CAR TALK

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - STYLE - RAY MAGLIOZZI Ray Magliozzi dis­penses ad­vice about cars in Car Talk ev­ery Satur­day. Email him by vis­it­ing cartalk.com

DEAR CAR TALK: Read­ing the re­cent ques­tion from Coop about his ’95 Mini that’s crap­ping out af­ter 99,500 miles made me won­der why some brands of cars start fall­ing apart at 100,000 miles, and oth­ers (Hon­das, for ex­am­ple) trun­dle along with few prob­lems for 200,000 or even 300,000 miles. Is it good genes, good diet, clean liv­ing or what? Your com­ments, please.

— Steve DEAR STEVE: Yes. It’s mostly good de­sign and good man­u­fac­tur­ing.

I re­mem­ber as re­cently as 10 years ago, we’d have a Toy­ota Camry in the shop with 180,000 miles on it, and the en­gine would be run­ning as qui­etly as if it had 18,000 miles on it; you might not even know it was run­ning. And in the next bay, there’d be a Chevy Cav­a­lier with 80,000 miles on it that was rattling like a loose set of false teeth in the out­house on a cold morn­ing.

All cars have got­ten bet­ter in the past few decades. It’s im­por­tant to give credit where it’s due. Over­all, all cars are more re­li­able, bet­ter made and last longer than ever. But some still are bet­ter than oth­ers. Con­sumer Re­ports (which tracks re­li­a­bil­ity as well as any­one) lists the 10 most re­li­able cars ev­ery year. And in its most re­cent list, Toy­ota (which also makes Lexus) took five of the top 10 spots.

Why is that? Well, we know that Toy­ota long ago de­cided to stake its rep­u­ta­tion on re­li­a­bil­ity. It made that the top pri­or­ity. It could have pri­or­i­tized styling — and if you’ve seen a Camry in the past 35 years, you know it didn’t do that. It could have em­pha­sized ex­cit­ing per­for­mance — and if you’ve driven a Camry in the past 35 years, you know it didn’t do that, either.

What it did do is put a lot of ef­fort into de­sign­ing parts that last, man­u­fac­tur­ing them well and as­sem­bling them so that the spa­ces be­tween the mov­ing parts (called “tol­er­ances”) are tiny. That makes en­gines run qui­etly and run longer, since the pieces aren’t knock­ing the heck out of each other a thou­sand times a minute.

In some cases, those im­prove­ments in­volved bet­ter de­sign and en­gi­neer­ing. In some cases, they in­volved train­ing and pro­vid­ing in­cen­tives to em­ploy­ees. And in other cases, they in­volved spend­ing a lit­tle more money on parts or ma­te­ri­als.

Other man­u­fac­tur­ers had other top pri­or­i­ties. Some fo­cused on per­for­mance, some on styling, some on the next quar­terly re­turn for their share­hold­ers. Toy­ota bet that if it could gain a rep­u­ta­tion for build­ing cars that were re­li­able and lasted a long time, it would even­tu­ally pay off. And it did.

Now, there still are peo­ple for whom re­li­a­bil­ity is not the very first thing on their wish list. Some are moved more by styling, some by fuel econ­omy, com­fort, safety or high per­for­mance. And some just say, “For­get the re­li­a­bil­ity rat­ings, I want that cute lit­tle Fiat!” And there’s noth­ing wrong with that. Caveat emp­tor.

But the rea­son Toy­otas and Hon­das have long been lead­ers in re­li­a­bil­ity and dura­bil­ity is be­cause they made those things pri­or­i­ties over many years, and mea­sured and im­proved them month af­ter month af­ter month. And while oth­ers have got­ten closer, they’re still work­ing to catch up.

DEAR CAR TALK: The mass air­flow sen­sor on my beloved 1999 VW Eurovan camper has been re­placed three times, and now it has gone bad again. The me­chanic who looked at it said there was oil on the sen­sor. What would cause that? And any idea what it would cost to fix?

— Mered­ith DEAR MERED­ITH: You know all those quarts of oil you’ve been adding to your en­gine? Now you know where they’re end­ing up.

It sounds as if you have an af­flic­tion we call “blowby.” When enough mo­tor oil sneaks by worn-out pis­ton rings and then gets com­busted in the cylin­ders, oily va­pors can get blown back into the air-in­take area, where the mass air-flow sen­sor lives. And if you get enough oil on it, you can muck up the sen­sor’s elec­tron­ics and cause it to stop work­ing.

If you do have blow- by that’s that se­ri­ous, an oily air-flow sen­sor won’t be the only piece of ev­i­dence. Your me­chanic un­doubt­edly would see an oily film all over the air fil­ter, too.

The best-case sce­nario for you, Mered­ith, is that what­ever blow-by your en­gine is pro­duc­ing is be­ing ex­ac­er­bated by a bad PCV valve. The PCV is sup­posed to re­move com­bus­tion gases from the crank­case, and re­cy­cle them through the air in­take so they don’t build up — and blow back.

If your PCV sys­tem isn’t work­ing any­more, that could ex­plain why those gases, and the oily va­pors, are get­ting blown back­ward and foul­ing your air­flow sen­sor. A PCV sys­tem might cost you a cou­ple of hun­dred bucks to re­pair.

The worst-case sce­nario is that your PCV sys­tem is work­ing fine, which means it just can’t keep up with the mas­sive amount of blow-by your en­gine is pro­duc­ing. That would mean you’re on a count­down to a re­built en­gine. That’s thou­sands of dol­lars.

If you’re look­ing for a shorter-term so­lu­tion, you also could try clean­ing the sen­sor that failed. Nor­mally, they fail be­cause a wire breaks. But if yours is just smoth­ered with oil, you can try us­ing con­tact cleaner (not the Bausch and Lomb stuff for your con­tact lenses, the stuff that cleans elec­tronic con­tacts) to clean off your sen­sor and see if you can get it work­ing again.

Or you can sim­ply in­vest in mass air­flow sen­sor fu­tures, Mered­ith. Maybe you can get a case price from Mur­ray the Air­flow King. Good luck.

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