Auto Service World
Feature   March 1, 2002   by Dennis Mellersh

Market Feature: The New Tune Up: It’s Still a Burning Issue

The nature of the traditional tune-up has changed, but old ideas still proliferate with consumers and professionals. And the fact remains that a tune-up is still about restoring proper combustion.

Not too many years ago, the term “engine management” would have produced quizzical looks in aftermarket circles. Today, electronic components such as ECMs, oxygen sensors, control modules, igniters, coil packs, manifold absolute pressure sensors, and throttle position sensors, do in fact, “manage” automotive engines to achieve optimum performance. The need for proper combustion is more important than ever, hence the proliferation of these control devices.

This emphasis on increased electronic componentry will only get stronger in the years ahead. Today’s power train module, for example, has 200 times the computing power over the first ones developed 20 years ago.

This trend presents the aftermarket with significant sales potential according to Ted Thacker, general director, sales and marketing, Delphi Aftermarket Operations. Discussing aftermarket potential during the Automotive Aftermarket Products Expo in November, Thacker noted, “The shift in the automotive industry from mechanical to electrical and electronic systems offers tremendous opportunity in the aftermarket. This transition is driving growth for replacement products and new service technologies and solutions.”

Robert Tribe, national sales and marketing manager for NGK Spark Plugs Canada Ltd., observed that the concept of the tune-up is evolving rather than disappearing. “We are never going to get away from the need to check under the hood. What we are dealing with now is just different components, with higher interval replacement cycles compared with the past.”

Tribe sees new OE technologies as an aftermarket opportunity, but also cautions that consumers need to be educated to resist the temptation to downgrade OE components such as platinum spark plugs during the replacement cycle. “The newer engines require the platinum plug to deal with the heat. These lean-burning engines produce higher heat and if cheaper, non-platinum plugs are used as replacements, there will be extensive gap growth and this will lead to hard starts, self fouling and poor driveability.”

Just because many OE plugs are now designed for expanded replacement cycles, it does not mean that the plugs should be ignored from a maintenance and inspection perspective, Tribe says. “Owner manuals will tell the consumer to have their plugs inspected at 50,000 kilometers, for example, to see if there are any problems developing.” Similarly, oxygen sensors and spark plug wires should be checked periodically to make sure they are fully functional.

Although still recognizing the value of the term “tune-up,” Dana, through its Niehoff link at, suggests thinking in terms of an annual physical for vehicles, just as patients will see their doctor for an annual check-up to see if there are any physical problems that need to be attended to.

“The tune-up may not be a thing of the past, but its definition has certainly changed,” says Niehoff. “With the introduction of computer controls, there is a greater need for optimum performance by all the components in the system, including associated sensors, actuators, and other engine components. If even one sensor is out of calibration, it can upset the entire balance of emissions and fuel economy. Performance is the operative word when discussing a modern tune-up.

“When a customer brings his or her car in and asks for a tune-up, they are really saying, ‘I want my car to perform better.’ They do not understand things like closed loop fuel control, electronic spark timing, or idle air control systems, but they do know when their car is not behaving the same as it used to.”

Realizing the importance of consumer education in today’s high-tech automotive environment, progressive aftermarket suppliers have embarked on information programs to help car owners understand the need for a proper maintenance program for their vehicle.

ACDelco Canada, for example, as part of its consumer education efforts, features a detailed newsletter, Words on Wheels, on its website. Each on-line issue features tips and advice for consumers on how to look after their vehicles properly.

One of the issues discusses “All you need to know about emissions testing and repair.” It outlines the benefits of emissions testing and repair for the consumer’s vehicle. It reads in part:

“Emissions testing and repair is not simply beneficial for the environment, it also has a positive impact on the way your vehicle runs. A vehicle that is producing excessive emissions is also a vehicle that is out of tune and running inefficiently. Poor emissions control can be the result of such common occurrences as clogged fuel filters or injectors or improper injection timing.”

