Thursday, October 27, 2011

Audi Timing Belts

If you have a later model Audi, and you’re closing in on 100,000 miles you might be wondering why that timing belt change you’re looking at is so expensive, and what it involves.

The maintenance schedule simply says “replace timing belt at 105,000 miles” for most models.  They don’t really list any other parts, or talk about what’s involved.  There are two ways you can approach that work.

The first method is to slide the front bumper forward for access, take the covers off the front of the motor, and slip a new timing belt into place.  You might change a roller or two, and swap the serpentine belts, but the rest of the car remains untouched.

That’s the easiest job to do.  A skilled tech can bang the work out in a day.  But is that the best job for you as an owner?

If you plan to trade the car next month, it may seem like the way to go.  But if you plan on keeping your Audi another 100,000 miles, or you plan to pass it on to a kid or friend or anyone you care about, a different approach is probably called for.

At Robison Service, we do a lot of work for enthusiasts – people who ask a lot of their cars and really care about and for them.  Over time we’ve learned that the best repairs are the ones that last.  Often that means doing more work, not less, when tackling a big job.  Anytime we do a big job, we ask ourselves, “What else is going to give trouble soon,” and we address those items while the car is apart and it’s easy.  After all, it’s always smarter to spend two hundred dollars today, if it saves six hundred dollars next year. 

If you simply slap a timing belt onto a 100,000-mile Audi you can be assured that the job will not last another 100,000 miles.  More than likely, you will be doing the work over again, with additional repairs, within three years.  Why?  Because the timing belt is just one piece of a complex system, and the other pieces of the system can and will fail too, even though they are not on the maintenance schedule.

For example, the water pump is driven by the timing belt.  Most Audi water pumps make it to 100k miles.  I’ve never seen one last 200k.  The water pump is behind the timing belt, so its replacement calls for doing the timing belt all over again.  Installing a water pump during the timing belt job will cost a few hundred dollars, in most cases.  Replacing it two years later (and doing the timing belt and other work over again)  may well cost fifteen hundred more dollars, when everything is tallied up.

The timing belt is guided and tensioned by a number of rollers and springs, all of which wear out.  Those parts won’t last till 200k either, and if they fail, the timing belt can come off, leading to thousands of dollars in preventable engine damage.

All cars leak oil and coolant when they get old.  Audis are no exception.  The thing is, you can fix many of those leaks easily when the engine is apart.  A few extra hours may get rid of those annoying drips.

And drips can be more than an annoyance.  When oil or coolant leaks onto the exhaust, it’s a fire hazard.  When oil gets hot in summer, it makes an acrid stink that can be drawn inside the car when the AC is running.  Those are a few of the good reasons to fix your leaks while the motor is open.

What about everything else under the hood?  I believe a good technician should look the whole engine bay over carefully when doing any big job.  Who knows what’s about to fail?  There may be cracked hoses, leaking AC lines, or even a corroded and failing battery.  The time we open the hood for work may well be the only time anyone looks at those things until they fail.

As much as people hate to spend money, it’s easier and cheaper to change a battery when your car is already in the shop than it will be when it dies, in an empty parking lot, some cold winter night.  That idea exemplifies the difference in our philosophy.  We believe in identifying what may go wrong tomorrow, and fixing it while we do today's repair.  Other people believe is doing just what the schedule says, and no more.  There's a place for both ways of thinking; I believe our philosophy is more suited to long term ownership.

We apply this same preventative care approach to every car we service.  Sometimes it can surprise people.  They go to the Shop A and hear about two problems.  They come to us and we show them ten more things.  That doesn't make the first guy wrong - it just means we have a different approach and I like to think we are more through.

Robison Service is a four-star Bosch Car Service center.  We service Audi, BMW, Jaguar, Mercedes, Land Rover, Porsche, and Rolls Royce-Bentley automobiles.   We’re located right off exit 4 of I-291 in Springfield, Massachusetts.  Visit us online, or stop by the shop.  We're here from 8-5 Monday through Friday.   Phone us at 413-785-1665 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

We won't be feeding data to CARFAX. Here's why . . .

Yesterday I got a call from a CARFAX representative who wanted me to upload my repair database to their servers so it could be included in what CARFAX reports on cars we may have serviced.

I sought opinions about that on my blog and Facebook page, and thought about the matter at some length.  I’ve decided it’s not a good idea for my company, and indeed for most independents, for these reasons:

Customers have an expectation of privacy, especially in small business dealings.  They don’t expect us to sell their names to marketers.  While CARFAX is not collecting names in this example, anyone buying a car and following its trail to our shop necessarily makes a connection to our clients, who may or may not want to share that information.

