COVER STORY: Breathing New Life Into the Tune-Up Market
While the business of tune-ups has evolved drastically since the advent of electronic engine management, the future of the tune-up market has generally been viewed with more than a tinge of pessimism. This is about to change. The less-than-optimistic outlook is not just the product of a general pall. Recommended tune-up intervals have been growing--to the point where plug changes are at the far end of the lifetime of a vehicle--and the average number of spark plugs per vehicle has declined dramatically since the days when a V8 was under the hood of virtually everything that Detroit built. As late as 1986, nearly 75% of the vehicles on the road were equipped with V8 power plants. That number has dwindled to less than 20%, and while the resurgence of the six-cylinder powerplant has overtaken the four-cylinder engine, it has been accompanied by the aforementioned reduction in service intervals. All this has, of course, affected the demand for traditional tune-up parts.
“When you look at the evolution of parts, tune-ups have changed dramatically,” says Justin Sequeira, product manager for engine management systems, Blue Streak-Hygrade Motor Products. “It’s not the same as in the past. It’s not points and condensers anymore.” He says that the effect of emissions programs such as Drive Clean, AirCare and the anticipated Montreal, Que., program are felt strongly in the movement of parts. He says too, that it’s not just in these program areas that the technological strides of automakers are coming home to roost.
“Tune-ups now involve more emissions-related parts. Most of the new cars don’t even have wire sets. Caps and rotors are a thing of the past. When the car comes in, the most important thing is O2 sensors and all the other sensors that go with it.”
The emergence of this trend carries with it a very positive message, says Robert Tribe, national sales and marketing manager, NGK Spark Plugs of Canada.
“One of the trends that we are seeing is the expansion of the higher dollar item. Typically the one-lead oxygen sensor of the late 80s to early 90s had a very low dollar value and was not perceived as an item to be repaired because its function wasn’t as critical.
“But on OBD II vehicles there was a big change in the market, not only in quality but in the number of sensors. Post OBD II, you’re seeing anywhere from two to four oxygen sensors, and a range from $60 to $500 each.”
Tribe says that dollar sales have been increasing for a few years in the category, even as units have declined. The same holds for spark plugs. This holds true even as the number and type of components involved in a tune-up change.
“We’re seeing an increase and it’s all related back to driveability.” He says that the trend means winning back some of the tune-up dollars lost as plug count dropped and intervals extended.
“We are starting to see some of the dollars come back, but it all coincides with pushing that interval out. You’re replacing O2 sensors from 80,000 km to 160,000 km. So you’ve got vehicles with platinum plugs and several O2 sensors, and installers are seeing tune-ups costing from $600 to $800.”
While there’s no pretending that this change isn’t dramatic, there appears to be less acceptance of the higher priced products like spark plugs within the trade than there is by the public at large.
“I’m finding that the whole automotive industry is full of people trying to do the job cheaper,” says Colin Philip, manager technical services, Honeywell Automotive Aftermarket Canada, reflecting on the questions he fields from the trade and consumers. He says that there are still times when professional installers don’t see the need for the more expensive platinum plugs.
“You find that a lot of the installers have been in the industry a long time. In the information they see and the training they take, they don’t see temperatures that much higher, and really that’s the way they look at a spark plug, in terms of cylinder or plug tip temperature.” But, says Philip, the higher ignition voltages and different engine designs dictate these requirements, not just cylinder temperature.
“I explain to retail customers that engines are more finely tuned than they were 10 or 15 years ago, and once you explain that, everybody is open to that. But I would generally say that when talking to the retail public they are more receptive.
“The customer hasn’t told (the installer) to save a dollar on a spark plug, they just do it.”
The comfort level that installers and counterpeople have in selling what are perceived to be expensive parts and service is an issue that goes deeper than just tune-up parts, but it is particularly acute when considering parts like oxygen sensors that are only now coming to the forefront of the aftermarket service business.
“I come from B.C., where we’ve been working with AirCare for some time,” says Tribe. “Compared to Toronto and Montreal, Vancouver is the third largest city and yet Vancouver outsells the other two combined. That’s a good indication that where the emissions programs are established, the installer and the counterperson are educated on O2 sensors. They’re now asking a new question. Instead of asking if they need a cap and rotor, it’s ‘Does it need an oxygen sensor?'”
He says that the impact of emissions programs is not immediate in this respect.
“They’re not at the stage in Ontario where they’re comfortable with selling a $200 or $300 sensor. It takes three to four years before you see the impact of the education. You’ll see that same trend when Montreal introduces their program.
“You really don’t see the full rewards in the technician base until you reach the four to five year period.”
According to Dick Martin, national service and training manager, ACDelco, the education process goes beyond just comfort level with the price of the component.
Martin says that the change from single-wire, simple O2 sensors to three-and four-wire heated types has left many technicians wanting for diagnostic skills. “The problem with the industry is that if you were to do a fuel injection course five or six years ago, and you’ve seen things on the bench, you would be thinking in the same terms. But things are different now and the diagnostic process is different.”
Martin also lays some blame at the feet of the purveyors of the “quick fix”. We’ve all seen the types of diagnostic procedures that can take a seemingly unrelated symptom and relate it back to a specific component. He firmly believes that this approach does more harm than good and is a believer in what are called validated diagnostic procedures. “Validated diagnostic procedures are repeatable. People get themselves into trouble with quick fixes. If you want to check an injector, there’s only one way, check current and temperature. People waste a lot of time diagnosing spark plugs. Take it out. Is it dirty?”
He indicates that there is a pattern that some technicians can fall into where they rely solely on diagnostic tools to tell them what’s wrong, without having the necessary training and experience with the tools to understand fully what they are telling them.
The issue is complicated by more sophisticated on-board diagnostics that provide more information, but don’t do away with the need to understand the component.
“We have technicians who tell us that they know how an oxygen sensor works. So how come they have trouble diagnosing them?” wonders Martin. “The key is that if you use the proper diagnostic procedures, you develop the skills to make it comfortable. A scope is the best instrument in the world, but you have to use it every day to develop the skill to interpret the data. Keep the process simple, know the component and stick to the validated diagnostic process.”
“In the good old days, when we checked whether a car ran rich or lean, we looked at the exhaust pipe,” remembers Sequiera. “We’d put our hand in the exhaust stream and smell if it was running rich. Now, if you don’t have a scan tool, it’s almost impossible to diagnose the problem and most of the time you’ll find that it’s an emission control part. The days of the $75 tune-up are gone.”