Fixing Modern Cars

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Probably the single biggest impediment to doing DIY work on a late-model car is the space issue – getting at the engine, being able to reach the part that needs attention. If you can’t get your hands – or a tool -  on it, you can’t fix or replace it.

Some late model cars are better in this respect than others – but all of them are pretty bad, relative to the old stuff – “old stuff” being the cars of the pre-1980s era. Back then, most cars were rear-drive and so had their engines mounted longitudinally – facing forward, with the transmission bolted to the back of the engine. The transmission, in turn, fed the power to the back wheels and a separate axle assembly via a long driveshaft. This spread out the components that made up the car’s drivetrain – allowing for more room under the hood. Cars were also – generally – larger – and many had larger engine compartments.  It made working on them physically easier – and also less intimidating.

More on this in a moment.

Most modern cars, in contrast, are front-wheel-drive or based on a FWD layout. Their engines are typically mounted transversely – that is, sideways. This can make it a challenge to get at – or even see -  the other side of V-6 engines, which have one cylinder bank crammed up against the firewall.

Also, even in the relative handful of RWD cars still being made, what’s called “packaging” in the lingo of the car business is much tighter than it used to be. The automakers use every inch of available space. There is very little daylight on either side of the engine. When you open the hood, you see a mass of wires and brackets and components all snugged up together thick as thieves.

You look at it and wonder: How did they ever get all that in there? Well, the answer often is: They put the engine in first – and built the car around the engine. Some late model cars had their engines put in from below, as they moved down the assembly line.

All of this can make getting at even routine maintenance items such as drive belts, spark plugs, coolant hoses and so on a knuckle-busting, extra frustrating  job. It can also put the kibosh on even thinking about doing DIY work. You pop the hood, look at all that – and say, forget it.

I’ll just take it to the man.

But, don’t let the fear keep you from proceeding.

I think part of the reason people in my generation (Generation X) and those before us took more to working on cars than today’s generation is because when my generation was in high school, working on cars seemed simpler. You popped the hood – and there it was, the engine. You could see it – and get at it. For a kid just learning the ropes, it didn’t take all that much courage to spin off the wingnut that held the top of the air cleaner in place and take a look at the filter. Or buy a cheap socket set and remove a spark plug.  After all, it was right there. Anyone could do it.

And so, we did. We learned more as we got better at it – but taking that first step made all the difference.

In most new cars, there is an air box – typically held in place by several complicated-looking screws or snaps. Sometimes you have to take off a plastic engine cover just to get at that. It’s intimidating if you haven’t done it before – and don’t know where to start.

Which is probably why many people never start.

The spark plugs are … well, hmmmm …. somewhere. With coil-on-plug ignition, it’s hard to see exactly where - because you can’t follow a wire from the distributor to the plug, as you could with a pre-’80s era car. The plug itself is often buried deep down in a hole, too – instead of sticking out obviously and enticingly accessibly from the cylinder head.

And so on.

But – it looks worse than it actually is. The main difference – then vs. now – is that the old stuff was to a much greater extent self-evident, in the sense that you could look at it and – usually – figure it out on your own using basic tools and common sense. Whereas today’s stuff often needs a little reading first.

As in – read the service manual.

And maybe some better tools, too.

For about $30 you can buy yourself the mechanical equivalent of the Rosetta Stone – aka a factory shop manual – a tome that will make the incomprehensible and intimidating comprehensible and thus, manageable. Look for used copies online – in text form or CD. It should be easy to find what you need for any recent-vintage car. If you can’t find a factory shop manual, the next best thing is an aftermarket repair manual such as those produced by Chilton or Haynes – which you can buy new for about the same $30 at any auto parts store.

Read, then do. It really is that easy. The manual just holds your hand while you do. For example, the air box referenced above. The manual will have a picture that shows where the snaps are – or the screws that need to be loosened; the air ducts that have to be temporarily disconnected – and so on. Take it a step at a time. Once you’ve done it the first time, it’ll be much easier the second time around. You’ll get the concept – and things will begin to make sense. Then you’ll begin to grow confidence. And then you’ll really be on your way. This includes electronics – and diagnostics – by the way. It’s not as terrifying as it appears. Not necessarily any more so than dealing with all the small parts, springs, gaskets, screws and bolts that hold together am old-timey carburetor, anyhow.

If, of course, you have the right tools, too.

That’s the second secret to succeeding when it comes to fiddling with modern cars. In the past, a very basic $20 socket set, some wrenches and a set of el cheapo screwdrivers was usually enough to finagle through most DIY-type maintenance/repairs. With modern cars – specifically, with your specific modern car – you may need tools specifically designed for it. This little obstacle often frustrates would-be DIY’ers into hanging it up – and calling the man. But if you have the manual – you’ll know you may need a special tool. Then you won’t drive yourself crazy 0r or throw stuff  at the car – or break the car.

And the best part is you might not even have to buy the tool. In many areas, auto parts stores offer tool rental. You leave them a deposit equivalent to the purchase price of the tool, then go fix your car. Bring the tool back – and get your money back. Or, keep the tool – if you decide it’s a gotta-have. Ask about this.

The bottom line is that while it’s true a lot has changed,  it is still possible to do routine service – a lot of it, at least – on your own. And this can save you a lot of money (labor rates for the man are in the neighborhood of $100/hour in many areas) as well as give you a great deal of satisfaction.

The satisfaction that comes from knowing – and being able to do. Try it out. It’s a pretty good feeling!

Throw it in the woods?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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eric

Author of "Automotive Atrocities" and "Road Hogs" (MBI). Currently living amongst the Edentulites in rural SW Virginia. 

  81 comments for “Fixing Modern Cars

  1. Tinsley Grey Sammons
    July 23, 2012 at 1:34 pm

    Have you ever replaced the spark plugs on the left bank of an air-cooled VW Beetle with air conditioning?

