By on September 27, 2016

2013 Ford Fusion Hybrid. Photo courtesy wikipedia.org

It has become a trend. For some reason, perhaps just coincidence, Canadian Ford owners with vehicle complaints seem to air their issues on that country’s national broadcaster.

Recently, it was a man whose 2009 F-150 needs an HVAC module that no one can find. This time, it’s a lady whose gas-sipping 2014 Ford Fusion Hybrid has developed a sludge issue.

The problem mentioned in this CBC report might seem simplistic and easily fixable, but it’s a good lesson for those unaware that how you drive your car can lead to unforeseen problems.

The protagonist in this play bought a Ford Fusion Hybrid two years ago to save on gas. Her daily commute to St. John’s, Newfoundland is about 12 kilometers one way, or about 7.5 miles, through a developed area.

After having her car in the shop five times to diagnose a “check engine” light, she was told that a milky white sludge had built up beneath her oil filler cap. It’s the product of moisture not being burned off, her dealer told her. Driving the vehicle on the highway for 15 to 30 minutes at regular intervals should take care of the problem.

That’s not what a hybrid owner wants to hear. Especially an eco-conscious hybrid owner living in a city where gas retailed for $4.85 a gallon today.

The issue is that the Ford’s internal combustion engine doesn’t spend enough time running — a problem compounded by the area’s cold climate. In terms of gas savings, the vehicle seems like a good choice. Her commute, which rarely sees the vehicle top 70 kilometers per hour (43 mph), maximizes use of the Fusion’s electric motor. Unfortunately, it does so at the expense of the vehicle’s internal combustion engine.

That commute, in that climate, and with no regular highway jaunts (she claims she has no reason to take it on a highway and we believe her – look at St. John’s on a map) means this hybrid buyer is being told something she doesn’t want to hear: Burn more gas. If you swapped this owner’s lifestyle with someone else’s, there wouldn’t be a problem.

TTAC’s Subaru WRX-loving Bozi Tatarevic offered this advice to avoid hybrid engine sludge: hit the redline once a day, or at least engage in some heavy stoplight launches. If hybrid hooning isn’t in your repertoire, accelerating even slightly faster on regular occasions would help bring the engine online more often, even though it defeats the purpose of owning a pricier hybrid. Besides that, the dealer’s advice, however unwanted, is the best bet.

Planned road trips to nowhere will surely get that engine running hot, and might have the owner simmering on a low boil. Right now, she is in talks with Ford Canada, and hopes to have the company buy back her car. Soured on the experience, she plans to never buy a hybrid (or a Ford) again.

What can an automaker do to notify would-be owners of a condition that only occurs under very specific conditions, with a certain type of driving? Even if placed in the owner’s manual (which this buyer says contains no mention of the phenomenon), an owner would only read it after buying the vehicle. Consider this a cautionary tale for buyers.

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91 Comments on “Chill Factor: Ford Owner Learns Harsh Hybrid Lesson...”


  • avatar
    SCE to AUX

    She should have bought an EV.

    My Optima Hybrid averages 50+ miles a day, so no sludge. But I have wondered if the oil changes could go longer, since the engine only runs half the time. At this point, I’m sticking with 5000-6000 miles between changes.

    • 0 avatar
      don1967

      My wife’s Elantra experienced no sludge after 5 years of commuting 5.5 km each way, in slow traffic and horrible Ottawa winters. Twice-a-year DIY oil changes is all it took to keep things clean and happy. But that wouldn’t make a good CBC story, now would it?

      • 0 avatar

        My wifes Durango will start getting some white residue (condensation) under the oil cap in the winter, some days she drives it 3 miles at a time 3-4 times a day with the kids, never gets hot enough to burn it off but it usually gets warm at least every couple of weeks and it will burn off. Never seen it happen in the middle of summer.

    • 0 avatar
      FormerFF

      On the Ford Energi models, the recommended oil change interval is 20,000 miles. The car does have an oil change monitor so if you’re not in EV mode all that much the car will ask for an oil change sooner.

      • 0 avatar
        dal20402

        There is also a recommendation to change the oil annually.

