By on May 17, 2010

John writes:

Hello: I have a question about a 2003 Toyota Camry with 130,000 miles. Every time I get the oil changed the attendant comes out with a clipboard and a long list of items needed to be done. Such as flush the engine oil, flush the power steering fluid, start using high mileage oil etc. Should I do this? So far I have not given in as the car runs good and it’s paid for.

Sajeev Answers:

You sound like you take your car in for servicing on a regular basis.  If so, kudos! A neglected car needs band aids (so to speak) to keep them running for a short period of time.  A well kept Camry needs nothing until the universal signs of old age show up: burning oil, loss of power or fuel economy. As far as I’m concerned your car is just broken in.

Nothing needs to be flushed with specific flushing additives, since they can un-stick deposits that are better off stuck: engine flushes have been known to cause oil leaks, for example.  So avoid those like the plague. That’s not to say that changing power steering, coolant, transmission fluids on a regular basis are for chumps.  And with that…

Bonus!  A Piston Slap Nugget of Wisdom:

Always wondered why service advisors come up with seemingly random things you simply must have? Like most things in life, follow the money and the answer awaits.  How do you save yourself from this cash grab?

Read the owner’s manual and remind the service advisor that you know what the factory recommends. Then add common sense things like inspection for vacuum line deterioration, unspoken fluid changes (i.e. power steering fluid) when the fluid loses its trademark color or smell. Unless you have the misleading, common sense defying, information in the manuals of an oil sludging V6 Toyota or VW/Audi, the owners manual is all you need.

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30 Comments on “Piston Slap: Common Sense and RTFM Edition...”

  • avatar

    Service your car according to the schedule in your owner’s manual. Nothing more, nothing less. Fix what’s broken and maintain what’s not.


    • 0 avatar

      @TwoTone – I have yet to see a service manual (in a recent model-year) require replacement of transmission fluid. Often power steering and brake fluid is not on the list either. I would NEVER go more than 3 years without replacing brake fluid.

      So, the owner’s manual should not be the come all be all.

  • avatar

    I used high mileage oil in an old Oldsmobile, but only cause it did burn oil if I didn’t. Otherwise, most of that stuff is just fluff.

    • 0 avatar
      Kevin Kluttz

      The 3000-mile oil change is the biggest fluff of all!!! Of course your car will last longer if you change at 3000 miles. It will last just as long if you change it at 7500-8000. My 220,000 mile Accord said so. (The transmission wasn’t so lucky, so I said farewell, but the engine was still perfect.)

  • avatar
    Gardiner Westbound

    What the correspondent needs more than anything else is a new service agency.

    I prefer an independent garage for oil and filter changes, tire rotations and general maintenance. The mechanic can give the car a quick check while it is on the hoist with a view to catching small problems before they worsen into big, expensive, even dangerous ones. Regular customers rarely incur a significant extra cost for this valuable service. A good shop does not install low quality parts that fail prematurely and will refer a customer to a specialist shop for a repair that exceeds their ability. Business longevity is the cornerstone for their success.

    • 0 avatar

      +1 My guys for engine, transmission, and body (three separate shops) are family owned and local. Engine service place is 2nd generation with a solid reputation, transmission is a guy worked for somebody else for 20 years and scrimped and saved to open his own shop, and my body man owns and operates his own shop for the past 30 years and has pictures of his work with trophies it has garnered at car shows. All of them were recommended to me by other local people who had dealt with them for years.

    • 0 avatar

      @Gardiner: +1

      For me, once the car is out of warranty, it goes off to my mechanic. If he can’t do it, he will let me know who can.

    • 0 avatar

      My mom who lives 500 miles from me (so it’s not like I can perform the scheduled maintenance) went to the local Toyota Dealer and was given an estimate of $600 for her 30,000 mile service. I went on the internet and found recommendations for a local garage that was about 1 mile from her house. Not only did they give her a ride home and come and pick her up when the car was ready, they only performed the necessary maintenance and said the other items on the stealership’s quote weren’t needed based on their inspection. Total cost, $70. There is no price you can put on an honest car mechanic, and it seems mighty rare to find one at a dealership or one of these chain outfits.

  • avatar

    You will most likely find two categories in the manual for how the car is used: “Normal” and “Severe Service”. If it is not crystal clear to you which category is right for your car, the service manager should be able to explain it to you after asking you a few questions.

    On the other hand, if you do lots of short trips or lots of stop-and-go on the freeway, or pull a trailer, just go with the “Severe Service” schedule and other than possibly wasting a few bucks every 3-4 months, the vehicle will probably be very reliable and experience few maintenance-related issues.

    In addition, don’t be stupid: If starting gets slower, the brakes or belts begin to squeel, break pedal pulsates or goes down to nearly the floor, etc. somehing is WRONG! Get it checked out.