    The Beetle did not adapt well to air conditioning but it was the Mechtecs who really paid the price. Donald P. Dixon made a fortune on the kits and the A/C installation guys and the dealers did well, but as usual, it was the long-suffering wretch with the wrench who paid the price thereafter. I cannot recall the number of times I dealt with stripped plug threads in the Beetle cylinder heads because the plugs were not replaced when they should have been. The baked-on carbon buildup on the end of the neglected spark plugs brought the threads in the cylinder head out with the plug when the plug was removed. Anti-seize did not always solve the problem.

    In 1961 cost-to-customer labor was less than five bucks an hour at Brundage Motors in Jacksonville Florida. But Brundage died wealthy and his son is a wealthy man today.

    • July 23, 2012 at 3:19 pm

      Oh heck no!~

      As a former Beetle owner, I was smart enough to understand that there was a very good reason why VW never offered AC as a factory option…

    • andy
      July 23, 2012 at 11:10 pm

      My first car was a ’61 bug. I learned a lot of basic mechanical skills working on that car; carburetors, brakes, ignition, electrical,and body work. It was mostly fun working on that bug, with a few hard lessons thrown in. I’d love to have another old bug to convert to a Manx buggy. The aftermarket for parts on the old VW bugs is strong and fairly inexpensive, with several monthly published magazines to support the maintenance and restoration. Someone told me they still build the old style air cooled bug in Mexico.

      • Tinsley Grey Sammons
        July 24, 2012 at 12:20 am

        The 1961 40hp Beetle had a couple of serious flaws.

        1. There were no bearings for the camshaft and the cam bore wore so badly that the oil pressure suffered and the engine eventually blew. The old 36hp engine used a crankcase made from a harder material.

        2. The rocker shaft studs in the 40hp were much longer and attached lower in the casting resulting in loose rocker shafts.

        The 1300cc engine, produced in 1966 only, had a much better engine.

        The 1500cc engine produced in 1967 was a great engine.

        In 1968 the 1600cc engine was a faulty engine because the area where the cylinder contacted the head was too thin resulting in loose heads. Pop,pop,pop . . . there goes a VW with loose cylinder heads.

        If I could purchase a brand new 67 today I’d find a way to do it.

      • Ike Renner
        July 26, 2012 at 2:06 pm

        A VW w/ AC? Wow, rich boy, y don’t you and Mitt go on a dressage playdate and talk about it? My ’66 Bug, ’74 Thing, and ’79 Vanagon were very easy to do basic maintenance on. And I think of them teary-eyed every time I have to get under my current ride.

        I’m currently rebuilding the engine on a ’05 Ford Freestyle with a transverse V6. I bought it with a warped head that was misdiagnosed by 3 different shops. I gotta say, those engineers have gotten way more clever. But Eric’s basic premise is right – Although the work has taken 5-8x longer than I expected, nothing has been beyond my grasp. I bought a $200 Tech manual from Amazon for $30. No fancy tools (except for a valve spring clamp), but just plenty of time and patience.

        • methylamine
          July 27, 2012 at 1:09 am

          @Ike:

          “…why don’t you and Mitt go on a dressage playdate…”

          LOL! I’m dying, Perrier shot out of my nose as I read that.

          I bet Mitt thinks he looks so pretty posting up and down on his precious pony.

      • Ike Renner
        July 26, 2012 at 2:27 pm

        Hate to tell you, they stopped making the Mexi-bugs in 2004. I knew of a company in Az who would buy 90′s beetles and put them on 70′s pans to get around title, emission requirements. How many other cars could achieve such a fete?

        You should get a Manx kit. I’m trying to convince my dad (who just bought a house on Galveston island) to get one.

        • August 8, 2012 at 1:29 pm

          Looking at F1 race cars’ fuel economy, wouldn’t it be cheaper and cause a lot less fuss if instead of using F1 cars in races, we substituted them with SUVs? Oh sorry, I forgot, their cornering is pretty poor. There’s quite a lot of hoopla in the US about Indy cars running on ethanol this year. That would be more impressive if they’d not been running on a mixture of ethanol and methanol last year. While what Honda is going to do looks odd to European eyes, in the US Honda and other Japanese producers are seen as being greener than the Detroit Dinosaurs and seem to be taking market share

  2. BrentP
    July 23, 2012 at 3:18 pm

    There is a goodly amount that can be done with a basic tool kit still. Other than an OBD2 scanner I can’t think of anything that I have which is unique to modern cars. There is less getting by with the wrong tool for a job with a modern car but using the wrong tool is always going to make something more painful that it needs to be.

    I suppose the airlift thing I purchased because my new car needs it to bleed the cooling system could be considered ‘special’ but it will make changing the coolant on all my cars so much easier and more effective. using an air compressor it creates a vacuum that will pull out that coolant that always stays behind. It will also pull coolant into the system filling it completely without the need of going through the bleeding process. My ’12 requires it but the bleeding was always a pain with my ’97 and I could never quite get all the old coolant out on my ’73 or ’97 so it should prove useful with all of them.

    I dislike flushing with the garden hose because I
    a) don’t want tap water in the system.
    b) I don’t want coolant going everywhere.
    c) I don’t want gallons upon gallons of lightly coolant contaminated water to deal with.

