- BACKSEAT DRIVER By Andy Leuterio -
Mother hires a driver to bring her prized Honda Jazz to the dealer for a check-up. After a little more than 12 months, in which she’s accumulated a grand total of 3,000 kilometers, she finally takes my advice seriously to have it checked at Honda Cars Alabang for anything that needs fixing. Like the carpeting at the left-front footwell, for example. It peeled off about a month after she took delivery of the car. Oops.

After the car is returned to her, she shows me the receipt, which is almost 4k. "Four thousand?" I ask incredulously. So I look over the particulars and see that they did an oil change. Aha, that explains it, I think. Until I notice the price of the oil that they used: P1,964. Whoa! Was that fully synthetic? All it says is "Motor Oil Honda Fully Drum", whatever that means. Only last week I had the oil of my Space Wagon changed at Shell Donica along Sucat and paid a little less than P1,400 for the oil, filter, and labor. I only used the regular oil, because I know that as long as that oil that I use has the proper rating, it will do the job just fine.

Back to my mom. Well, she did have her car serviced at a dealer, and we all know that dealers charge an arm and a leg. That’s how they make money, right? Everybody knows they don’t make money on the cars that they sell. But the clincher was this, and I think they just lost a repeat customer here: they wouldn’t fix the carpet for free. Even though the car had a warranty, some clause or other prevented the dealer from gluing the carpet without charging her. I told her she should have had the carpet fixed as soon as she saw the problem, but now she’s a little wiser in the finer points of car ownership.

Two months before this little episode, a friend told me he knew of a friend who was selling a year 2000 Honda Civic that I might be interested to buy. "It’s casa-maintained," he told me. So? "So you know it’s been well taken care of." Sorry man, but I really have to take that with a grain of salt. Now that I’ll soon be in the market to buy a used car, I’m reading a lot of ads with textbook lines like "Super-kinis!", "Must see to appreciate", and, of course, "casa-maintained".

What exactly does that mean, anyway? Sellers must think that it ups the value of their car since it implies a history of religious maintenance, but I beg to differ. See, I’ve been witness to several casa-maintained cars that could have been better serviced outside. There’s the former client who was happy with his Chevrolet Venture for the first six months until something mysteriously broke with the aircon, the triathlete-mom who complained to me about the interminably long duration of her banged-up Sentra at the Nissan dealer, the friend-of-a-friend who was happy at first with her Kia Sedona until, two months after it had gotten trapped in a flood, the dealer still didn’t know how to get the engine humming. I’ve got lots of real-world examples, but to keep it simple, let’s stick to my own.

Exhibit A: my 1996 Galant Super Saloon. Around the 90,000 kilometer mark (it was then owned by my dad), the engine began a noticeable droning at high rpm. It was actually quite macho, so we let it go on thinking the engine might have "loosened up" and gone faster. Big mistake. On the South Superhighway one night, the balance shaft threw a belt, which snagged on the timing belt and got my pistons stuck. Shit. A check at the maintenance log showed that the timing belt had been replaced at the mandatory 60,000km mark, except the dealer forgot to replace the balance shaft belts as well. The Citimotors on Pasong Tamo told me I needed an overhaul. I asked the Service guy for a ballpark figure, so he said "Eighty thousand". I think that’s what gave my dad his first heart attack.

So, I gave fellow Backseat Driver Lester Dizon a call and he referred me to Lito Galvez of MSG Motorworks, his suki mechanic and restorer of many fine vintage cars. Off we went to Lito’s shop in Mandaluyong, and a dubious dad raised an eyebrow as we came to Lito’s rusty gate, in a neighborhood where you half expect to get mugged. "Let me check it out first," he said. Inside he went, and after ten minutes, I wondered what was taking so long and decided to go in as well.

Lo and behold, it was a motorhead’s dream workshop. Rows and rows of BMWs and Alfa Romeos in various states of restoration, and at the center was a Chevrolet Corvette "Stingray", all sinuous curves and gleaming chrome. I couldn’t resist running a hand over a fender. "Can you fix the Galant?" we asked. "Oo naman!" he said cheerfully. It would be child’s play. It took him a day to find brand new valves and pistons and another day to put it all together, but in the end we had a Galant with an engine running like it had been ported-and-polished, and all for P22k.