    If the shop uses a pit instead of a dual-post side lift, go somewhere else.

  • avatar

    +1 for knowing what the owner’s manual requires and following it. Service writers or “attendants” (is this one of those quick-lube places?) are typically commissioned on the high-profit/low effort services they push. Caveat Emptor! Just remember, the more enthusiastically the promote one of these unnecessary services, the more likely it is that you don’t need it, that it is a poor value, or that it will actually damage something (transmission flush, anyone?) and cost you more over the long run.

  • avatar

    Fully jumping on the “follow the owners manual” bandwagon.

    Also, severe service is applicable for police, livery/taxi, severe heat/cold. In other words about 5-10 percent of vehicles.

  • avatar
    Geo. Levecque

    I agree and use Independent Garages for most of my Oil changes and Tire rotation ie Winter Tires etc.

    I don’t trust my Toyota dealer when the Technican working on my first Oil Change, left the Cover off the Cabin Airfilter, so when I went to use the Glove Box, it would not close as the Cabin Filter cover blocked it., even after getting a Call from the Service Manager more or less begging me to come back for Service, I did accept the “free” next service but somehow I still don’t trust that Dealer ship, it was the same when I had the GMC Rally Van, once the Technican wondered if he had put the plug back in the Oil sump, he called me at home and drove out to my home location, over 20 kms to make sure the “plug” was in place.and so it goes most dealerships work there people hard, hey they need a Union I think!?

  • avatar

    My personal anecdote on “Severe Service”… have an 09 Audi with Audi’s version of the “maintenance minder” system on the MMI. We paid for “Audi Care” (i.e., pre-paid maintenance). On the first trip to the service center, they set up the maintenance computer to put us on the severe schedule. For no good reason, given how the car is used, and they didn’t TELL US this.

    Wife gets the reminder on the dash, schedules an appointment and is told “that’ll be $150 pls…”. Yeah, prepaid maintenance doesn’t pay for unnecessary severe service maintenance. Needless to say, we didn’t pay for that one.

    My point? Another RTFM voice, and pay attention to what it says. Because, it turns out, they’ll (dealership) get even trickier than you’d guess to fool you into a schedule you don’t need.

  • avatar

    Whenever I used to bring my 2003 Corolla with 70K to a dealership, they used to say “Have to flush your transmission fluid, man, Toyota recommends changing at 60K”. The manual clearly says “No change of transmission fluid necessary under normal driving conditions”. Lying sons of bitches.

    • 0 avatar

      It will still need to be changed at some point. You will be able to tell by the color of the fluid (you do check it, right?), the smell of the fluid, and the behavior of the transmission (realy hard to tell as changes will occur gradually not all at once).

    • 0 avatar

      You failed at reading between the “owner’s manual” lines. The line “No change of transmission fluid necessary under normal driving conditions” should be followed by “when covered by the powertrain warranty”. Funny that the powertrain warranty runs out right at 60k, which is when most people need to have trans fluid replaced.

      Transmission fluid is not a “lifetime” fluid, if you mean the lifetime of the vehicle. “lifetime” in this case means the lifetime of the warranty.

      Additive depletion and viscosity changes in transmission fluid CANNOT be detected by visually inspecting or smelling the fluid. If a color or smell change has occurred, the transmission damage is already done. Same with changes in the shifting, if you can notice them, the damage is already done.

      Change it every 60k if you are a high-mileage driver, or every 30k if you are a city driver and your transmission will thank you.

      The math supports it as well, as rebuilds or replacements run at least $1000, and a fluid flush is around $100. “Penny-wise, pound foolish” applies here if you don’t.

  • avatar

    I’m finally at the age where I don’t feel like crawling underneath my cars anymore to maintain them, and now I have two(!) mechanics that I trust to work on my cars, so it works out OK for me.

    On my older cars, I stick to the 3000-4000 mi oil changes. Both cars are well over 150K miles (Cavalier at 247,000!) and the only additives I use is Restore on the Quad 4 in the Sunfire, as it has a little blowby issue.

    On my G6, we have the Driver Information Center, which gives us a countdown to the oil change interval, the little computer in the car usually has us changing oil on the Ecotec at about 5000 to 7000 miles. We follow the GM Maintenance Service schedules (regular duty) and have completed Maintenance I and II with no extra costs.

    For me, if you buy a car new, keeping up on the maintenance following the factory schedule and using factory parts & etc. has served me well.

    One disturbing thing I have noticed, though is my PBG dealer is now offering BG treatments (BG is an aftermarket chemicals and additives company) in place of the GM recommended ones. I don’t know if there’s a huge difference in price, but I will only use the stuff called for in the owner’s manual.