    • Hot Rod
      July 23, 2012 at 8:21 pm

      I think this article is spot on. The thing with repair is that it takes the right tools as Eric pointed out and as you as well. I think engine diagnostics tools are a must, most problems these days amount to sensor problems and the computer is able to spit this information out if you can talk to it. It used to be that these diagnostics equipment were fancy serial port equipment and you could literally download the software and DIY schematic to interface to it. Then Detroit and Asia decided enough of that and so they replaced it with proprietary diagnostics, so then one piece of equipment wouldn’t work for more than one car…sigh! So now if you are a DIY type of guy you should also be a guy who buys a car for the long haul, that way if you buy the equipment up front when you buy a newer car you’ll have plenty of time to recoup the costs. Erics suggestion of deposit and renting is another option of course. I’m more into sticking with light trucks of the 90′s vintage, everything is still linear like the old 80′s cars but with modern computer for fuel economy and superior reliability. Personally, I’ve had a S10 for 250,000 miles and never had much grief with fixing or having to do alot of repair. Compare that with 80′s version cars, that you spent at least once a two year needing to do massive heavy work repair. Further, the 90′s era truck provide a much more simplified computer interface and have hybrid ignition from the point distributor of previous era and the solid block unit of todays version. Everytime they combine two or three functions into one single block it certainly gets more reliable but also that much more expensive to replace. Another thing I like about 90′s cars is the injection efficiency but not all the police logging. Todays version of computers are reporting everything you do wrong so they can snitch on you to the police lest you do something wrong.

      • BrentP
        July 23, 2012 at 9:21 pm

        Ford has good documentation that describes what sets what OBD2 code free on the motorcraft web site. Not the easiest to find but it is there.

        Factory OEM OBD2 devices really make things easy but the task can still be accomplished with a simple code reader and the right written documentation to figure it out. OBD2 software on laptop can do a lot as well.

        It’s like saying someone can’t work on their own car in 1973 because they don’t have a Sun engine analyzer. The little box from sears and some knowledge could get you to the same place using only mental energy.

        • Hot Rod
          July 23, 2012 at 10:36 pm

          Well it was my understanding that the newer cars do not open source the codes and errors. I’m not sure on Ford’s on board diagnostics however. But I’ll take you word on it as I really haven’t investigated, just heard something on popular mechanics that suggested that home computers and generic on board diagnostics codes would not longer be published on most newer cars. Anyway, thanks for the input.

          • BrentP
            July 24, 2012 at 6:37 am

            OBD2 has codes that are standardized and then there is a set of manufacturer specific codes. As far as I know it has not been difficult to get a hold of information on the later. I haven’t explored the 2012 service manual CD powertrain diagnostics or the 1997 powertrain diagnostics book I was finally able to purchase via ebay. However both seem to contain everything I could possibly ever need.

            The stuff on the motorcraft website explains things well enough that a doityourself type who actually understood how a car worked would be able to get the job done for the important stuff.

        • Hot Rod
          July 24, 2012 at 12:05 am

          There was an article on EE times a couple of years ago that aluded to the idea that Ford and GM wanted a monopoly on all engine diagnostic equipment. One easy technology they were considering was implementing an authentication SHA-1 hash algorithm, whereby they could publish all the OBD codes and even protocol and still only their diagnostic equipment (or affiliates) would be allowed to actually download the codes from the car computer. The authentication algorithm worked very simple by simply. The car computer would send random numbers for authentication to the diagnostic equipment, only if the diag equipment knew the secret key (basically the sercret key would be fused and protected inside both car engine and diagnostic equipment) would it be able to send back the correct hash of the random key back to the car’s engine computer for verification. Once the hash was verified as a match to the same sercret key used on the cars computer than the car would know that it could communicate with that diag equipment, else it simply avoided talking to the equipment. Therefore when I was reading that Ford and GM were contemplating monopolizing not just their electronic parts by electronic authentication but also any diagnostic equipment hooked up to it to prevent third party diagnostic equipment as was allowed in older cars. But I’m not sure this actually happened only that Ford and GM were very confident they were looking into it.

          • phil
            July 26, 2012 at 6:08 pm

            Numbers sent by a computer are never random. If they attempted to encrypt their code they would end up having wasted alot of money. They would be better off getting a writ of intellectual monopoly from the feds so they can threaten the folks who would inevitably figure out a bypass.

    • Hot Rod
      July 23, 2012 at 8:32 pm

      Also on diagnostic equipment the reason why its a must is because in a closed loop of multiple sensors and correction algorithms, tis hard to separate cause from effect unlike older model cars where you could troubleshoot pretty straight forward by tweaking here and there and seeing the outcome.

      On that note, I’ve been thinking about building my own generic electronic computer that would replace the computer on any car. It would provide a crude ignition system and interface to fuel injection system to PWM the injectors. I’d base the timing off some temporary optical sensors (reflectors) to be mounted on the crankshaft pulley wheel I suppose, then a person would tweak a series of pots/switches to fine tune the fuel/air and timing. The idea I suppose is to get some generic car home that has computer/ignition/problems. Anyone like or think this is a stupid idea? Or anyone seen something like this in the after market?

      • BrentP
        July 23, 2012 at 9:24 pm

        A generic limp-home computer might have worked up to 1990s vintage stuff or so. Now it will probably result in internal engine damage. The OEM computer have a limp mode that keeps the car functioning and have had such for a very long time, so the market is small too.

        • Hot Rod
          July 23, 2012 at 10:41 pm

          Probably true on the limp mode, but there are some cases where this wouldn’t be sufficient. I’m thinking though you are right the market is too small, most people would rather tow the car then fuss with adjustments and timing. Nevertheless I don’t think it would toast the engine if the fuel was a little on the rich side and the timing on valves were old mechanical cams. The worst I could see is a bit pinging and off ignition (not optimal). Again I asked for opinion on this and I respect and appreciate your thoughts on this matter.

          Rod

      • Ike Renner
        July 26, 2012 at 2:30 pm

        Check out Mega-squirt. It can be made to fit on most cars and gives complete control over the tuning of a vehicle (to the point that you can chose your own throttle body, injectors, have different fuel maps for street and strip, so forth). Some people are doing some pretty awesome things with those.

    • August 8, 2012 at 9:38 pm

      Some people would not even call it a sport. That’s a pig-ignorant cheap shot. The pisyhcal demands of racing a Formula One car with the g-forces of a fighter plane for two hours are not to be sniffed at. That’s why the drivers train by running marathons.You also seem to have forgotten that F1 has plans to implement greener’ technologies such as heat recovery power over coming seasons. Or perhaps you just didn’t do any research?

