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Five questions to ask your mechanic

Motoring

Johannesburg - We were as surprised recently as were most of our readers to discover that men are being ripped off just badly as women customers by unscrupulous mechanics.

But, as Motor Industry Workshop Association chairman Les McMaster pointed out (and he should know, since he's talking from the other side of the fence!) at least part of the solution is in our own hands.

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Ask the mechanic to run the diagnostic for the car's electronics while you're still there. File photo: Wavebreak Media

Car hassles, expensive repairs and cheating mechanics make great dinner-party conversation - but what you're really discussing is your own unwillingness to do basic research.

You don't have to know all the answers - but you do have to know the right questions to ask the mechanic or service manager, before you leave your second-biggest investment (after your home) to his tender mercies.

HERE ARE FIVE OF THE MOST IMPORTANT:

Does my car need a new cambelt?

In most cars, the valves that let air and petrol into, and exhaust gases out of the engine, are operated by a rubber belt with teeth on its inside surface. Like any rubber component that lives in a hot, oily environment, it has a limited lifespan and if it breaks, the damage it does can cost more to fix than the car is worth.

So replacing it at the manufacturer's recommended intervals is nothing more than cheap insurance. Ask the mechanic to show you in the car's service book when it was last replaced - you don't have to know how to read the service book, that's his job! - and to look up when it needs to be done again.

If it's due, at least you'll be ready for the extra expense rather than having it hit you like a bucket of cold water when you pick up the car.

Does my car need new brake pads?

This is not a time thing - brake wear depends on your driving style. Most brake pads have a groove across the middle that serves exactly the same function as the tread on a tyre: when that groove is gone, so should your brake pads be.

Ask the mechanic to show you the pads (you may have to wait until your car is up on the lift, but it's worth it) and to point out the grooves - or where they should be, in which case it's definitely time for new ones.

Does my car need new brake fluid or radiator coolant?

Over time, brake fluid absorbs water from the air, making your brakes less effective, especially when they're hot - as in when you're towing something heavy or coming down a mountain pass, neither of which is a good time to lose braking efficiency.

Car manufacturers know this, and make it a service requirement to replace the brake fluid at stated intervals. Ask the mechanic to show you in the service book when last it was done and whether it's due again. If there's no record of brake fluid replacement within the past two to three years, ask the mechanic to do it anyway, whether or not it's due. Again, look on it as cheap insurance.

Radiator coolant has the opposite problem; it becomes less watery over time and carries heat away from the engine less efficiently. Ask the mechanic to check in the book when last it was replaced, and at what intervals the maker recommends that it be done.

If it's due, it goes down on the worksheet - even if you have to write it in yourself!

Does all the safety equipment work properly?

It's difficult to quantify this without crashing the car, but the dealer's diagnostic computer - which these days often looks like an expensive tablet with a cable that plugs into a socket in the engine compartment - will at least confirm that all the sensors are working properly for the ABS (anti-lock braking system), the airbags and any other safety systems the car may have.

Ask the mechanic to plug it in and run the diagnostic for the car's electronics while you're still there. Anything that's faulty will be very obviously flagged - the programmes are designed to make faults difficult to ignore.

How much is all this going to cost me?

Insist on a quote for the work you and he have written down on the worksheet, and make it plain that that he must contact you with a further quote, should he find any other work that needs to be done.

"Don't be afraid to ask questions and expect comprehensive answers from your mechanic," advised McMaster. "All the checks you've asked him to carry out are things he would have had to do later anyway, so you're not wasting his time."

Motoring.co.za

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