Expanded Thoughts – Automotive Stuff

I realize now that I don’t feel I articulated myself well on my main site with the automotive page that I have up. I’ve recently been considering getting a newer vehicle. The fate of my previous vehicle is as such:

At the time of the vehicle demise, I had just clocked about 130k miles on the vehicle. It was a ~200X Jetta GL. I was very sad to see it go, as I had just re-did the suspension with all Bilstein parts. I was at the point where I was starting to really enjoy driving the vehicle & was expecting to keep it for an additional 5 to 10 years. We still have the vehicle sitting in our driveway until a family member decides what they want to do with it.

As a result of needing a vehicle, I’m currently driving this 199X Passat:

It has about double the miles (240k). The suspension is shot. The electrical system has issues. The sound system doesn’t work properly. The car drives — that’s about the only thing it has going for it. I don’t care for green. The seats are destroyed. Some of the windows don’t work. On winter days, I can’t see out of the windshield properly due to a as of yet, undetermined issue. The only thing that got me through winter was the fact that the heated seats still work.

Applying some of the thought process that I mentioned in my ”Buying Stuff” post, I’ve come up with some ideas of what I want as a new vehicle. I’ve also come to realize there is a lot of advice & information out there that people just are not aware of when they purchase a vehicle or own a vehicle for the long term. I’m going to try & include more of that & (attempt) to be clearer than I was on my site.

I know that the health, reliability & longevity of a vehicle is heavily dependent upon the driver, how you drive, where the vehicle is driven & how the vehicle is taken care of. Yes, there’s a lot to these variables but at least during car ownership, you can lessen the likelihood of issues:

* Stick to the designed service schedule
* Replace, or top off fluids when necessary
* Use only OE fluids or fluids that meet the specification of your vehicle
* Replace important parts before they fail completely
* Get gud tires
* Keep a log of all work performed on the vehicle complete with date, , location, time. where part was purchased, miles on vehicle
* Supplement with self-education of the basics when possible

I’ll break these sections down below, then I’ll finish up on what I am looking for in a new car & why. Provided you’ve read this whole post, you’ll understand why I am looking at the options that I am.

Maintenance/Service Schedules

This is an example of a service schedule in long form. The link here is an example of a 2005 VW Maintenance Schedule. A maintenance schedule is just a helpful reminder checklist for you, the consumer to use as own your vehicle over time. Ideally, if you check these things consistently over time, your car will constantly be in immaculate mechanical shape.

The issue starts to occur when people do not check these things, due to laziness, checking only when they have a major trip coming up, or, having enough knowledge that they know they can do without checking these things constantly. Depending on your driving habits, checking something every 3,000 to 5,000 miles can be excessive, if not unnecessary, wasteful or a loss of money.

Fluids – Oil

An example of something that is wasteful by most is oil changes. Many people accept the fact that engines burn oil & will eventually need oil. This is not the case with all makes & models (for example, see VW Excessive Oil Consumption ) Does this mean that vehicles are broken or have a lurking, major issue? Usually not — it is just a fault of the automotive industry trying to make money off of people by recommending excess oil changes. You can read a lot more about this sort of thing here — these folks have done an insane amount of research on oil change intervals.

I’m of the belief that with modern science & technology there are invariably hold outs that get dragged into the modern era kicking & screaming. Oil, oil changes & mechanics who like to make money are a part of this. There’s a reason why a brand like BMW suggests oil changes once a season. There’s also common knowledge out there that people who drive GM vehicles with DIC have shown time & again that oil changes don’t have to be done at a manufacturer’s recommend mileage.

There are some caveats to this, though. If your vehicle is known to actually burn oil due to how you drive, a poorly assembled engine, or other issues. If you find that the low oil light is coming on often, you’ll want to do some research. In this scenario, you’ll want to change your oil more often, or, at the very least top it off.

Fluids – Other

But what about other fluids? This is another section where you’d need to do your research your make & model vehicle. There are some hard & fast rules, however.

  • Never ever EVER add coolant of a different color into the coolant reservoir !
  • If you are running standard coolant (”green”), you want to replace the coolant often at whatever the recommended interval is (it is rare vehicles have old school green coolant)
  • If you are running GM (or other American car) DexCool (orange), the service life is generally 5 to 8 years, give or take. You may want to read this guidance.
  • If you are driving a VW (‘pink’), the service life is usually 5 to 7 years, although I’ve personally experienced a solid 10 years before it was in a degraded state.
  • There are other variations of coolant color:

In my (limited) experience, the only times you’ll need to be concerned with coolant is:

  • Water pump has failed – common on VWs,  the pump will leak causing coolant to slowly disappear from the reservoir
  • Ripped or damaged hose – rare these days unless you are very negligent, or, an animal gets into your engine bay.
  • Blown head gasket – can happen to anyone – coolant and/or oil will mix. When checking your oil, it may have a ”milkshake” consistency — there’s a great article on this sort of thing here — looks like this:

Being aware of these types of failures, what they mean & what they look like goes a very very long way in maintaining a vehicle.

