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Driving 100,000 Miles Without Getting a Tuneup Is Not Without Risks

September 02, 1997|RALPH VARTABEDIAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A current ad boasts that vehicles by General Motors don't need to be tuned up until they've been driven 100,000 miles, because their engines are "so finely balanced, so reliably built, so carefully assembled."

Whether or not GM puts such elaborate effort into manufacturing its cars, its claims may be misleading.

It seems improbable that GM engines--or those by Ford, Chrysler, Toyota or Honda--will actually function for 100,000 miles without needing significant repairs to their computerized emission control systems.

And when an electronic sensor or computer blows out, the owner of the vehicle is going to wish that all he or she needed was a traditional tuneup at the gas station.

Under federal law, vehicles are becoming less iron and more silicon--packed with thousands of dollars of sophisticated computer equipment to keep the environment clean. That's great for our lungs, horrible for our pocketbooks.

The mail I receive is full of tragic tales of motorists who spend more than $1,000 to replace engine control modules and sensors in frantic efforts to keep their pesky "check engine" lights from turning on.

In any case, GM officials fiercely defend the honesty of their ads.

They are "very accurate," says GM spokesman Dean Rotondo. "We have been in business too long to not go through an exhaustive process in validating our claims."

One recent ad depicts a man next to a swimming pool, receiving a back rub. "People need the occasional tuneup," reads the copy. "Wouldn't it be nice if their car didn't?"

Mechanics know better.

"What they are pitching is really a deception," says Joe Forgacs, owner of Family Smog and Auto in Bellflower. "It [implies] that you are not going to have any problems with this car at all. That's the impression you get with that 100,000 mile tuneup."

Poor GM. The auto giant is just playing the game by the rules established by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, which now requires that auto makers "certify" that their cars can go 100,000 miles without needing service to their emission control systems.

Don Zinger, the EPA's assistant director for auto regulations, said the agency requires extensive testing by the auto companies to gain these types of 100,000 mile certifications.

But how realistic are these certifications, and can a new car really go 100,000 miles without work on electronic systems that operate the engine? "Unlikely," says Forgacs. Indeed, Allied-Signal Corp., a manufacturer of oxygen sensors used in smog control systems, recommends its products are good only for 30,000 to 60,000 miles, according to spokesman Scott Cohoon.

An installed set of oxygen sensors typically cost $200, more than the traditional tuneup that GM boasts its owners don't have to worry about.

*

Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will attempt to respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to: Your Wheels, 1875 I St. N.W. #1100, Washington, DC 20006, or e-mail to Ralph. Vartabedian@latimes.com.

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