    I try not to run lots of extra chemicals in the engine and tranny oil or the car in general. I was told by an old mechanic years ago that it was not in my best interest, that some things can only be fixed mechanically and dumping chemicals and quick fix-its are a waste of money. For the most part I’ve heeded his advice and I think I have done well using his advice.

    • 0 avatar
      John Horner

      I would stay away from the BG treatments and other similar schemes. In fact, I would find a shop which doesn’t play that game. Most dealers are using every trick in the book to bring in the bucks, including extra maintenance services and cans-o-magic. Just say no … and walk away.

    • 0 avatar

      Please tell me what wondrous thing you are spending your money on that makes it worthwhile to drive a Cavalier with 240,000 miles or (God help us)a Sunfire.

      Off the top of my head, hookers and blow are the only two things I can think of.

  • avatar

    The 3.0L V6 Camry from 97-05 is reported to be prone to sludge. Keep up the regular oil changes. (the 2003 4-cyl Camry isn’t on the sludge list)

  • avatar

    Get a new mechanic and keep the car.

    I would suggest thoroughly bleeding the brake lines, however, to rid them of dirt and moisture. This could save you money on replacing brake calipers and wheel cylinders.

  • avatar

    Had the certified factory tech (Honda dealer) mark “checked power steering fluid” a few years ago on my ’06 Civic Hybrid- electric power steering in that car. I’d give them the benefit of the doubt in that it’s a big list of simple things they check, but the same dealer butchered the plastic splash pans underneath my engine (if you can put two pieces of lego together then you can figure out the splash pans). Yeah, thanks for paying attention, idiots.

  • avatar

    Service “adviser” means service salesman.
    Flush the _______ means flush your wallet.
    High mileage motor oil/4 cylinder motor oil/V-twin motor oil/motor oil for drivers who wear pink panties = marketing gimmick of the “specially formulated” variety.

  • avatar

    Years ago I changed over to the “Quickie Lube” places rather than crawl under the car and deal with the waste oil but I continued to perform all the other maintenance tasks (rotate tires, air & fuel filters, etc.) myself. Consequently, you have to constantly keep an eye on the techs as they work on your car or they’ll start ripping things apart to show you why you “need” this or that extra cost service. My ’99 Contour SVT had a very difficult to remove air cleaner box and a special cylindrical filter that most places didn’t carry anyway but that didn’t keep them from trying. Eventually one of them broke the air box and the replacement cost them the profit on quite a few oil changes. If you run your tires a few pounds higher for crisper handling, they’ll be letting air out of your tires. The point is, know your services requirements, let them look at everything but be careful what they touch.

    • 0 avatar

      Amen on that! My nearly new Subie Forester started stinking and smoking… an oil leak from the front of the engine. A trip to the dealer revealed the idiots at the quicky lube shop had used pliers on the filter to tighten it and cracked it causing a leak under pressure. Strange thing is it didn’t get bad enough to notice until about 5,000 miles when I would be changing oil anyway. Needless to say that was the last oil change they will do for me.

    • 0 avatar

      @SVT48 – I suggest getting the K&N filter for the SVT. It isn’t much more expensive than the paper filters (at least, it wasn’t when I bought mine in 1998). I have one on my ‘98.5 and have only cleaned it twice (after about 60k there were a lot of bugs and larger matter but the filter still was breathing just fine). I absolutely despise the filter box on this car.

    • 0 avatar

      Bill Safreed,

      What kind of moron would tighten an oil filter using anything other than their hand(s)? That one takes the cake.

  • avatar

    Sometimes manuals can be incomplete. Audi just sent out an owner’s manual insert recommending biannual checking and clearing of the cowl and sunroof drains on most of their models. They did not just realize this; they were required to do this by a class action lawsuit.

    On the other hand, Mercedes has included this recommendation in their manuals for quite some time (Reference: 1992 W124).

    That these drains frequently clog and cause water damage has been known and discussed on Audi forums for a long time. Possible damage includes drowning the ECU – an over $1000 repair. I have absolutely no idea why Audi did not recommend this simple procedure – they must have known about the problem. Perhaps I should recommend that they read their competitors’ owner’s manuals and see what else they might have left out.

    The point of this little story is that owners should not take the manual as gospel – it’s worth checking online forums for common problems and what should be done to prevent them.

  • avatar

    If you really want to know how long to run oil, get an oil analysis. I have used Blackstone Labs a few times – not only does it tell you what is going on inside the engine, but also helps identify how long to run between oil changes with the filter you are using (oil itself doesn’t wear out – the additives do – and the junky filters get clogged or just do a poor job of keeping the oil clean).

    Even with what I would constitute as “severe duty” service (drive it like you stole it), I run 6k between changes.

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