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Top Gear Philippines

At the 20,000km mark, it was time to bring the family car--a 2011 Hyundai Elantra--to the dealership for its preventive maintenance service. I was prepared for the usual battery of items like an oil change, new spark plugs, and the like, but I decided to skip the antirust proofing treatment. I had never had rust issues with the cars I'd maintained in the past, so I couldn't understand why a two-year-old car would need a P7,000 service done on it.

I also decided that the wheel rotation could be done at a Servitek outlet for several hundred less, so I crossed that out plus an alignment and wheel balancing as well. All told, I saved myself around P12,500. With a tight schedule that day, I paid for the service in advance and had the family driver bring the car home later that day.

"Sir, palyado yung makina (Sir, the engine is faulty)," he reported with a grave expression (he had become quite attached to his charges). How so? "Hindi siya umaarangkada paglampas ng 2,000rpm (It doesn't accelerate past 2,000rpm)," he explained.

Uh-oh.

True enough, when I started up the car, the Check Engine Light was on, and yes, the engine seemed to be starved for fuel after 2,000rpm. What happened? I grumbled, mumbled, tried to figure out an open schedule for me to personally bring the car back to the dealer, and then decided to Google the problem.

"Try tightening the fuel filler cap," one helpful entry suggested. True enough, when I checked the tank, the cap was several clicks short of being tight. I started the car, the Check Engine Light was off, and the engine was running fine again. "Whew," I told myself. I just saved myself several hours of sitting in a dealership (our technical editor Ferman Lao told me that the slight loss of pressure may have triggered the light and initiated a fail-safe mode).

And then it hit me: How the heck does a fuel filler cap loosen by itself? The answer, of course, is that it can't unless someone does the deed. I had fueled up several days before the dealer visit, and the gauge still showed three-fourths worth of fuel. The Check Engine Light had never come on until after the dealer visit.

I thought about the services listed in the cost estimate and couldn't think of a single reason why anyone would bother to check the fuel tank by opening it. Now, this is difficult to prove (I'm withholding the name of the dealer pending further investigation), but after talking to several colleagues about the experience, here is what may have happened:

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1. Savvy customer crosses out services and parts.

2. Someone at the dealer notices the Unichip on the engine (my car has it) and gets an "A-ha!" moment.

3. Sneaky person decides to play on customer's fears by loosening the cap knowing it will trigger the Check Engine Light.

4. Scared customer runs back to dealer, coughs up diagnostics fee and for any other things they can think of since the engine is technically out of warranty.

Does this make sense? Am I just being paranoid? I wish I could say that I wholeheartedly trust the people who maintain my car, but the truth is that this has left a sour taste in my mouth. I know my sentiment is shared by many vehicle owners. Just the other day, a colleague shared an unpleasant experience with his Ford Ranger when, after bringing it in for PMS, he found that he had been charged for an item he didn't even ask for.

Several months ago, another friend from college sent me a message on Facebook his horror story about the dealer that had sold him his truck but had done sloppy service thereafter, including grease smudges all over the fenders. One particular friend minced no words about those "fucking bastards at _________," where, after being charged an arm and a leg, and, worse, being charged for the wrong repairs, he decided to take his "fucking business to another fucking dealership" entirely. The guy has a foul mouth, but he's got a heart of gold.

Sadly, even "branded" car-repair centers are beginning to have the reputation of the casa you love to hate. Last January, our SUV began to make a squealing noise, so I brought it over to a well-known service center in BF Homes and was handed a P30,000 cost estimate to replace several belts, pulleys and labor. Ouch.

Seeking a second opinion, I brought the truck over to Ferman's Speedlab. The bill was still rather hefty since it was for an American truck, but they gave the correct diagnosis: failing water pump and pulley bearings. I don't like coughing up money for vehicle maintenance as much as the next guy, but if I'm going to do that at least I expect the correct service to be done! Now the truck is purring like it's new and I want to give Ferman a bro-hug.

Vehicle maintenance is one of the things that every car owner has to deal with, but DIY maintenance is one of the things I'm looking forward to learning one of these days. All one needs are a set of proper tools, the right knowledge, and an appetite for getting some grease on the hands. I'll save a lot money, I'll get even more fulfillment out of owning a car, and I probably won't burn the house down if I know what I'm doing.

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For now, I will have to bring my car over to Dingdong Dantes's Hyundai dealership. The drive is a little farther away, but my wife probably won't mind coming along.

Andy Leuterio
Columnist
Andy has been writing about cars since the time everybody thought "16 valves" was cool. His idea of a brain cruncher is figuring out the firing order of an ancient V8, and he thinks automatics are the work of the devil.
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