Before he died, dad asked me if I could take care of the Galant (of course I said "Yes"), so now, Lito is the first guy I call when something needs fixing. He’s fast, he charges a fair price, and because he loves cars, I trust him to fix and tune my car like it was his own. Not only do I save several thousand a year in maintenance, I figure I’ve got the sweetest driving Galant in the city right now. For more sundry services like oil changes or belt replacements, I just go to the Shell on Sucat. They have a nice lounge, the prices are fair, and they even keep a record of my cars’ visits and remind me when my next service is.

Back to that "casa-maintained" thing. If you’re looking to buy a used car, don’t take it as Gospel that a casa-maintained car is really worth the asking price. At most, it tells you that it was maintained at a dealer where the mechanics know their stuff. What it also implies is that the owner is subconsciously trying to recover some of the costs he or she incurred in maintaining the car at the dealer. But it’s no guarantee. As with any other industry, there can be black sheeps among dealers who’ll try to get away with shoddy service, inflated man-hours, or overpriced parts. The best way to buy a used car is to know the telltale signs of a beater: uneven paint, leaks, loosy-goosy steering, mushy brakes, rough engine idle. Check out the owner, too. Subtract points from pimply dudes who look like they only got the car as a graduation gift, and from those who don’t look like they could change a spare tire if their life depended on it. You want an owner who knows his or her car-stuff and has been conscientious with his ride. Check the service log that all the necessary maintenance was done throughout the life of the car. Better yet, bring your favorite mechanic along with you so he can point out problem areas. For all you know, that "casa-maintained" ideal may just be a myth.

As an owner, on the other hand, don’t be hostage to what your dealer says you should pay once the "free maintenance" period ends. Things that need replacing such as oil, filters, belts, and headlamp bulbs can all be done outside. Ditto with mechanical adjustments to things like the wheels, the brakes, and the suspension. Unless it’s an exotic Italian car, or even a luxury car like a BMW or an Audi with sophisticated electronics or settings that you’re better off leaving to their experts, most Japanese and Korean cars today are remarkably simple and affordable to maintain if you play it smart. Unless your problem involves the electronics or some particular issue that no other party can fix, you can save a lot of time, money, and anxiety outside the casa. Our family used to be regular dealer customers until we realized that most of the things they do can be done at reputable service stations like the bigger gas stations, AC Delco, or Rapide. I’ve also found the customer-service to be warmer at these places, possibly because they know that just one bad word from a dissatisfied customer will ruin them in the community they do business in for a long time. As long as you use the genuine branded parts and your mechanic knows what he’s doing, you’ll be fine.

When will you test drive the latest Toyota Innova V? — 09187492836 (Uh, paging our friends from the Toyota test drive department…)

Where can I buy Motorcycle Magazine? — 09273133731 (At the moment, it is only available in motorcycle dealerships. Do try to check it out.)

With the introduction of the new Strada and Ranger, can we expect a new Everest and Montero sport? — 09189068395 (Very astute observation! However, just like in the previous models, it does take time before the new pickup-derived SUV models do follow in their predecessors’ footsteps. A year’s wait would be too short, in our estimate.)

If not for technical problems, Schumacher would’ve won the title for the season. Nevertheless, I think the last two races of the season were the best among his winning races! — 09213049117

Better to see, bright, colorful billboards than dark streets, garbage, shanties and old buildings. — 09274382006

Speak out, be heard and keep those text messages coming in. To say your piece and become a "Backseat Driver", text PHILSTAR<space>FB<space>MOTORING<space>YOUR MESSAGE and send to 2840 if you’re a Globe or Touch Mobile subscriber or 334 if you’re a Smart or Talk ’n Text subscriber or 2840 if you’re a Sun Cellular subscriber. Please keep your messages down to a manageable 160 characters. You may send a series of comments using the same parameters.

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