x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

The downside of upkeep

The financial implications of your personal transport don’t end when you drive it off the forecourt – servicing is a thorny, expensive issue.

Sarah Lazarovic for The National
Sarah Lazarovic for The National

Cast your minds back, if you will, to the time that you settled on that four-wheeled purchase sitting outside your house, apartment or office. Perhaps you spent weeks or months searching for the right car, scouring the classifieds, spending inordinate amounts of time scanning through Dubizzle or visiting dealerships in your particular emirate. And, when you finally made up your mind, I’m sure that you were counting the hours before picking it up. What an exciting experience it can be for many of us – but did that initial flurry of desire last beyond a few days or weeks? Did it go the distance? Do you still shoot your car an admiring glance as you walk away from it, or do you sneer with unbridled hatred, longing for the time when you can finally part company?

Owning a car is a relationship, pure and simple, and while some are born to last forever, many are destined to fail in the most acrimonious circumstances. When any relationship hits the skids and breaks down, there is a cost, whether financial or emotional, so we should do everything in our power to make sure we avoid the potential pitfalls. But what if we feel that we were led up the garden path before making a commitment? Perhaps it’s too late to do anything about it, but at least we can be forewarned for next time.

What am I banging on about? The costs of owning a car that we may not have known about, or thought about, when making up our minds of what model to buy. It’s a problem that came to light recently when I was talking with a friend and I mentioned that I’d had to take my car in for a service the previous week. “How often do you do that?” quizzed my accomplice. When I replied that it was every 15,000 kilometres, she told me that hers had to be done every 5,000; something I couldn’t bring myself to believe. I told her that there must be some mistake, that there’s no way a brand-new Nissan Juke would need to be seen in a dealership so frequently. So I started making a few calls.

Sure enough, when I contacted Nissan in Dubai, the PR people confirmed that all the company’s cars require 5,000km service intervals. Why, I asked them, can my Volkswagen Scirocco go three times the distance of a GT-R, Primera, Tiida or Sunny? Surely they’re tested to the same extremes during their research and development processes? “It’s what the manufacturer stipulates,” was the gist of the email reply.

I thought I’d go back to my friend and ask how she ended up with such a financial millstone around her neck, especially as she’s normally extremely careful in all matters fiscal.

“When I bought it in 2011, I was pleased with the reasonable purchase price, but what I hadn’t bargained for was the number of times I needed to have it serviced.

“Rather than taking it in every 10,000km, I had to take it in at 1,000km, again at 5,000km and then every 5,000 after that. Because I regularly commute to Abu Dhabi [from Dubai], this meant the car was going in every six weeks. And, again because of the high mileage, I was advised by the Nissan service agents to have extra services to help maintain my car.

“As a result, I end up paying an average Dh1,000 every visit, which in my opinion is too much. I have asked to reduce the number of times I take it in to every 10,000km but have been told this will affect my warranty. So I am stuck in this rather expensive service cycle. Two years after buying the car, I have 40,000km on the clock and am about to book my ninth service. Surely, that is too much.”

I would say it is, indeed, too much. The money that she saved at the time of buying her car has easily been lost in the two years since. But it isn’t just the monetary cost that’s incurred by having to service her car every 5,000km – there’s the inconvenience factor that needs to be taken into account, and this, together with the unexpected financial outlay, has put her off buying another new Nissan. “My husband really would like to buy an Armada,” she told me. “But after my experiences with the Juke, we can’t justify it on any level.”

A quick call around the office for similar experiences immediately yielded results, too. A colleague has just bought a nearly new Kia Sportage, which she found on Dubizzle. Having known she was on the lookout for one, I told her to first find out the service intervals. Once again, it turned out to be every 5,000km, but when she tackled the service manager about it, he told her that if she signed a form to permit them to use synthetic oil when servicing her Sportage, the intervals could be doubled to every 10,000km without invalidating her warranty – something that she should definitely take them up on.