        • 0 avatar
          FormerFF

          Neither the oil life monitor nor the owners manual ask for an annual oil change for the Energi models.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            Page 141 of my 2016 C-Max owners’ manual says: “Change the engine oil every 10000 miles (16000 kilometers) or once per year under normal operating conditions.”

            Edit: It says the same thing again on Page 349.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            More relevantly, what’s the “severe use” recommended interval? People oftentimes forget, but you don’t have to live in a dusty area to qualify for that, short drives are severe indeed from the motor’s perspective.

          • 0 avatar
            rpn453

            I agree with don1967 on this. In my opinion, any engine that’s cold started multiple times on a daily basis – especially in a Canadian climate – should have its oil changed twice a year, regardless of mileage. I do spring and fall for the vehicles I service, and I don’t care how many miles the drivers put on in-between. Motor oil is so good now it practically doesn’t wear out in steady-state usage. Contamination is the primary concern. Mazda goes a bit overboard with this, demanding oil changes every four months here, while someone ten minutes south in North Dakota can go up to a year.

            I wonder how many oil changes the vehicle has seen. I also wonder what code was indicated. Why would the emission system even care about condensation in the oil? Maybe something is being misdiagnosed and the condensation is coincidental. Many drivers neglect their oil worse than this without causing emission-related codes.

            I’m also curious as to how they figure that running the defroster on high will dry out the engine internals.

          • 0 avatar
            FormerFF

            Here’s the relevant page from the 2016 CMax manual: http://www.fordservicecontent.com/Ford_Content/vdirsnet/OwnerManual/Home/Content?bookCode=O29322&languageCode=en&marketCode=US&viewTech=IE&chapterTitleSelected=G1598761&subTitleSelected=G1619390&topicHRef=G1619391&div=f&vFilteringEnabled=True

            What it says is to follow the oil life monitor’s recommendation, but don’t exceed two years or 20,000 miles.

            In my paper manual, on page 445, the paragraph on the Energi models also says to listen to the oil life monitor, and also says this may be as long as two years or 20,000 miles, while for the hybrid, it may be as long as 10,000 miles. In my usage, the oil life monitor asked for an oil change right at 20,000 miles, and is on target to ask for another one at 40,000.

      • 0 avatar
        dperreno

        She is driving a Fusion Hybrid, not a Fusion Energi. The Energi does address this in two ways: First, whenever the gas engine starts, it will run until it is warmed up before kicking off. Second, the Energi will monitor engine use and periodically start and run the engine until it is fully warmed up in order to avoid just this type of scenario. Perhaps this was not forseen as being necessary with the hybrid version as the engine does have to run each time you drive the vehicle.

    • 0 avatar
      krohde

      Easy way to find out – send a sample to Blackstone and, for $25, you’ll have your answer and it’ll be a scientific one, not an Internet forum-generated one: http://www.blackstone-labs.com/

  • avatar
    Feds

    Could this not be solved with a block heater? Plug it in for a few hours at night to burn off the condensation.

    • 0 avatar
      Kenmore

      That’s what I wonder and would prefer. If she drives gently enough to have the problem then we’re soul mates and don’t want to EVER leadfoot our nice cars.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      No a block heater will only make it worse. The block heater will not get the oil hot enough to boil out the moisture on its own and if it gets the coolant temp up to near the point where the engine will shut down then the engine will be on even less.

    • 0 avatar
      sirwired

      I doubt a block heater would get warm enough; block heaters are meant to keep the oil liquid, not heat it so the water starts to steam off.

      • 0 avatar
        Kenmore

        Well, couldn’t it just be turned up to High? My slow cooker can.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        Block heaters are meant to heat up the coolant not the oil, so unless you are getting the coolant way passed the boiling point it won’t put enough heat in the oil only make it warm up a minuscule amount quicker once the engine is running. Plus in a Hybrid that will only mean that the engine will run less in that type of driving with a net result of the oil running cooler overall.

        If you want to heat the oil you need a dipstick, or oil pan heater and they aren’t designed to get the oil up to or even near the boiling point of water which is what is needed to boil water.

