NICK BUNKLEY

Debating when to really change the oil

Automotive News | July 27, 2012 - 3:57 pm EST

"We need to talk."

No good conversation begins with those words.

Especially when they're spoken by a dealership service adviser. And all I wanted was a simple oil change.

The guy who answered when I called to schedule an appointment looked me up in his computer and was confused: "Did you get an oil change somewhere else since your last one here?"

Not that I signed any sort of exclusive contract, or tearfully promised to always be true when I bought the car, but no, I didn't. It had been eight months, and I had driven a little more than 9,000 miles. This was apparently very troubling to him, though the car seemed pretty OK with the way things were going.

I had dutifully watched the oil-life monitor count down. I called the next day after it alerted me to "change engine oil soon." This all seemed very straightforward to me.

The service adviser saw it differently. "We need to talk about you going 10,000 miles between oil changes," he said.

When I hung up, feeling fortunate that I hadn't been grounded, I sought a second opinion from the owner's manual. Here's what General Motors -- or at least the poor guy who wrote the 446-page Chevrolet Traverse owner's manual, probably after his boss said, "We need to talk" -- has to say: "When the CHANGE ENGINE OIL SOON message displays, service is required for the vehicle as soon as possible, within the next 1,000 km/600 miles. If driving under the best conditions, the engine oil life system might not indicate the need for vehicle service for more than a year."

The same page also explains, helpfully, that the warning "FUEL LEVEL LOW" appears "if the fuel level is low." Faced with such a looming catastrophe, Owner's Manual Writer Guy suggests I stay calm and "refuel as soon as possible." Clearly, he knows his stuff.

My takeaway was that nine months between oil changes seemed perfectly reasonable, especially given that we drive a lot of highway miles. Still, in the two days before my appointment, I turned to the infallible wisdom of the Internet to see if I had the wrong idea.

Was I actually mistreating my car by only attending to its needs after it told me to? After all, waiting to put my 2-year-old to bed until he admits to being tired is a very, very bad idea.

The conclusion I reached is that, while it obviously wouldn't hurt to go in for service sooner, I'd rather go by the recommended maintenance schedule and the oil-life monitor than become more of a regular in the service-department lounge.

Basically, it comes down to this: GM, which already got my money when I bought the car, says I don't need service more often. The dealership, which stands to profit each time I go in for service, says I do.

Besides, I had taken the car to the same dealership a month earlier for an unrelated warranty repair, and no one urged me to get an oil change then, even after I specifically pointed out that I was close to needing one.

All of this is a lot more than I should have to think about when all I want is an oil change. Most cars today are programmed to tell the owner when service is needed, and almost none need it every 3,000 miles anymore. But the service advisor at my dealership was confident, even before he had seen the car in person, that I was overdue.

That type of approach can quickly build mistrust between dealerships and their customers. If customers get the feeling that the dealership is trying to upsell them into something they probably don't really need, future interactions become suspect.

I'm sure Owner's Manual Writer Guy would agree.

Nick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive NewsNick Bunkley is an enterprise reporter for Automotive News

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