While some of our clients might well embrace the CARFAX concept, I am sure others would be very troubled at this release of information that might be traced back to them. 

That alone is reason for independent shops to steer clear of this program, but there’s more.

CARFAX claims they are extracting or summarizing what shops write on their work orders using some kind of automated process.  The result, as shown in the sample area of their website, will look something like this:

12/10/10    ABC Garage    Electrical Repair
2/1/11   BBB Garage    Oil service

I have a number of serious concerns about this process.  One concern is that CARFAX will incorrectly “summarize” what is written in our repair orders, leading to a misleading or totally wrong CARFAX report.  For example, consider the fellow who brings his off-road Jeep in five times in five months to add driving lights, fit a bigger stereo, install a winch, upgrade the alternator, and fit more driving lights.

Will that show up as five “electrical repairs?” If it does, who does the owner blame for that wrong report?  CARFAX?  Us?  It’s a situation where we will be blamed and we have no control or recourse; indeed we can’t even know what’s happening because we have no access to the reports.

The problem is, if we hand someone our information, we have a responsibility to our clients, to be sure they use it correctly.  CARFAX is not offering us that ability, but even if they did, why would we want to do it for them?

You have a situation where our sharing of innocent repair data might create a false impression that a car is a lemon, or at least needs constant repairs.  That could turn off some buyers, and it’s easy to see how the vehicle owner would blame us if he lost a sale.  One such negative would outweigh a hundred customers who think “it’s ok,” in my experience.  That negative could cause us a lot of bad press.  “It’s okay,” is indifferent at best and counts for nothing in terms of our reputation in the community.

CAARFAX argues that the addition of service data enhances the value of a car, by proving it’s well cared for.  While that may be true, who does the data benefit?  They imply it benefits our clients but I don’t think that’s really so.  If our clients are selling a car, they already tell potential buyers that we care for it, and we are its reference.  CARFAX adds nothing to that situation.

If our client has not cared for his car faithfully, the existence of a spotty record is a minus.  Maybe that means he didn’t take good care of his car, but it may also mean he has a winter home in Florida and the shop that does the rest of the work down there does not report to CARFAX.  Once again, our contribution of data creates a false negative impression that could come back to bite us.

If anyone wants to know how our clients cars were cared for, all they have to do is ask . . .  In the latter example, we’d say, “Bob has some of his work done in Florida, so ask them too.”  The difference is obvious.

The true beneficiaries of the CARFAX data are dealers, who buy used cars at auction, and the CARFAX company itself.  Our clients are out of the picture once the car is traded in.

CARFAX says we benefit too, because a prospective buyer can look at the record and see we serviced the car.  That sounds true, but a large percentage of cars that get traded in are auctioned and resold out of the local market.  That negates any advertising advantage we might get by appearing in the listing.

Auto service is a local proposition.  Local people will refer us directly.  Distant people don’t matter in most cases.  It’s a tenuous proposition at best.

I’d be interested in other views on this topic.

Monday, October 17, 2011

CARFAX - to be on board or not?

By now I'm sure you have heard of Carfax.  Over the past decade the company has built its name selling history reports on motor vehicles.   At first they only had state motor vehicle records.  Then they added loss reports form insurance companies.  Now they want to add service records.

They say they have signed up some of the big discount chains; Midas, Meineke, Pep Boys.  So if you get a muffler or oil service at one of those places, the date and mileage where you did the work, and the address of the shop, will become part of your car's Carfax record.

We know service records (or lack thereof) are a big issue to used car buyers.  Carfax claims that listing the repair shops will encourage new owners to take their cars back to the original service facilities, with may well be true.  So the service may well benefit both used car buyers and shop owners.

But what of the current owners, our present customers?

Carfax says their service benefits our current clientele by enhancing the value of their vehicles in the used car market.  At some point, most of our customers will replace the cars we service today, and when they do, that online record is there for all to see.

I suppose that's true.

Yet I can't help but feel it's one more little invasion of our privacy.  Most Mercedes, BMW or Rolls Royce service managers I know are hesitant to release service records for a car without the permission of the owner, who is in many cases still their client.  Carfax proposes to put the essence of that information online, without asking anyone, and sell access to it with their reports.

Carfax is not paying shops for the information.  They claim they are giving the shops "free advertising" and they claim they are enhancing the value of our customer's used cars in the market.  As I said, both things may well be true.

So what do you folks say?

Opt in to this program, or pass?