        • 0 avatar
          gtemnykh

          Scoutdude, there’s different kinds of block heaters these days, not just the kind that screw into a coolant plug in the engine block. There are a lot that basically are stick-on heating pads (magnetic or glue) that sit on the oil pan and heat the engine oil directly.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            An oil heater is not a block heater. The pad style heaters that glue on nor the magnetic pan heaters won’t work in this situation because the pan is Aluminum and has external structural ribs since it is part of the NVH control. The dipstick heater is the only option if you want to heat the oil. None of those are new they have been around for decades.

            Oil heaters are for people in cold climates that want their engine to crank faster, block heaters are for people who wan their engine to put out heat quicker.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            This needs to be a Sajeev discussion deep dive as we approach winter. Tahoe has a plug, and I dunno if I need to use it.

          • 0 avatar
            dal20402

            How often does it get below about 15 degrees in your neck of the woods?

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Well:

            January 2016, 10 times.
            February 2016, 5 times.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            @Corey, do you drive it on cold mornings, would like to get heat out of it sooner, have a place to plug it in w/o running a cord out your window and don’t mind the hit to your electric bill? If the answer is yes then by all means plug it in. Plugging it in won’t significantly reduce the wear on the engine, if you want to do that switch to 0-30 in the winter. It won’t eliminate or reduce the condensation that gets en-trained in your oil, if you want to do that make sure you take a long trip on the freeway once or twice a month.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            I could run a cord under the garage door out there. This will be my drive in snow car, so it will be driven in the winter time. On cold days with no snow/salt I’ll drive the garage car. It only gets down to about 40 in the garage, even on the coldest nights.

            Now usually what I do is warm the car up while I’m scraping snow off it, which I know is bad bad for engine wear.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            No warming up the engine while you are scraping off the snow and ice is not bad at all for engine wear.

            If you do plug in be sure to set the HVAC to defrost and full hot when you park at night. If it is a manual system it should keep the HVAC doors in that position, which depending on how cold it gets can put just enough heat on the windshield to mean that you don’t have to scrape it, just brush off the snow.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            It has the auto electronic climate unfortunately.

          • 0 avatar
            Scoutdude

            I’d still try putting it on max temp defrost, to see what happens, hard to say what a given auto system does on shut down, until you try it.

          • 0 avatar
            CoreyDL

            Yeah, I’ll remember that. Sometimes it only gets cold enough to do something like the block heater once or twice. Last year at 15 times was unusual.

          • 0 avatar
            gtemnykh

            Point taken. I guess I rate engine health above my own comfort, I’d prioritize minimizing wear on start-up, so oilpan heater for me.

            We could go the old soviet tanker route and just light a fire under the engine :p

    • 0 avatar
      don1967

      A block heater could definitely help, by allowing the engine to reach full operating temperature several minutes sooner. Over repeated short trips that could make a huge difference in the amount of moisture burned off vs. accumulated in the crankcase.

      Remember, we’re talking Newfoundland here, where temps reach 30 below in the winter.

    • 0 avatar
      Feds

      But the water doesn’t have to boil, it only has to evaporate. A puddle after a rain storm never boils, but “disappears” nonetheless. Dew dries off of grass well below boiling. Rain water “steams” off pavement without the pavement being 100°C.

      Raising the crank case temperature above freezing would allow the air in the crank case to hold more water, definitely reducing the water emulsion issue. And the difference between -30c and plus 5c is huge. Much more water would get pumped out when the motor started warm, vs. running longer cold.

      • 0 avatar
        Scoutdude

        And how long does it take to get that puddle to evaporate? If the moisture would evaporate on its own then there wouldn’t be a problem. Raising of the crankcase temp will be minimal with a block heater and as I’ve pointed out it will cause the engine in a Hybrid to shut down sooner increasing the problem not minimizing it.

        • 0 avatar
          markogts

          I agree with the fact that you don’t need oil to reach water boiling temperature. Plus, keeping the crankcase warm reduces oil viscosity, which is another factor that prevents water from leaving the oil.

        • 0 avatar
          eamiller

          Evaporation is directly correlated to temperature. This is why a warm sidewalk will dry quicker than a cool one (ignoring the sunlight factor). Warming the oil in any way will increase water evaporation rates, period (as well a fuel evaporation).

          You’re essentially arguing whether it’s “enough”. Only experimentation will tell.