  3. damon
    July 23, 2012 at 5:19 pm

    Well, funny this came up. I’ve got the car in for service. Think it needs a new clutch. They fricking are dropping the engine. I don’t think I could service this car except maybe to do an oil change. I know this is going to cost me but I did get 160k on the clutch. That’s pretty good yes? Ugh I should just buy a old yugo. :)

    • BrentP
      July 23, 2012 at 5:41 pm

      There are ways of doing things at a shop that sound more difficult but are actually way easier with a lift other equipment. Once seeing it done there’s no reason not to do it any other way.

      For a front wheel drive car where the entire engine and trans can be dropped on a sub frame it can be easier to drop the entire subframe from underneath.

      Old 911′s and such I believe are easiest to do the clutch by dropping the engine and trans out the bottom. Then work on it in the open air easily. Aren’t old bugs much the same?

      • Scott
        July 23, 2012 at 6:09 pm

        Don’t know about bugs but the 914 was the same. I’d put a cradle under the engine then jack the car off it. It was hard to even think about the first time I did it but I got used to it pretty quickly.

        • MoT
          July 26, 2012 at 5:13 pm

          I had a 73 914 while in the Air Force. It was my first car and nickel and dimed me to death. One driving incident while simply moving slowing in town (had I been going at highway speeds would have put me in the grave) revealed that a critical machined factory suspension part had been replaced by some nimrod with an off the shelf threaded bolt! The angels had been looking over me.

      • Tinsley Grey Sammons
        July 24, 2012 at 1:19 am

        Aren’t old bugs much the same?

        I rarely spent more than an hour replacing a clutch in a Beetle. I’ve replaced so many that I could probably do one in the dark.

        Those with A/C took a little longer.

        Hell, I could remove an engine from a Beetle, perform a rebuild, reinstall the mill and drive away in about ten hours.

        Working in a unit repair facility, I averaged four a week for more than two years straight.

        • Scott
          July 24, 2012 at 2:16 am

          Yep, I think the bugs and the 911s and maybe even the type 4 VW bus worked the same. You raise the car off the engine. But I can’t be sure because all I ever worked on were Porsches.

          Audis and late model water cooled Porsches are altogether different. On those, you remove the front bumper, grill and radiator before you try working on them. For major surgery you lift out the engine.

          • July 24, 2012 at 9:52 am

            I’ve done old Beetles – you can slide the engine out by raising the rear to get sufficient clearance. It’s pretty easy, actually, because the engine/transaxle is so light. A floor jack and a block of wood to keep from damaging the cases worked well for me.

        • July 24, 2012 at 10:00 am

          Engine-wise, IIRC, the Beetles were pretty much the same – other than increases in displacement and power, internal changes, etc. But the basic layout was, I think, the same from the ’30s all the way to the end of US-bound production in the late ’70s. Export models (Mexico) eventually got TBI and cats, I think… not sure, but IIRC.

          Super Beetles had different (MacPherson strut) suspension as well as changed bodywork, including different windshield, turn signals and other items.

      • August 8, 2012 at 4:15 pm

        Yes, Honda’s is a cynical stunt, but in terms of bang for foissl fuel buck, F1 provides enjoyment to millions of people across the world (including some such as me, who refuse to drive on environmental grounds, vote green, get their electricity from ecotricity, etc etc) for in absolute terms, a relatively small cost in foissl fuels.I hope that when the internal combustion engine disappears for everyday purposes, it will still be possible to watch these engineering marvels travelling at 200 mphBeats watching bicycle races anyway .

  4. Tim
    July 23, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Interesting article. Although you didn’t mention the costs of parts nowadays. I’ve spent $1200 replacing window motors in my 2003 350z.

    I wonder how my life would have been different if cars, and car parts, had been less expensive. I know that my last set of tires cost more than several functioning cars that my dad bought when he was my age.

    • Hot Rod
      July 23, 2012 at 8:11 pm

      Anyone notice that the replacement parts never last as long as the original? I’ve bought several dealer (non-rebuilt) replacement parts that seem to have 1/3-1/2 the lifetime as the original parts on the truck/auto. They charge a premium for parts and I think repair parts are purposefully selected to give a low long term yield. Have you ever seen this to be true or am I hallucinating again?

      • Ken Lines
        July 24, 2012 at 1:47 pm

        Certainly true,from my recollections of the days when I had a lucrative vehicle servicing and maintenance sideline business. I agree with the 1/3 to 1/2 average replacement part lifetime suggestion. One of the regular customer gripes was ‘The original lasted 30,000 miles – how come this only lasted 15,000. Favourite failures were Ford water pumps, BMC Mini/1100/1300 water pumps, steering upper and lower balljoints, clutches and Mini Cooper and Cooper S front wheel bearings. (The last was overcome, to a certain extent, by a service manager’s advice of ‘Ignore the factory torque figures, just use the ‘FT’ setting.’ I tried it on my Cooper (before any customer’s cars)and, much to my surprise, it worked well.

        Ken.

        • liberranter
          July 24, 2012 at 2:20 pm

          I’m convinced that water pumps in general, and GM water pumps in particular, are textbook examples of “planned obsolescence” in action.

          • Bob Roberts
            July 26, 2012 at 7:47 pm

            Water pumps are in fact a wear item, just like brakes. The mechanical seal in the the pump wears out and the pump will leak.

    • FlyingComic
      July 26, 2012 at 7:50 am

      A number of years ago, my 2001 Jeep Grand Cherokee Ltd. driver side door made a “pop” and the window fell down into the door. I needed to be able to park the vehicle without the window being open, so I ran over to the dealer. Just shy of 5 bills later, they replaced the window regulator.