“The days of the points and condenser type of tune-up are virtually gone,” says Bill Jarvis, sales manager, Canada, for Prenco Progress & Engineering Corp. Ltd. “The tune-up is becoming more of a technology market and [the aftermarket] has to keep up with this technology. Oxygen sensors, for example, are now a major part of the tune-up. Another example is coil-pack technology, which is a feature of most new vehicles. In wires there are also many changes, including a lot of new part numbers, because of changing technology. Wire design is constantly changing. All of this stresses the need for education and keeping up-to-date.”

As with all industries and market segments today, technical education and assistance for industry members such as counterpeople and technicians is an important component of success. Numerous aftermarket suppliers offer considerable help in this area.

In the Federal-Mogul Technical Education Center section of the company’s website, for example, there is a thorough, six-page section with information on high performance spark plug selection. In discussing the three steps to selecting a high performance plug, for example, the company advises, “When using this guide, understand that high performance spark plugs are usually of much colder heat range than normal automotive or street plugs. Colder heat ranges must be used in engines with increased cylinder pressures and temps and higher brake-specific power output. Also, racing engines are stressed to extreme limits and require a specifically constructed spark plug to live in that environment.”

Another example of technical education assistance is Blue Streak Electronics in its Blue Streak Tech-Line. Offered on-line, it covers a wide variety of frequently asked questions about electronic components, their installation and troubleshooting.

Here’s a brief example of the type of material covered:

“Question: I just installed a new ECM in a GM vehicle and it still doesn’t run properly. However, when I hook up my scan-tool and enter the data stream function, the vehicle clears up and runs perfectly. What is wrong with the computer?

“Response: The computer is fine, but the vehicle grounds are not. By hooking up the scan-tool and entering the data stream function, you have provided the ECM with a good ground through the vehicle diagnostic link connector (ALDL connector) via the scan-tool. Inspect all ECM grounds not only by continuity checks, but by a voltage drop test as well. All ECM grounds must have less than a 50 millivolt (0.05 volt) drop across the ground circuit.”

Discussing how higher OE tech is benefiting the aftermarket, Cameron Young, sales and marketing manager, Robert Bosch Inc. says, “Although we are seeing a decline in absolute unit sales in spark plugs because of fewer cylinders and longer replacement intervals, we are also experiencing a definite surge in the sale of premium plugs. More and more platinum plugs are being used on the OE side, and the customer is now getting accustomed to the better vehicle performance and longer plug life these plugs offer and is looking for these qualities in aftermarket replacement plugs. This trend is tending to make up for lost unit sales. Oxygen sensors are also a good opportunity in the tune-up market. We are also seeing excellent growth and potential in wire sales. Overall, current OE technology presents a good opportunity to upsell.”

In the educational area, there is a lot
of excellent information available on Honeywell Consumer Product Group’s Autolite web site, In a section entitled Car Care Q & A there are numerous questions and answers about spark plugs and wires, which can help consumers, counterpeople and technicians.

The answers to the questions provide a considerable amount of knowledge and how-to information in this increasingly technical area.

Oxygen sensors should be viewed as one of the primary replacement items in a tune-up, according to Justin Sequeira, product manager engine management, Blue Streak-Hygrade Motor Products Ltd.

“The emphasis or focus is now revolving around the oxygen sensor as one of the key components that should be checked. There are very definite driveability and emissions problems that will occur as an oxygen sensor wears out. Sensors should be replaced before they cause these problems,” Sequeira says.

He adds that consumers may tend to think less in terms of a tune-up when they only bring their cars in for an oil change, so installers need to encourage consumers to have a maintenance check on their vehicles.

“A lot of people, for example, drive and drive and drive and do not replace the oxygen sensors.”

Sequeira also says that provincial emissions testing programs such as Ontario’s Drive Clean program are to some extent acting as a forced tune-up check for consumers. It is often during these testing programs that a faulty oxygen sensor is discovered, he says.

While that provides good impetus for emissions and maintenance repairs in areas where such emissions testing programs exist, those outside program areas can still use the formidably convincing issues of pollution, fuel mileage and reliability to talk to consumers about the “new tune-up” business.

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