Ask Smithy

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Handy hints and tips on car own­er­ship

I’ve started tow­ing a car­a­van with my 2006 au­to­matic Nis­san X-trail and was won­der­ing whether I should have a trans­mis­sion oil cooler fit­ted. The X-trail has a braked tow­ing ca­pac­ity of 2000kg, and my car­a­van weighs 1300kg and has brakes. So far I’ve only done small trips of about 300km but next year I want to go from Bris­bane down to Vic­to­ria to see the Great Ocean Road. Pre­vi­ously I have been told that if I was go­ing to tow heavy stuff I should get an af­ter­mar­ket cooler to cool the trans­mis­sion fluid. Do you think it is nec­es­sary? Peter van Sloten, email

It de­pends on the weight you’re tow­ing and the ter­rain you travel over. Your car­a­van is well within the X-trail’s weight lim­its but, re­mem­ber, the weight is when fully loaded, not just the bare car­a­van. If the car­a­van is 1300kg fully loaded and if the roads you will travel on are rel­a­tively flat, then you should be able to get away with­out a cooler. But a cooler is good in­sur­ance against over­heat­ing the trans­mis­sion, and over­heat­ing is tan­ta­mount to a death sen­tence for the gear­box. NOTRANSLATION It seems the phrase ‘‘char­ac­ter­is­tic of the model’’ is the car man­u­fac­tur­ers’ favourite re­ply when quizzed about a prob­lem. I have been in the trade since 1968 and I find this a cop-out. It sug­gests that a car maker knows about a prob­lem but doesn’t know how to fix it. I took de­liv­ery of a 2008 no-name car in Au­gust and im­me­di­ately no­ticed that the brake pedal felt vague and spongy and tended to creep to the floor if mod­er­ate sus­tained force was ap­plied af­ter the ve­hi­cle had come to a stop. Imag­ine my sur­prise when, a few days later, I ex­pe­ri­enced to­tal brake fail­ure. The dealer at­tempted to find the cause and re­placed a cou­ple of ma­jor com­po­nents, but with­out fix­ing it. The man­u­fac­turer in­di­cated that the brake pedal feel and creep was ‘‘char­ac­ter­is­tic of the model’’ and was not a prob­lem. My in­quiries have dis­cov­ered that there have been at least three un­ex­plained to­tal brake fail­ures on this par­tic­u­lar model. To main­tain good­will the deal­er­ship is re­plac­ing my ve­hi­cle and — be­lieve it or not — the re­place­ment has a vague, spongy pedal that tends to creep if mod­er­ate pedal force is main­tained af­ter com­ing to a stop. Your thoughts re­gard­ing this mat­ter would be ap­pre­ci­ated.

Joe Bloomer, email I couldn’t agree more, the words re­ally mean: ‘‘ We’ve got no idea about what’s caus­ing the prob­lem.’’ Man­u­fac­tur­ers spend many hundreds of thou­sands of hours test­ing and retest­ing cars be­fore putting them on the mar­ket and they gen­er­ally do a good job. But it has to be re­mem­bered that their test­ing is done in con­trolled lab­o­ra­tory con­di­tions and not real life. Some­times they miss some­thing that crops up af­ter the car goes on sale. When that hap­pens they of­ten fall short of the mark and in­stead of get­ting in and fix­ing the prob­lem they too of­ten go into de­nial and refuse to do any­thing. Deal­ers can then be left in the mid­dle, stuck be­tween an un­happy cus­tomer and an un­sup­port­ive man­u­fac­turer. CAUSINGASTINK I bought a brand new Honda Jazz in 2005 with a five-year war­ranty. In 2007, af­ter my wife left it parked in the sun all day while she was at the beach, she no­ticed a pun­gent smell in the car. Think­ing it was her sweaty friends, she didn’t men­tion it to any­one un­til months later when she told me. I couldn’t find a cause. I didn’t re­port it to the dealer be­cause they weren’t very help­ful when I had pre­vi­ously re­ported a prob­lem on my own Honda. I even­tu­ally did re­port the prob­lem but by this time the war­ranty had ex­pired. I was told to get the car cleaned and the deal­er­ship would then in­ves­ti­gate it — but it would cost me $2000. They found the in­su­la­tion ma­te­rial un­der the dash had been soaked in some for­eign sub­stance, which they claimed was caused by a spilled drink. There was no ev­i­dence that a drink had been spilled, I be­lieve it hap­pened on the assem­bly line. They re­placed

Within lim­its: The X-trail’s auto gear­box should be fine for tow­ing but

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