          It takes oil a LOT longer to warm up in an engine than the coolant does, so any headstart is good.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      Are block heaters common in Newfoundland? Here in Saskatchewan, almost every vehicle has one, and almost everyone who parks outside uses them at least occasionally. -40C cold starts are no fun. But when my buddy was working in Mississauga, he said that apartment buildings and businesses don’t even have outlets available for them.

      I think using one would help. I use mine whenever I can in winter weather. Starting a heated engine in the cold is like starting one on a warm day. It feels much happier, and gets to operating temperature quickly. With the cabin heat cranked, even a hybrid would keep the engine running, wouldn’t it?

  • avatar
    whynotaztec

    Cripes she seems to be the exact opposite of who would want a hybrid. I go 30 miles one way so fuel efficiency is paramount. If I had her commute I would be driving a Charger or some other such thing.

  • avatar
    ajla

    “hit the redline once a day, or at least engage in some heavy stoplight launches”

    Done and done.

  • avatar
    don1967

    I’ll go out on a limb here and speculate that the oil is getting changed once every 12,000 km or so, which is woefully inadequate for short-trip use especially in a cold climate.

    There’s a “severe” maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual for a reason, but I wouldn’t expect the CBC to let that get in the way of a good story.

  • avatar
    sirwired

    Hooning for a couple intersections-worth once a day during that tiny commute is a HORRIBLE idea!

    In addition to probably not actually working, (it takes sustained time at operating temp to boil that mayonnaise away), doing this over and over with the oil nowhere near operating temp is going to have all sorts of delightful consequences for engine wear.

    Really, the periodic Drive to Nowhere, combined with an accelerated change schedule, is probably the best plan.

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    “hit the redline once a day, or at least engage in some heavy stoplight launches”

    Won’t do a lick of good. And the fact is she will have the exact same problem with any ICE powered vehicle with her use patterns. That short of a trip in a cold climate will not heat up the oil to point where it will boil out the condensation. It will only heat it up enough to mix the oil and water and have it cling to the cold parts of the engine, usually the valve cover.

    The only thing to prevent the build up of condensation is to take it out on the open road for 15-30 minutes of driving after the oil has reached normal operating temps, which could take 15-30 minutes of driving in the first place in a cold environment.

    • 0 avatar
      bumpy ii

      Yep, this is a common problem with super-short commutes, hybrid or not. IIRC the Volt is programmed to run the gas engine occasionally to mitigate this and other low-duty-cycle issues.

    • 0 avatar

      I agree with you and that is more of a shortened one liner from our conversation. My full recommendation would be to take it out on the highway at least once a week for about 30 minutes or more so that it could get to a higher temperature and get rid of the condensation in the oil.

  • avatar
    dwford

    My harsh hybrid lesson is that my 2012 Sonata Hybrid is only interested in keeping me cool. In the summer, the gas motor has no problem kicking in when I am parked to keep the a/c flowing, but in winter it does not kick in to keep me warm.

    • 0 avatar
      SCE to AUX

      Hmmm. My 13 Optima Hybrid keeps a constant temperature using the automatic climate control – winter or summer – once it’s warmed up. But I do find that the heater takes longer to warm up since the engine isn’t on as much.

      The A/C compressor is electric, so the engine turning on is merely to recharge the battery as it powers the compressor.

  • avatar
    Jeff Waingrow

    Wouldn’t she be the perfect candidate for an all-electric?

  • avatar
    zip94513

    Synthetic oil, changed more often, would help some.

    • 0 avatar
      rpn453

      I don’t know that synthetic oil will affect the creation of condensation, but she probably should switch to biannual oil changes instead of annual, and a 0W-20 synthetic would make the most sense for the winter months.

    • 0 avatar
      Chets Jalopy

      Doubtful. I get the same white goo in my oil filler cap occasionally here in Florida. I use full synthetic in the old 5.4 F150.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    When you drive as little and as gently as she does, so what if your oil looks kinda like macchiato?

  • avatar
    Scoutdude

    Ok time for a lesson in how a good Hybrid (read Ford or Toyota) works.