      So, when a few years later the same thing happened on the passenger side, I knew I didn’t want to go to the dealer. I ordered a window regulator WITH the motor brand new from a company on eBay for $45. It took me about 2 hours to replace the regulator of which about 45 minutes was just trying to get my big hands in the door to replace the lock pin.

      Since then I’ve made several repairs that would have cost hundreds of dollars (in one case, probably over a thousand) at a dealer for under $100 with new (often OEM) parts from eBay. The most difficult part is always figuring out what the particular gizmo is called so I can search for it.

    • Rob
      July 26, 2012 at 7:51 pm

      You should shop around. I was quoted $88 for a crankshaft position sensor. I told him I’d just go with another guy who offered it at $69. He dropped his price to $46.

  5. July 24, 2012 at 1:32 am

    Fortunately, a lot of components seem to last much, much longer than they used to. Like 100k on spark plugs, and 160k on damon’s clutch.

    Even I used to change oil and filters, and plugs and points on pre-1980s cars. Might do it again, if I ever pick up a classic/relic/antique vehicle.

    But on newer cars, I don’t do anything beyond refill the windshield washer fluid. Fortunately, the Toyotas and Hondas I buy seem to last a Long Time, without too many nickel and dime repairs….or major repairs.

    • Scott
      July 24, 2012 at 2:56 am

      Mike, that’s funny! The part about wiper fluid. I have a ’99 Dodge Durango that complains bitterly about “Low Washer Fluid”. I’ve never replaced the sensor and the washer fluid is never low.

      I did replace the computer though. Cost me $198.00 plus shipping and took 10 minutes to swap. Other than that, 150,000 miles have gone by on a big block V8 that has been truly used and abused as a farm truck *and* as an emergency Search and Rescue vehicle.

      I’d buy another Dodge in a heartbeat if it weren’t for the fact that nearly 15 years have gone by and I’m not sure I can still trust ‘em :) But I’m willing to find out…

    • July 24, 2012 at 9:57 am

      Some new cars are actually easier to work on – in some respects – than some of the older stuff.

      Example: Last week, I did an oil/filter change on our neighbor’s 2011 Subaru. I was preparing myself for an ordeal – at least, as far as the filter. Well, I slid under the car and lo and behold – the filter was right there, pointing straight down and with the exhaust piping neatly routed around it, leaving me plenty of room to get the filter wrench on it. The job was easier than changing the oil/filter in my ’76 TA – which has the filter located on the passenger side of the engine block and access slightly impeded by the exhaust manifold/piping and trans cooler lines.

      • mikehell
        July 24, 2012 at 11:57 am

        It’s even easier than that on the new Impreza. I popped the hood on one and couldn’t believe my eyes: the oil filter is up top, front and center and just behind the coolant reservoir and radiator cap. It’s so ideally placed that I doubt you’d even need a wrench to pull it. Check it out:

        http://www.subarumanuals.org/subaru-2559.html

        • July 24, 2012 at 1:54 pm

          Excellent – and good on Soobie! Stuff like this lifts my otherwise grumpy mood!

        • Ike Renner
          July 26, 2012 at 2:33 pm

          I bet that has something to do with Soobie’s industrial heritage. They still make the most approachable engines out there (so long as you avoid or don’t mind turbos). The new Scion sports car has a soobie engine mounted to a RWD transmission. No transaxle to worry about and I bet plenty of wrench-room in the engine bay.

      • jay
        August 9, 2012 at 9:08 pm

        Subies are an exception. that longitudinal flat engine actually is easy to get at. It’s the transverse 4s and 6s that are the problem.

        I once had an 80s Pontiac with a blown starter. After looking at it, I handed it off to my local mechanic who admitted at only 3 billable hours, he lost money.

        Changing the starter on my 89 Jeep, by comparison took about 10 minutes without even needing to jack it up.

    • Bob
      July 26, 2012 at 3:00 pm

      Don’t ever buy th cabin air filter from Honda! They charge like $100 bucks to install it. You can change it yourself in less than 1 minute. Simply open your glove box and empty it out. Next squeeze in the sides and it will release and open all the way revealing the “so complicated and impossible to reach” cabin air filter. That’s how it is in a lot of new cars these dayside well. Also, a great source of information on working on new cars is of course the Internet. Many popular models have their own forums where people discuss DIY projects they have undertook, with pictures, and detailed information not found elsewhere.

      • MoT
        July 26, 2012 at 5:26 pm

        My Odyssey, at least for the 2002 model that is, was “engineered” with a light bulb, instead of an LED of all things, to illuminate the dash clock! Who in their right minds uses a filament bulb in a place like that?! To get to it requires the patience of Job and disassembling stuff, or disarming the airbags, which I’m loathe to do. So at night I have no idea what time it is and haven’t bothered in four years to fix it.

  6. chiph
    July 24, 2012 at 1:52 am

    I bought the factory service manual for the Ridgeline (http://www.helminc.com) not only because I wanted to be able to do some of the work myself, but also for the education, so that I would know when the dealer was trying to BS me.

    Chip H.

    • Tinsley Grey Sammons
      July 24, 2012 at 9:46 am

      Good move Chip. With a manual you can indeed bullshit proof yourself. As a shop owner I preferred doing business with the well informed*. Also, the well informed don’t say, “You just worked on my car and now blah, blah, blah.” when your records show that “just” was three years ago.

      The car service and repair business can often be a thankless business for an honest Mechtec. The dishonest and incompetent don’t really give a shit.

      tgsam

      *The well informed are able to understand the difference between will not start and will not crank.

      • Rob
        July 26, 2012 at 7:54 pm

        Good for you for being honest. I had two honest guys that would do tougher jobs for me. They’ve DISAPPEARED!

        People don’t understand that it’s tough work to get in there and get your hands dirty.

  7. Dan M.
    July 24, 2012 at 6:51 am

    This article made me nostalgic for the first car I ever owned, a 1969 Dodge Dart with a slant 6 engine. There was so much room under the hood of that beauty that I used to be able to balance myself on the fender to reach the starter motor.

