and cleaned hell out of the inside where we removed a plug and flushed crap out till it was clean. Greased those babies up and you could just screw them sweetly with your hand just like when it was new. I’ve used it on countless “ruined” things since and don’t recall ever being stopped. KK also has lots of specialty penetrating lubes I’ve used to great satisfaction. The have PTFE added oils that work great on plastics that you think won’t ever come apart, just know they’re galled into a single piece. I give my personal recommendation for this brand. Wait, I lied. A plug in the water jacket on a SBC was there, not giving up a thing and I drilled it out. I worked my butt off on that block, got everything out and filled with quality petcocks and then found they’d be blocked by the motor mounts. Oh well…..

  7. If you’re old enough to remember cars built before the 1990s, you may remember car engines that had a single belt for each accessory – power steering, AC, alternator – and how each one had to be individually tensioned by prying on a bracket while tightening an adjuster bolt. It was a pain – multiplied by the number of belts your particular car had.

    On the other hand, if one failed it apparently gave drivers a reason to ask female passengers to take off their tights so as to improvise a replacement – or so I have heard.

  8. Maybe the 2013 Subaru is different, but my 2010’s oil filter is surrounded by exhaust pipe which is stinking hot when I change the oil.

    I’m of two minds on drum brakes. They’re cheaper than discs and work well. But I defer to Peters experience on working on them, with just one caveat: disc brake calipers seem to freeze up more frequently than drum brakes get stuck. I’ve owned a number of full-size Dodge vans, and the front disc caliper (not the pads–I’m not a crazy driver) is a semi-regular replacement item.

    • Hi Ross,

      Disc brakes – especially late model disc brakes, which have thinner rotors – are vulnerable to damage from over-torqued lug nuts; you’ve got to be careful about greasemonkeys with air guns. Also, it’s very important to keep the brake fluid from getting contaminated, else you risk damage to the often-expensive calipers.

      Drums are much tougher; it’s hard to hurt them. But they are also harder (for the average person) to service and of course, don’t provide as much stopping power.

  9. With the 2013 Subaru you can get a topsider oil pump and stick the tube down the dipstick hole. Don’t have to crawl on the ground at all. Drive to a Walmart with an auto service center – park next to the auto bays – go get a jug of 0W20 – do the oil change – dump the old oil in their recycle tank – drive away.

    • Hi RJ,

      I’m familiar with that method, but wonder about it. In particular, I wonder about what’s left in the oil pan. Gravity draining from below seems to be the best way to drain out the sludge that accumulates in the bottom of the pan. The “suck-through-the-tube” method may leave heavier/old gunk in the engine. I don’t know this for sure, but it seems like it would be the case.

  10. The serpentine belt is important and overlooked part. I have some reserve headlight bulbs for the old truckzilla. They are the kind which cannot be touched by ungloved hand. A little money spent on some transmission fluid, the proper viscosity oil for your vehicle, anti-freeze and transmission fluide will save you a ton of money later.

  11. So true about BMW. It now seems like the dealer is the only one who can do any (and expensive) service. I’m giving up on them and going to give Infiniti a try.

    • Ditto, SPQR –

      For years, I was a great fan of BMW cars. But since about the late 1990s/early 2000s, the emphasis shifted from “driving machines” (cars built for people who appreciate fine machinery and know how to use it) to status-mobiles for pretentious Yuppies who prefer to be driven – to let the car do virtually everything for them. The over-the-top-electronics are an aspect of this. It’s a super turn-off … to people like you and I – to have to go through preposterous rigmarole just to replace a dead battery; but for the Yuppie who never lifts his car’s hood himself – who likes having the dealer do everything for him – it’s a plus.

      • I think the terms “yuppie” may have taken on a new meaning these days. Young, up and coming people at one time weren’t synonymous with “new age” and “popular trends”. They were denigrated in the 70’s for being those who didn’t always play by the rules, i.e., those who were entrepreneurs and people branching into new fields. I’m not certain what you call the people who “find” a new thing, like “finding” skirt steak. I never knew it was lost but once the “sheeple” who read magazines found out I and my friends had been eating super-cheap, great meat for decades, the price went from occasionally free or $.19 or $.29/lb. to $5/lb. Same with the $2 cigars we used to buy by the case that all of a sudden were $20/each, and that happened in less than a year. The “new” aficionados seem to only want the popular things other people who resemble each other socially have found. We really are a nation of sheeple. Marge and Homer(not the Odyssey Homer)became part of the SUV aficionados by purchasing their “Canyonero” that looked suspiciously like a Wagoneer.