    When the vehicle is told that you want to operate it it looks at the coolant temp and your HVAC demand among other things. So when you start the car with a cold soaked engine the first thing it will do is start the ICE. Once it starts the ICE it will continue to run the ICE until it senses a coolant temp of ~160 degrees. This is done for a couple of reasons, first and foremost is emissions compliance. At that temp there is no longer the need for any sort of warm up enrichment to prevent stumbling when driving, it also ensures that enough heat has been put in the catalytic converter for it to operate properly. The second reason is that many times the driver wants heat in the cabin.

    Now once it reaches that minimum operating temp it will shut down the ICE any time it can, that is how a large portion of the fuel economy improvement is realized. That is why putting a block heater in the vehicle will make the problem worse, not better. Every time the foot comes off the pedal and the vehicle speed is below that which will cause the range MG to over speed the ICE will shut off. If the ICE is not running it will not heat up the oil and in fact all that cold air surrounding the pan will remove some of the heat that had been introduced.

    A block heater will greatly improve the MPG though as it will increase the percentage of that 7.5 mile trip that the vehicle is operating in “EV mode”. In weather with 35-45 degree temps our Fusion Hybrid would take aprox 3-4 miles before the engine is up to shut down temp. If the driving that follows is on slower speed roads the engine will often start up at a stop to put enough heat in the coolant to keep the cabin at the desired temp. The MPG suffers accordingly with a ~10% reduction in fuel economy in the coldest part of our winter vs spring summer or fall when heat demand is low or running of the AC compressor is indicated.

  • avatar
    FormerFF

    I have the plug in hybrid version of the Fusion. If you do mostly short trips using the engine during cold weather, it eventually goes into “oil maintenance” mode, at which time the engine will run constantly for about 10 miles, to get the oil up to temperature. In my mild winter climate, this happens about twice a year. I’m surprised that the regular hybrid doesn’t do the same.

    In my car, it is possible to set it to not shut the engine off while in hybrid mode. If her car is similarly equipped, she could set it to not shut off one day or so for each of the cold months.

    • 0 avatar
      dal20402

      I was just about to say the same about our C-Max Energi.

      • 0 avatar
        FormerFF

        I understand there’s something similar with the gasoline in our cars, if we don’t put gas in for some long period of time, when you drive, the car will go into hybrid mode until that tank of gas is burned. I think you’d have to go something over a year without using a full tank before this happens, I’ve never experienced it.

        I’m going to be heading up to Road Atlanta for the Petit LeMans starting tomorrow, so I’ll be needing to fill up sometime in the next few days. Now that we have charging at the office I can go a number of months without filling up unless I’ve got a highway trip. The last time I filled up was June, and it may very well be December before I fill up again.

  • avatar
    dukeisduke

    Is the local Tim Hortons’ a few miles out of her way? If so, maybe Ford needs to send her some gift cards.

  • avatar
    slance66

    The real answer is that if you only drive 7.5 miles each way every day, just get an efficient ICE car to begin with. The gas difference is immaterial.

  • avatar
    NeilM

    We have a similar problem with my wife’s car, a conventional gas vehicle. Her office is barely over 3 miles from our home, and it takes her under 10 minutes of urban driving to get there in the morning. And she drives like a grandma, so the chances of getting any real heat into the car’s engine are nil. We don’t have a sludge problem, because I use a quality synthetic and change it frequently, but predictably there is a condensation issue with build-up of the dreaded “mayonnaise.”

    She does a 100 mile round trip once or twice a month, but in winter that’s still not enough prolonged engine temperature to boil out the emulsified water in the oil.

  • avatar
    MoDo

    Problem could have simply been avoided at the dealership had there been a competent salesman on the floor.

  • avatar
    RHD

    She bought the wrong car for her needs. She drives so few miles that the gasoline expense at 28 vs. 38 MPG doesn’t amount to much money. She would have been better off with a slightly less expensive conventional car, or an all-electric.
    So often the salesman sells whatever he can, or the customer buys what they want, when it isn’t really what’s best for their particular uses.

  • avatar
    Kenmore

    //having her car in the shop five times to diagnose a “check engine” light

    How come 5 times?

  • avatar
    JohnTaurus_3.0_AX4N

    “Right now, she is in talks with Ford Canada, and hopes to have the company buy back her car. Soured on the experience, she plans to never buy a hybrid (or a Ford) again.”

