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lou's garage

Of all the careers that exist in the world, fixing cars for a living affords me the opportunity to see people at their worst. Individuals are not always at their best when in financial crisis, particularly when their vehicle requires large-dollar repairs that they have no way of paying for. Fortunately for me, most of my customers take it in stride and understand that I didn’t break their car and that I am only there to fix it. But every once in a while, you encounter someone who struggles to handle themselves in a courteous, decent manner. These individuals also tend to drive older, high-end vehicles nearing the end of their life.

I don’t begrudge manufacturers like BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Cadillac, Jaguar and a bevy of others for making vehicles that are expensive to maintain. They cater and design their vehicles for a specific market where the average new-vehicle owner has (or at least should have) more disposable income.

Today’s latest-and-greatest is destined to be tomorrow’s disposable. However, unlike the latest cell phone that gets discarded as soon as it has a significant problem, our vehicles have a much longer life and can cost a small fortune along the way. Second-hand, high-end vehicles from all manufacturers always seem to pass on their most expensive repairs to those who can least afford them.

If it’s not already obvious, I had an angry, first-time customer this week who brought in his older BMW 3 Series for a water pump and thermostat replacement. When the technician drove the car inside, he instantly recognized that the car was hurting far more than the owner of the car had initially indicated. A two-minute cursory inspection yielded a rear differential that was only held in by one bolt, a completely broken rear shock, a failing rear driveshaft and a power steering rack with a severe fluid leak. All those repairs would cost more than the vehicle was worth. From a liability standpoint, I am never comfortable with repairing a non-essential safety item and then allowing the customer to drive away in a vehicle that clearly fails a safety inspection. That’s an accident waiting to happen.

The phone call to the customer went as I expected, which was disheartening, to say the least. He insisted that there was nothing else wrong with his car, despite the fact that I had video evidence of the failing parts. He yelled at me on the phone, calling me a thief and rip-off artist. I had no interest in dealing with people like that, so I told him to send for a tow truck to take the car away. I’m sure it will be sent to some back-street, unlicensed shop for another band-aid repair.

While I understand that this gentleman’s behaviour is uncommon, I am still amazed at how many people purchase high-mileage European cars and are surprised when the repair bills come in. Please, if you are shopping for a car like this, spend just as much time researching a third-party warranty. Unfortunately, you will likely find that a decent warranty costs almost as much as the car.


Your automotive questions, answered

I now have 102,000 miles on my BMW SUV, and the transmission fluid has never been changed. The fluid looks amber, not red or black. BMW says it’s a lifetime fluid, so I shouldn’t change it. I heard it can be bad to change the fluid because problems can suddenly develop afterward. Can I go another 30,000 miles without a change? I live in Wisconsin, so the weather is not real hot. What is your advice on this?

James B

BMW’s “fill for life” literature won’t define a mileage interval and defers the issue to their dealers. We therefore have to analyze what the life of a transmission is defined as. The testing of the transmission is done at the design stage and left to whatever company BMW happens to be buying their transmissions from. Most transmission manufacturers test their transmissions up to 100,000 miles, or 168,000 kilometers, as that mileage is typically deemed be an acceptable lifespan. A mileage that also happens to put BMW’s responsibility out to pasture, as they will no longer offer any further goodwill-gesture repairs or extended warranties beyond it.

So looking at it from the manufacturer perspective, your transmission has theoretically already reached its life expectancy. Regardless of the fluid colour, and understanding that every once in an while a fluid change may cause an internal issue, I would still suggest you get it replaced. Your BMW dealer likely won’t do it, so you will have to find an independent local specialist to perform the task for you.

Hello Lou,

I bought a Mazda CX-7 in 2010 with a turbocharged engine. I loved driving it, but the turbo failed and was replaced under warranty at about 70,000 km, and then it blew again much later, off warranty. As well, I ended up putting six wheel bearings in the thing. Both these items had less-than-adequate seals, allowing the turbo and the wheel bearings to prematurely fail. I am reluctant to ever buy a turbocharged vehicle again. Why is it so expensive to repair, and how long should the parts last? After all, this is not new technology. It should be mastered by now.

Dave V

Dealing with the wheel bearings first – the individual ball bearings inside of your wheel-bearing assembly are made of much-poorer quality metal in comparison to what was used years ago. Just look at the longevity of new household appliances. Nothing seems to last like it used to. Any kind of moisture that penetrates the seal will quickly cause corrosion and, ultimately, failure. Wheel bearings regularly fail for all manufacturers now, not just Mazda.

Turbochargers are not going away, as they offer significant fuel-economy advantages. Their failure has little to do with a failing seal and more to do with oil degradation. As your car ages and the oil is repeatedly contaminated, the passages that deliver fresh oil to the turbocharger become restricted, starving the turbocharger. Consistent oil-change intervals are now more critical than ever before. While I don’t know why your turbocharger failed, I am confident it had something to do with oil supply.

Lou Trottier is owner-operator of All About Imports in Mississauga. Have a question about maintenance and repair? E-mail globedrive@globeandmail.com, placing “Lou’s Garage” in the subject line.

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