    Those days are long gone, I guess.

  8. Mark
    July 26, 2012 at 9:10 am

    So many of these replies are from pro wrenches, not surprisingly. If you are an average person that’s flumoxed by today’s cars you might want to take a class at your local community college that has an Intro To Auto Technology class.

    That’s what I did about 9 years ago and now I do pretty much all the work on my race car(that was the motivation). Still, electrical issues give me fits and I let a known engine building pro do the internals there. Man’s got to know his limitations and all that jazz.

  9. tom
    July 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

    I’ll second the comment on reading the repair book, but still taking it in to be fixed. You can gauge ahead of time how painful the repair bill may be, and call the repair shops bluff. I’ll also second knowing when to take it in. Basically, I’ll go after anything “hanging” off the engine. But anything that is a safety risk, I’ll take in.

    • July 26, 2012 at 11:29 am

      Dear Tom,

      “You can gauge ahead of time how painful the repair bill may be, and call the repair shops bluff.”

      I used to do that too. I always got an aftermarket manual, just so I could understand the problem, even if I didn’t actually feel confident I could tackle the repair myself.

      At least it arms you against mechanics who try to rip you off. I would even have the manual in my hand when I talked to the mechanic, as a subtle hint that I wasn’t a total noob.

      • Scott
        July 26, 2012 at 1:02 pm

        Dear Bevin -

        I agree it arms you against charlatans that would take advantage of you. Unfortunately it also serves to entice you into doing irrational things, like attempting to replace your own timing belt.

        My car has been on the rack for 5 months now. I’ve just finished rebuilding the timing belt tensioner and am now contemplating putting the whole mess back together. Unfortunately, during the intervening 5 months I’ve completely forgotten how I took it apart. There’s a decent chance I’ll spend the next 3 months either in quiet meditation or psychotherapy.

        • Charlie
          July 26, 2012 at 3:19 pm

          I have an inexpensive digital camera and photo graph any first time procedures. Since some of the work I do may take several months and require clearing the work area several times, it only makes sense.

          • Scott
            July 26, 2012 at 6:20 pm

            Hey Charlie, yep I use a camera a lot too but there are a few places I can barely get my hands in, not to mention a camera. I’m sure I’ll get it back together, I’m just expressing angst.

            Installation is the reverse of the procedure…

          • July 27, 2012 at 1:32 am

            Dear Charlie,

            Digital camera. Definitely a good idea.

            Now.

            But for some of us older guys, this was going on way before digital cameras.

        • July 27, 2012 at 1:31 am

          Dear Scott,

          Been there, done that.

          I remember wishing, if only I had a time machine and could rewind to the moment before I applied my socket wrench to the first bolt.

        • methylamine
          July 27, 2012 at 1:41 am

          “Installation is the reverse of the procedure.”

          Ah, famous last words!

          I recently did the timing belt on my Miata; on that car, an absolutely simple job…but for one small detail, one must absolutely positively not turn the cams or the engine, and one must positively absolutely mark the belt’s position.

          Not turning cams? Check. Not turning engine? Check. Mark belt on cam pulleys? Check.

          FUCK!…FUCKFUCKFUCK! Forgot to mark belt position on the crank pulley!

          Put the old belt back on. Count the number of teeth between mark on intake cam pulley and bottom of crank pulley.

          Put on new belt. Count teeth. They match.

          Calculate how many degrees off it would be if I skipped a tooth–4 and a little. Too much.

          And here’s the acid test–attempt to skip a tooth AND the verdict is–FSM bless Mazda, the belt’s so stiff you can’t skip a tooth.

          Sigh of relief. Put it all back together.

          Now if you’re my friend Mark rebuilding a Porsche 928, you have the pleasure of all the above PLUS…it’s a V-8 and the belt’s about two thousand feet long.

          Yeah, the timing belt’s a simple job. But everything about mechanics is Zen–if you’re not right there in the moment, you miss things.

          FSM bless digital cameras and the internet, the Source of All DIY Goodness.

          • BrentP
            July 27, 2012 at 2:07 am

            Now the last mazda I did a timing belt change on was an ’89…. but the pulleys were stamped with indicators. The shop manual clearly said to hand turn the engine to align the indicators on the pulleys to marks on the block.

            Even the aligning wasn’t done before removing the belt the marks would serve to get things set right even if all timing between the two were lost.

          • Scott
            July 27, 2012 at 2:22 am

            Methyl & Brent -

            The 85 928 follows Brent’s description of the 89 Mazda, the cams are marked at 0 TDC and so is the crank. But you have to take the belt off then move the crank to 45 degrees before doing anything with the heads or the valves will crash since the 928S is an interference engine.

            I forgot to do that and while I was feeling out the spring tension on the valves I pushed a little too far and the cam snapped over to the next position. I spent quite a bit of time cussing myself out. I wont know if I screwed up a valve until I get it back together.

            I have the crank locked at -45 now but the challenge will still be preloading the cams while lining up all the teeth, unlocking the crank and turning it to zero then working the belt back on. It looks like a job for at least 4 hands. I’d ask my wife to help but I think that would be a bad idea. I need an expendable relationship I can throw at the problem.

            Volunteers?

  10. Douglas
    July 26, 2012 at 3:04 pm

    Issues with DIY on late model vehicles:

    1) Haynes or Chilton “manuals” – inexpensive, yes, but at times cover a wide range of years/models. Specific info on your year/make either missing, or worse, inaccurate.

    2) Factory manual – if you intend your late model ride to be a “keeper”, yes! But $30? Maybe in 1987! Expect to shell out $150~$200, IF they will sell to the consumer. More makers are refusing to distribute a factory manual to any but their authorized servicers.

