Saturday, February 22, 2014

Hate Cars. Hate Them.


There was a time, not that many years ago, when I could take care of basic automobile repairs myself. By "basic" I mean anything up to and including brake jobs (even replacing the master cylinder), and once even buying an engine rebuild kit and paying a "shade-tree mechanic" not that much money to take care of it with me as assistant and go-pher. Of course, it was a given that I would do really minor things like oil changes and tune-ups myself.

Not any more, though. Things have gone in two directions:

- These days, oil changes are cheap enough versus the cost of oil, filter and time that there's no reason to bother -- just run it through some place and have it done.

- These days, everything but oil changes are so complicated that I wouldn't dream of doing them myself because specialized tools that I don't have are required, and parts are insanely priced, and I'm as likely to mess something else up as to get what was wrong fixed correctly.

I did replace a headlight bulb myself recently. That was more complicated than it should have been (had to remove the windshield washer fluid tank to get to it, because everything is so tightly packed together in an engine compartment these days) and about 40 times as expensive as it should have been (the 50-cent light bulb ran about $20 because of the kind of car it was). But it was doable. Anything else, not so much.

I realize that part of the problem is the kind of car it is -- Tamara's 2004 BMW X-3. Hey, it seemed like a good idea (right price, right situation) at the time. And I have to admit, it's been safe and reliable. The problems are always minor things.

The problem with "minor things" on BMWs is that "minor" means "not quite as complicated as the most convoluted celebrity divorces, nor quite as expensive as buying a house in one of your better Silicon Valley dot-com millionaire neighborhoods."

Every time something minor goes wrong on this vehicle, I hit Google and learn, courtesy of various BMW owner forums, that "this is a common problem" that will only cost $50-$1000 in parts (that low end being for a tiny piece of plastic called a "driving dog" for the electric window mechanism that just broke, leaving the rear driver-side window open) and $100-$1000 in labor to get fixed.

Or that if I just happen to have my own fully equipped home auto repair shop with various specialized tools on hand, and an automotive engineering degree from a German school hanging on the wall, I can do it myself in only 3-6 months of full-time work and with only a 25-50% chance of killing everyone I've ever known (and quite a few people I've never met) in some kind of Greek tragedy scale industrial accident.

My guess is this window thing will end up costing $300. If I did it myself, it would cost more like $100 ... but with a great chance of screwing something up and ending up spending $500 to get my screw-ups un-screwed.

I've bought cars for less than $300. Cars that ran. Cars that I could replace the spark plugs on without having previously learned how at, say, NASA.

And when I say that I realize it being a BMW is part of the problem, I'm saying I suspect that it's not just BMW that this is about. There's a reason that new cars come with 10-year/100k-mile warranties these days, and that reason is that nobody would buy them if they thought they were going to have to pay to fix them too.

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