    Lol, if I were Ford, I’d tell her to shove it. Of course they cant, but the negotiating *should* should start with: “You bought the wrong car, and you want us to buy your used car back (at full price paid I’m sure) because there is NOTHING wrong with it, with the promise that you already hate us and will never buy a car from us again? Okay, there is some coffee outside, and James will validate your parking, wontchu James? Of course he will. Good day ma’am.”

  • avatar
    mfgreen40

    Let me tell you about a different oil dilution problem, gasoline. Back in the 80s I had a VW bug for a winter beater and it was less than 2 miles to work. I came home for lunch so the car had 4 cold starts per day. With the very cold Mn. winter the choke stayed on all the way to work and in 5 days the oil level would be almost a quart over full. Once I figured it out ,a hand choke was the fix.

  • avatar
    brandloyalty

    Probably despite the car being a hybrid, she’s not getting very good milage anyway. Hybrids are set up to aggressively reach hot/low emissions temperatures. By the time hers is hot enough, her drive is almost done. How about a piece of cardboard in front of the rad so it runs hotter sooner.

    I’ve been on a couple of Escape Hybrid forums for almost four years and I can’t recall anyone reporting this problem. Low mileage due to short trips in cold weather, but no condesation problem.

    • 0 avatar
      Scoutdude

      Putting a piece of cardboard in front of the radiator isn’t going to help if it is that cold the radiator will never come into play. The heater core will remove enough heat from the engine when it is running to never get to t-stat opening temp. Plus it isn’t the coolant that is the issue it is the oil and that takes much longer to get up to temp.

    • 0 avatar
      redliner

      It probably has automatic shutters. No cardboard needed.

      This probably only became a problem when she switched from a less efficient car that wasted more fuel as heat.

  • avatar
    mtmmo

    Nice to see Ford treats their customers in Canada the same way they do in the USA. I remember at one time my family had five Fords in the driveway. My parents got tired of Ford dealers refusing to honor the warranties so my parents started buying Toyota’s and haven’t looked back. The woman should have bought a Prius.

  • avatar
    APaGttH

    Huh, and yet Chevy Volt engineers figured this problem out.

    Irrational hatred in 3, 2, 1…

    • 0 avatar
      CoreyDL

      Just because you haven’t heard of a Volt with the same issue, doesn’t mean it’s not happening. This is about driving enough to heat up an engine to operating temp – it can happen to ANY internal combustion engine.

      • 0 avatar
        APaGttH

        Surely a quick search in the Volt owner forums will prove your hypothesis with a link…

        • 0 avatar
          Scoutdude

          Of course it will because all Volt owners are required to post all of their problems on every Volt owner forum and the vast majority of Volts are used in the exact same climate as this Fusion and they never plug them in so they operate as a regular hybrid.

          Seriously the Volt is a different type of vehicle. If you are traveling that short of a distance then the ICE is never fired up. What causes the problem is frequently using an ICE w/o allowing it to warm up and then continuing to drive it after the oil has come up to temp.

  • avatar
    CoreyDL

    My GS430 had this issue in cold months. I never drove it long/far enough to get it hot, and got yellow goop in the crank case.

  • avatar
    Fred

    I had this same problem in a old air-cooled VW. How do you get water in a VW?

  • avatar
    Turkina

    The lady lives in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and for someone who seems like a homebody, there’s nothing to entice a puttering hybrid driver to travel to outside the daily commute. Of course, to us car people, we’d be tearing around the island trying to beat our fastest lap while taking in the ocean views. An EV would do her no good as well, just in case she had to take a ferry to the mainland, or do any driving around the island. Pretty sure there’s no chargers outside the metro area, and who knows where she will find a charger once she gets to Sydney (Cape Breton Island, NS).
    That lady simply needs to get out and drive, or take responsibility for purchasing a car that doesn’t do what she needs. Ford Canada should be cool about it, and offer her an off-lease standard Fusion and a Tim’s gift card. At least everyone kinda ends up with what they need. Oh, and the temps there I hear really don’t get that cold or hot, sticking out in the Atlantic like that. I guess interior Newfoundland can get chilly. Someone give me some travel money to find out. :)


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