    3) As you pointed out, engine/drivetrain layout and component placement is designed for manufacturing ease/cost, and serviceability is secondary, if indeed any consideration given at all. Remember the ’75 Chevy Monza with the 262 V8, having to loosen the engine mounts and jack up the mill to change the rear two plugs! A legendary Detroit gaffe but unfortunately not the only one!

    4) There seems to be deliberate effort to defeat DIY. Encasing engines in those idiotic shrouds, for starters. Then locating computers and/or relays in inaccessible spots without apparent reason other than to frustrate DIY. Reliance on proprietary electronics, and not allowing consumer access to diagnosis and/or modification. Please tell me WHY any car built since 2008 doesn’t have a USB 2.0 port to the engine computer, and why your car didn’t come with a diagnostic program, codes, and a service manual on a DVD!

    5) This is why I say that unless you’re determined to drive it forever, just lease. Else, you never truly “own?, you merely have title. But there’s a downside to leasing. For example, my 2011 Fusion is limited to a road speed of 80 mph. The spawn of Henry Ford, which once produced the Boss 302, has gone “Clover”

    • BrentP
      July 26, 2012 at 6:09 pm

      I was going to make the same comment regarding cost, but Eric stated from ebay. Factory manuals can be found on ebay cheap if the car is old enough.

      When my ’97 was new I decided to go without the powertrain and emissions diagnosis manual which was a $160. When I decided to get it because the main service manual kept referring to it, I found it out of stock. Then it was in stock. I ordered it only to be told it was out of stock. So it remained for years. I eventually found a copy on ebay last year for $40. Used, from a ford dealer that got rid of it apparently.

      But new… the CD for my new car was getting close to $200. Thankfully it includes all the sub manuals that used to have be purchased separately so in total it’s cheaper.

      • July 26, 2012 at 7:15 pm

        I’ve had good luck finding deals online – used factory manuals (or CDs) for about the same cost as a new Haynes or Chilton. Sometimes you can even download free PDFs – though I admit these are probably of sketchy legality!

        • justin
          August 3, 2012 at 2:12 am

          The factory manual is not always the best guide

          the factory manual for my wifes 01 Beetle diesel, for replacing the alternator says : ” begin by removing both front fenders”

          Youtube showed me how to unbolt the A/C compressor, lay it aside, remove the electric fan,remove the belt tensioner, and then the alternator. takes about 2 hours, had it rebuilt for $140 at a local shop.

          stealership gets $1450 from people stupid enough to pay em to do it.

          Already told her that we aint getting any more FWD cars, when this one dies, shes gonna be driving a 68 Mustang or something.

          And when/if our ’04 Expedition (that we bought for peanuts at a repo auction) gives much trouble, we will be driving a ’89 Blazer or something easy to work on.

          • dom
            August 3, 2012 at 2:23 am

            I used to really hate front wheel drive cars too, but a lot of them really are not that bad to tinker on. The modern VW bugs are a special kind of turd! I had a roommate who had one (maybe around the same year).

          • August 3, 2012 at 9:37 am

            I still prefer RWD – in part because it’s (usually) a simpler (and more rugged) layout – in addition to the handling advantages. But, I’ve also softened toward FWD. Some handle exceptionally well – and have the additional plus of being damn good snow cars (an issue for me up here) without making you lug around a 4WD transfer case and axle the rest of the year!

          • August 3, 2012 at 9:43 am

            Good point, Justin – I’ve found the same.

            I should have mentioned checking alternative sources as you mention. But, caveat emptor. Don’t necessarily take everything you find on YouTube as gospel, either!

  11. Shazaam
    July 26, 2012 at 4:31 pm

    Ah, you can thank the EPA for the lack of any simple connectivity to the engine computer.

    It’s a federal crime to modify the engine computer programming. And technically, any aftermarket engine computer would be limited to “off-road-use-only”. Like they’re ever gonna catch someone.

    Still, if there is something that seems senseless and backwards under the hood these days, you can usually find the government parasites involved.

  12. Phaedrus
    July 26, 2012 at 5:35 pm

    Additional suggestions, with apologies if these are already covered in the comments. I am retired and not an auto mechanic, but I like working with my hands and am analytical.

    I like Nissans and buy used cars because they save significant money, but you always buy problems with a used car. If they’re well made, however, problems are usually relatively minor. If problems involve the engine or transmission or there are leaks, I don’t buy.

    I suggest the first thing you do is try to find a users forum. Maxima.org has been invaluable in researching and solving problems with my Maximas. Costs nothing, but there are lots of sites out there that want to sell you something or to charge, but none are as good as user-to-user IMO.

    Second, such a site might be able to tell you where to download a free Factory Service Manual (pdf). I’ve been able to do so for my Maximas, thanks to Maxima.org.

    Third, since 1996 all autos have been required to use a standardized set of DTCs, Diagnostic Trouble Codes, that you can have Auto Zone check for you if you get a Check Engine (CE) light. When there is a fault, your Engine Control Module (computer) will store information about the source of it and that can be accessed. You can also buy a code reader for about $60 from Harbor Freight, which you plug in under the dash to the left of the steering column. Follow the manual’s directions as to its use. It will also allow you to delete the code and turn the CE light off. I do this routinely to make the fault occur twice before I repair anything, in order to avoid fixing something that might be a one-time glitch.

    Hope this helps.

    • July 26, 2012 at 5:47 pm

      Good tips. Phaedrus – thanks!

    • methylamine
      July 27, 2012 at 1:50 am

      Amen on Nissan, Phaedrus. I’ve owned a 300zx twin turbo, a Sentra SE-R (the old good one that was a screamer), and now my wife’s Infiniti M45.

      Every one of them has been a pleasure to work on! Even my wife’s, with the tawdry plastic sheathing on the engine, is easy; the sheathing pops right off with a few small bolts.

      I recently replaced the serpentine belt. Once I had it on the lift and removed the bottom shroud, a stared up at that Rube Goldbergesque and realized why it’s called a “serpentine” belt–it looks like a python strangling a ferret!