        • The “new” aficionados seem to only want the popular things other people who resemble each other socially have found. We really are a nation of sheeple.

          What makes it worse is that most of what’s “new” is actually old – and not very old at that (cigars are a great example of this). A true testament to the fact that most of the sheeple have memories as short as their attention spans and that many have more dollars than common sense (a secondary definition of the word “yuppie”).

          As for your skirt steak example, I hear ya. Having spent a lot of time in Greece, I used to love making and eating Greek food at home (fegeddabout Greek restaurants in the States – all of them serve tasteless slop) and could easily get cheap natural ingredients, especially natural yogurt, because they weren’t big sellers most of the time. Now that Greek is “in” among the sheeple masses who wouldn’t know the real thing if it bit them in their obese asses, costs have gone through the roof. And don’t even get me started on pretentious assholes who treat Mediterranean food like it’s gourmet cuisine (it’s simple, natural peasant food, dumbasses!). It’s enough to make me want to subsist on grass and water for the rest of my life.

        • Used SUVs and trucks are more expensive than ever, thanks to these trends. Everyone that seemed like a yuppie to me had to have an SUV back in the 90s. Then things just changed, and suddenly truck-based SUVs are no longer popular, so here comes Cash for Clunkers, which basically just removed a lot of good cars and trucks off the road and screwed the poor by driving up the prices for all cars.

          It was as if the excess of the past years required a new sacrifice for the yuppies.

          Meanwhile, all along, there have been people who have had SUVs, trucks, and the like. And some of us need such things.

          • Hi Jared,

            No doubt.

            Today, for the hell of it, I went to Auto Trader and did a search (300 mile radius) for Nissan Frontier pick-ups circa 1998-2004. I own two of these. I paid about $7,000 for each, the first (the ’98) in 2004 and the second (the 2002) in 2008, just before Cash For Clunkers. Both trucks – at the time of purchase – had under 70,000 miles.

            Today – five years after I bought the ’02 – I could not find one for less than $10,000. Most were in the $12k range – and all of them had much higher mileage than my trucks had when I bought them.


          • I still believe my theory to be true that the SUVs were the result of CAFE. The big car die of 1985 left very few choices. It was in the late 80s I started to see an explosion in the number of trucks on the road.

            The enclosed truck is really a niche vehicle, had been around for decades before the SUV craze, which makes me look for a reason why suddenly people bought them. The people who bought them list off their ‘practical’ reasons and they match what people bought traditional full size cars for.

            As things continued the SUV had to evolve into the superior form that had existed prior. full size sedans, wagons, etc. That’s what the people really wanted.

            • It is true.

              CAFE initially targeted passenger cars – which included full-size station wagons. These 7-9 passenger RWD/V-8 wagons were ubiquitous as family-haulers in the ’70s; as much as minivan are now. Every major automaker sold them. Also the large sedans they were based on. These were mass-market/bread-and-butter models.

              When CAFE killed them off, there were few passenger cars left that could carry more than 5 people, as well as cargo – and also pull a trailer.

              The next best thing?

              A truck with an enclosed bed – what we now call an SUV.

              CAFE eventually caught up, of course. Today, “light trucks” (which includes SUVs) are as much the target of CAFE as are passenger cars. Which is to a great extent why SUVs (truck-based ones; the real deals) are dying off as mass-market vehicles.

      • An acquaintance of mine has been fixing-up some interesting basket cases and the trend with the European manufacturers is that anything to do with the engine computer or integrated security systems requires paying the dealer $500-$800 to reprogram the vehicle computer.

        The Mercedes that had a small engine fire, required a trip to the dealer to “mate” the salvage-yard engine computer with the car. Else, it would run 3 minutes and shut-off since it “knew” it wasn’t in the car it was shipped with. US dealers must connect the car to Germany via internet to re-program them. Similar experience with another Mercedes that hydro-locked the engine whilst screaming through 6 in of water. ($$$ for connecting rods on that one)

        The Porsche with the cracked head required an $800 re-program session at the dealer to overcome the security system due to the car sitting for 6 months without a battery connected.

        I’m sure the US manufacturers will be following these trends. Revenue, revenue, revenue…..

        • And I guarantee you that this “reprogramming” consists of nothing more than an executable code download of no more than a couple of MB in size, takes no more than sixty seconds on a halfway decent broadband connection, and is self-installing. IOW, probably something that anyone vaguely familiar with their car’s engine could do themselves for free (of course all of these “drivers” are proprietary, and thus are accessible only from the manufacturer’s own private database). The only time I could see dealer mechanical involvement as being necessary is if the some hardware component needed replacement.


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