On Tires…

While operating under the following assumptions:
– You have four tires
– All four tires were installed at the same time
– All four tires are of the same batch, quality, have 0 miles on them, new
– You drive the same consistent roads, highway assumed with some city travel
– No tires have been punctured, replaced, or repaired

If all of the above is TRUE then, I am of the opinion you do not need to rotate your tires. Unless you are aware of an existing issue with your vehicle that causes one tire to prematurely bald, fail early, or get damaged in some way (a good example is any car with a damaged suspension spring – the weight of the car could cause the tire to blow out, or, prematurely bald)

I heavily prefer General Altimax tires. Note that tires usually have a mile rating, along with a tire rating system. You can read entirely too much useful information about tires here. Sometimes you can find information for what mileage the tire is rated for. This can vary greatly on many factors & is operating under the assumption that the car is in working order.

Reading the reviews on this page – people have had varied experiences with the tire. Myself personally, I had 2 sets of these tires last me a solid 50k miles till they were very close to being bald. It all boils down to how you drive, the type of road you are driving on & if you are careful.

On the subject of tires, I highly recommend getting a portable air compressor to inflate your tires in case of a flat. This is similar to the one I have & has been very reliable (I’ll update the link at a late date with one closer to mine)

Modes of Failure/Troubleshooting Parts

One thing that can be very frustrating when a part begins to show signs of wear is, the odd noises that can occur as a result. If you want to take great care of your car, you’ll learn how to distinguish been creeks, groans, squeaks, shudders & other noises that can occur when parts start to fail.

The reason why discerning between these types of noises is important is it is helpful when troubleshooting an impending part failure. This also aids in helping a mechanic figure out the issue, saving them time & you money, so it is in your interest in learning a bit more about this. I will probably separate this into it’s own on-going blog post about different parts & their failure types/modes. Expect many, many links to YouTube.

But, general guidance to keep in mind:

  • Search YouTube for a mechanic that works & posts videos on the make & model of vehicle you own. I posted a list of who I like here
  • Learn the difference between Front, Rear, Driver Side & Passenger Side
  • If you are hearing a noise, under what conditions does the noise occur?
  • If you’re hearing a noise, does the noise go away if you go slightly faster? Slower?
  • Did something change in the last 3k miles that you think may be the result of said noise?
  • Did you hit anything recently that you can recall? Even the smallest of hits is helpful information.
  • Is your issue limited to the engine, transmission, electrical, or something else?

Once you’re able to isolate where a noise or particular issue is coming from, you can ask your mechanic, search Google or YouTube for more information about the noise or issue that you are experiencing. It may be a simple fix if you investigate & have performed enough research.

Maintenance Log

This is not really something I expect many people to do, but having a vehicle log (essentially, a changelog for your car…) of all the work performed to it is a very easy way to figure out if a previous change or part did, or did not fix an issue. It also helps to provide an index of what work has been performed if you take the car to a different mechanic for any reason. Lastly, it’s a great way to make sure you are paying a fair price for parts, or if you should source parts yourself. One caveat to this however is, most chain mechanic shops do not install customer supplied parts.

An example of what I have in Excel can look like this (click for a larger view)

Self-Education via reading & technology!

Now, I’m not recommending everyone goes out to be a mechanic right away. However, I will recommend that if you are able to find the service manual for your vehicle, to buy it. Many older VW vehicles have very detailed service manuals with fantastic drawings & guidance. Just thumbing through these books can give you a better understanding of your vehicle, what parts it may or may not accept from the factory & the different configurations the vehicle comes in.  There’s also, at least for VW, overly detailed drawings!

If these sorts of things tickle your fancy or you’re an engineer of some sort (CAD designer, interested in vehicle dynamics, etc) I highly recommend the Bosch Automotive Handbook. There’s so much information here on ”general” car theory & operation, that you’ll walk away with a great deal of respect for the people who design & engineer cars. Note that this book isn’t about the “break/fix” of car repair, but about theory, concepts & application of vehicle design. If you’re looking for a general break/fix book, this one is quite good.