      But sure enough, they present a nice 14 or 17 mm (I forget which) bolt-head on the main tensioner; stick a wrench on it, give it a little torque, and the whole belt just pops right off.

      If you remembered to take a photo–or you refer to the internet for a diagram–you just slip the new one right on. Release the tensioner again, and you’re in business. Half an hour tops.

      LOVE those cars; they’re nearly BMW in handling and performance, a cinch to work on, and they never break.

      • July 27, 2012 at 9:28 am

        I’ll second (or third) that – on the Nissans. So far, every job I’ve had to do has been made easier by a design/layout that seemed to have the mechanic in mind. Fasteners that are accessible; parts that come off without having to take off many other parts first. I did a water pump swap on the ’98 truck in less than 30 minutes – which was about half the time I anticipated. Replacing the front brake pads requires almost no tools and can be done in 10 minutes. I’m a loyal owner!

  13. Chris T.
    July 26, 2012 at 7:52 pm

    a little off topic, but with respect to parts pricing and wear and tear:

    Shop discovered a bubble in front tire (NJ pot-holes), which led to a look at all tires and brakes (they do it routinely now even on newish cars).

    Shocked to find that the rear rotors are only about 1mm away from being metal on metal, and that at only 30k.
    And both rears have treadwear to the bars, at 30K?

    First car I ever had thet didn’t make it through the 3-year lease on these wear and tear items.
    (2010 VW CC, btw.)

    Oh, just the two fronts set me back $560, ridiculous

  14. anarchyst
    July 26, 2012 at 10:00 pm

    If you plan on keeping your car for an extended length of time, the factory service manuals are a good investment. The Chiltons and Haynes manuals are OK but are not specific to the type of vehicle. In addition, the factory service manual will outline any special tools needed as well as being more detailed.

  15. Hal
    July 27, 2012 at 2:58 am

    If you compare modern hot rods to modern factory cars, they’re both in completely seperate categories. The factory cars designed using the same methodology as office printers. THey work great when you first buy them but slowly become a heap of old faulty electronics and plastic that are not worth maintaining (or even affordable).

    Modern hot rods on the other hands are showing unreal levels of quality. They keep whats best about old, simple, building techniques while integrating new technology in a far better manner than any auto company.

    Why do we not see these innovative hot rod shops starting entreprenurial ventures to revitalize the american auto industry? Once again, our favorite buddies in uncle sam’s house are too blame. If you even what to bring up the idea of starting a production car company, be ready to throw away millions. The web of regulations surrounding the auto industry has basically sovietized it. We are now left with 3 car companies that claim to be in competition but really they just resemble old, bloated, soviet bureaucracies.

    The new cars today have the appearance of being high tech but really they just keep fixing problems that dont need to be fixed. Their is a reason hot rodders use common parts like chevy small blocks. Because they have a long track record of WORKING. If we just simply got rid of almost every auto regulation, hot rod shops, machine shops, and backyard inventors would run the big 3 out of business overnight.

    • dom
      July 27, 2012 at 3:03 am

      Hey Hal. You pretty much summed it up!

    • July 27, 2012 at 3:07 am

      Dear Hal,

      Interesting observation.

      In a way, it’s a bit like the Open Source Software vs. Proprietary (Government Copyrighted Software) dichotomy.

  16. Bill B
    July 28, 2012 at 1:21 am

    You have barely scratched the surface of the “whys” of DIY service difficulty Eric – my friend who has an independent MB shiop just spent $80K on a diagnostic machine that can read the output of the new cars. Just having an OBD reader is only so much help.

    Then for manufacturing speed some cars have weird kinds of fasteners – for which specialized tools are needed.

    The days of the DIYer are about gone with the new cars

    • July 28, 2012 at 10:53 am

      Hi Bill,

      Well, yes – and no.

      You’re right that more involved work is harder. But in some cases, routine maintenance and minor service is easier. For example, it is (usually) a lot easier to replace a single serpentine belt (and get it tensioned exactly right) than it was to replace multiple drive belts and get them tensioned right. I’ve also found that at least a few manufacturers have made it less of a hassle to get at oil filters – making oil changes easier. Doing basic brake service on many late model vehicles is also easier – in my experience – than it often was in the past.

      On the other hand, you’re absolutely right that problems such as intermittent electric/computer issues can be an expensive debacle even the dealer techs have problems with. The upside is, these tend to crop up less often – and farther down the road.

      • Bill B
        July 28, 2012 at 5:53 pm

        eric – I know a bit about Mercedes – so I agree partially with you – for example – their automatic transmissions are “lifetime sealed” – with a synthetic fluid. However shops have found over the miles the clutch material still wears – and if you don’t open it up and change the fluid and filter they will fail prematurely. And that is more difficult to do than the old transmission service we used to do.

        Routine service? Well, yes – overall I would say that it is easier – but you have to know still a lot more to do the routine.

        The Mercedes has FSS – for flexible Service System – a computer is constantly measuring the oil quality and on a time/miles algorithm, tells you when to change the oil. You have to know how to reset the computer.

        You mention changing brake pads – on their last generation E Class the pads were computer controlled – so you have to know how to tell the computer to release the caliper pistons.

        So, is maintenance easier? Well, I would agree a lot of things like oil filters are designed to be more accessible but at the same time you have to reset computers.

        But as far as diagnosing problems – I would say that because of the need of specialized software and equipment – that is almost impossible for the DIYer.

        Now many buy an OBD reader and are happy with it – but I am told that when the readout tells you the XXXX is bad it is really the YYYY upstream giving a false reading on the XXXX. That takes experience and knowledge. And equipment.

        • July 28, 2012 at 6:28 pm

          Hi Bill,

          Mercedes (and BMW and other high-end cars) are much worse in this respect (DIY serviceability) relative to the typical mass-market car – so I agree completely.

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