“There is another issue, though,” she told me. “I knew my car was rapidly coming up for a service when I bought it, which allowed me a bit of leeway when negotiating the price I paid. But when I tried to book it in for the service, I was told the next available slot was over a month away! What am I supposed to do? If I continue to use it and continue to clock up the kilometres, I’ll invalidate my warranty.”

Does this sound like a familiar scenario? I know from personal experience that booking a car in for a service at an official facility can be a long, drawn-out affair, but I’m fortunate to not be held to ransom by my car’s warranty, as it expired several months ago. So I feel far more relaxed about taking it to a reputable specialist rather than back to Volkswagen. My service history remains intact, my costs are reduced and I get a speedier response, so I’m happy enough. But for anyone bent over a barrel, terrified of doing anything that might invalidate that precious warranty, there’s a problem.

What, though, is that warranty worth? That depends on what sort of car you drive and how expensive it will be to replace a major component such as the engine or transmission, but, in all seriousness, unless you drive a Formula One race car every day, it should not require servicing every 5,000km. So what to do?

The first option open to you is to vote with your feet and buy a new car that only requires servicing at longer intervals. VW, as mentioned earlier, is every 15,000km, and that includes all brands within its portfolio, such as Audi and even Skoda. Both Ford and General Motors state every 10,000km for their vehicles. I even checked with Ferrari and both its and Maserati’s cars require a service every 20,000km, or once every 12 months. Aston Martin and Bentley are every 16,000km and Jaguar Land Rover has just upped its own from every 10,000km to 11,000km.

It’s odd how everyone I spoke with about this issue wished to remain anonymous, but it goes to show how important our cars are to us if we’re terrified to say anything negative about our own experience for fear that there may be recriminations down the line. But one contemporary of mine, another motoring journalist, seems to be a bit of a Toyota fan, and I wanted to find out from him what his experiences have been.

“For me, it isn’t an issue,” he said. “Toyota has service centres all over the place and normally I can just sit and wait while the work is done without there being any real inconvenience. But we have to remember that this is the way these companies make their money – they all promise the Earth when selling you a new car but they make up for it with the servicing costs.

“What you have to admit, though,” he continued, “is that, while Japanese cars in this region are undoubtedly over-serviced and maintained, the upshot is that they never break down. For me, the inconvenience of extra visits to a service centre are easily outweighed by the fact that I’m never stranded at the side of the road because my car has gone bang.” Before you go rushing to that Toyota dealership, however, let me remind you that my trusty Volkswagen has never missed a beat, either.

If your driving is rarely more than a short commute from home to office and back, this issue might not be on your radar in the first place. But if, like many thousands in the UAE, your daily commute involves significant distances, it’s something that you should carefully consider before writing out that deposit cheque, because what might at first look like a cheap car could well cost you dearly.

A salesperson’s job is to make that deal, sell you that car, that dream. But strip away the frills, check out the reality of what is involved in keeping your new car on the road and enter that relationship with your eyes wide open. “I recently bought a new Honda,” another colleague informed me. She lives in Abu Dhabi and doesn’t put a huge amount of kilometres on her car, but what she said should ring true for residents of the capital. “The service centre is down near Musaffah at Motor City, so it’s really inconvenient and time-consuming to take my car there.” And, as has proved to be the case with the other Japanese brands, she has to take it back every 5,000km.

My motoring journalist friend made another interesting point. He was brought up in the UAE, and has many years of driving experience here, so I respect what he says. “Nobody pays the same servicing rates as the next person. My advice is to get on good terms with the service manager or start being more demanding. There’s always a deal to be done if you stand your ground – nobody wants to lose customers here.”

Caveat emptor (it’s Latin for “buyer beware”) is a phrase that I’ve ignored too many times in my life. But when it comes to running your own car in the UAE, those words should constantly be ringing in all our ears.

khackett@thenational.ae