A common recommendation if you want to learn about how to do basic break/fix/repair on a car is recommending Chilton/Haynes manuals. They are now owned by the same company, so the information is very similar in each.

An often overlooked thing about vehicles with an unknown history (e.g. if you are the second, third or nth owner) is service recalls, TSBs (technical service bulletins) & other information that generally used to be reserved for mechanic shops. The NHTSA has a public service where you can input your make/model & VIN &, for a nominal fee (I think/thought it was free, this may have changed) — they will send you a packet of all the recall, TSBs & various service information applicable to your vehicle, regardless of engine/model.

Here’s an example of why you may want this sort of information:

This can be an invaluable resource when repairing a vehicle, or trying to learn more about a particular issue.

In addition to this, I highly recommend everyone gets a scan tool that is adequate for their make & model vehicle. You may need to talk to your mechanic to figure out which one you may need or want. There are many generic “OBD-II” style readers out there that will give you generic information about a vehicle.

Specialized scan tools will give you more unique information about error codes that are specific to that manufacturer. For example, a generic OBD-II reader may give you information such as the “P” code in the first field of this document, whereas a specific tool like a Mongoose will give you more detailed information:

You can use these DTC codes & punch them in Google, or other search engines (along with asking various mechanics what steps to take) to see if the issue you are having is a simple fix or not. If you are mechanically inclined, you may be able to make progress on a problem by yourself without the need of a mechanic.

Generally, scan tools can break down into the following:

  • Generic OBD-II scanner — these are usually wired or bluetooth these days & there’s an app you can download to your phone or PC that will pull codes, give you basic engine/sensor information & tell you more about errors. These are generally less than $80. Most will be names you won’t recognize except for perhaps Actron, which is the most common available at retail stores.
  • ”Professional” scanner — these are usually tools a mechanic may use to work on a vehicle. More information is available. More data banks can be scanned on a vehicle. Some systems can be queried that a generic scanner may not see. You won’t be able to turn individual items on or off with this tool. These are a step up from $100 to $200.  Actron makes many tools in this price point. Many are made in China (see Launch)
  • OE Equivalent (requires software) — these tools are very similar to what a dealership would use to diagnose your vehicle. These tools can vary in price, but may require software to work. Examples of these include Mongoose cables, RossTech VAGCom & others.
  • OE or better — these tools are very specific & are used strictly at dealerships, chain shops or anywhere that a mechanic is working on many, many vehicles of multiple models. These aren’t limited to a particular model vehicle. These tools can range from $1,200 to $3,000 or greater. These are generally in tablet form, with a touch screen. You can turn individual components of a vehicle on or off with these tools (e.g. a headlight, or a compressor). You probably don’t want to buy this unless you’re a very big nerd. 🙂


Now, given all of that information, we’re still missing a lot of data when it comes to making a purchase of a newer vehicle, or learning more about our existing vehicle we may have. I generally point people to the amazing site CarComplaints — it is one of the better resources for pooling together people’s complaints about a given make or model vehicle.

Why might you want to see the information that most people complain about? Well, if you know nothing about cars, you can quickly discern which models of a particular make of car to avoid. But does that tell the whole story? I think, if you include the number of vehicles sold from that mode, it can make a big difference in the story being told.

For example, if I sell 500 Model XYZ cars & on CarComplaints, 400 of them have a failure, you know to avoid that model. However, if I sell 5 million of them & only 500 people have issues over 10 years (this is assuming people know the site exists, or that there’s a feature to ingest data), then that vehicle may be a much better choice. But that’s not all. The best part of the site, is that it breaks down the models by year.

Using VW as an example, you may think I’m insane for owning two VWs. However, if you look at the issues that are experienced, the issues followed very specific years & models of Volkswagen. There are some issues however, that are systemic to the brand (see plastic water pump impellers).

Does this mean I should stop buying VWs? Should I stay away from them as a brand? I don’t know. I have some friends that recommend BMW, but they’ve been known to have burning oil problems, along with removing dip-sticks from everything. I am not a fan of American vehicles as they are generally not as precise in handling as European or Japanese cars — they also aren’t logically laid out, either. I’m heavily considering a Subaru, but I’ve yet to make up mind.

I hope that, with the information & links I’ve laid out here, this gives people enough information to be a smart consumer about purchasing a vehicle, or, at least being more comfortable with their own car. I ignored a lot of unnecessary debates (Manual vs Automatic? There’s a reason most cars are automatic these days…), I’ve left out a big chunk on parts, part suppliers & reliability, but that’s a separate post entirely.