Let’s face it: over the last ten years, vehicles have become much better, both in build quality and technology. And the days when a no-start/hard start condition could be cured with a plug change or points and condenser aren’t even a memory for today’s young technicians. Has the “tune-up” become unnecessary? No, but perhaps it’s time to describe the tune-up as what it really is: preventative maintenance. Compared to thirty years ago, however, convincing today’s consumer that the modern tune-up is a good way to preserve driveability is more difficult, especially with many new cars featuring intervals of 160,000 kilometers. The challenge is to make consumers recognize the improvement in vehicle performance, even where the difference is difficult to feel in a simple road test.
While value-added services do affect customer satisfaction, the business end of driveability is still the combustion chamber, making spark plugs as important as ever. Compared to older ignition systems, however, modern electronic ignition systems can fire plugs with considerable wear or fouling. From a consumer point of view, new plugs may not produce a noticeable driveability difference, at least under ordinary driving conditions. On the other hand, if a plug change “cures” a hard start/no start condition, there’s something amiss upstream.
The art of reading spark plugs
Spark plug reading was the automotive equivalent of wine-tasting in the pre-electronics days, with connoiseurs who could diagnose multiple issues from core nose readings. Are today’s technicians still as proficient? Roger Bentdahl is a Federal Mogul (Champion) Technical Service Engineer heavily involved with training: “I do a lot of hands-on training with the technicians, and I think that the art of reading spark plugs has gone by the wayside. I would say that the average technician could use a refresher on modern spark plug reading. When those things don’t come out white or very tan and clean, I’ll guarantee you there’s a problem, because you’ve got to remember, the fuel management system on these cars is so sophisticated, that, with all its sensors and fast response and high baud-rate computers, the fuel mixture spark advance should be accurate through all ranges, and should provide the spark plug with the optimum parameters for proper operation. That’s why when those spark plugs come out of the car, they should be very clean and fairly worn too.”
Possible variations on the ideal clean and worn plug theme can re-sult from the use of some fuel additives, including some octane boosters. Occasionally, they can leave electrically conductive deposits on the plug core nose, causing misfire. Reddish or purple colouration is a warning sign, but the surest way to determine additive use is to ask the customer. Incompatible additives can quickly contaminate new plugs, leading to unnecessary comebacks and frustration.
The other plug
The 160,000 kilometer tune-up may be a reality, but even where the maintenance interval is long, there is more content packed into that service. Consider the “other” plug, the oxygen sensor. Although this component has its own check-replace schedule, its still a viable service item, says Bosch national marketing manager Cameron Young: “We recommend it be part of a tune-up. It’s certainly something the installer can offer at the time of tune-up, and it certainly will help with emissions and also keeping the engine in proper tune. Although there are manufacturer-specific specifications we actually publish our own suggested interval chart as well for the installer. It’s something that certainly can be offered as an upsell throughout the installer selling process.
Making the oxygen sensor upsell work can be a little more difficult than plugs due to their lack of history and consumer consciousness. Showing the customer the old sensor can help, as can the explanation that oxygen sensors aren’t the same as spark plugs; they’re ceramic conductors. Clog the nose of the sensor, and the unit can’t detect the exhaust stream.
Pricing is still an issue
A good technician can do just about anything in the way of driveability enhancements from plugs to OBD, but discovering what the consumer is willing to pay is a different form of troubleshooting.
Justin Sequeira, product manager, engine management for Blue Streak-Hygrade Motor Products, describes how the consumer perceives the difference between the modern “tune-up” and the simple plugs-cap-wires replacement which many consumers expect: “What is tacked on now is diagnostic time. Diagnostic time was never there in the past. A lot of the things that come into play when you (the customer) take the car in, require that the technician will do a diagnostic test. And that’s 80 bucks right off the bat that you never had to pay before. These things you can’t really do unless the car is running; you have to scope it, you have to check the signals, and check voltages.
You get a print out right away and then you may have parts within a week. That’s where people think, “well I just paid 80 bucks” – they don’t realize time is money. And when the car has an emission problem, then the bill is horrendous. So price is an issue. This is being powered by the dealers because they are looking for their share of the business, so they’ll lower their price to come in line with the aftermarket people. Two-tiered rates, one for diagnostic, and another for repair can help demonstrate how a hard start caused by a transient electrical fault can cost several times more than a “tune-up” in the conventional sense. And print outs from scan tools and scopes adds weight to the tech’s argument, and reminds consumers that there is expensive technology in the bay as well as under the hood.