Sealed engine systems and better reliability have made engine and transmission overhauls rare on newer cars. But for some of the newest systems, something bigger stands in the way: the component recovery and analysis systems used by the Big 3.
For the newest vehicles, dealership mechanics are often not allowed to work on failed major powertrain components. Instead, the manufacturers can insist on a component swap.
In some cases, particularly at General Motors, the exchange is meant as a customer satisfaction technique; for all the automakers, system failures can be analyzed in a controlled setting with all the parts in place.
David Hunt, powertrain public affairs manager for Ford Motor Co., says, 'It's certainly easier from the company's point of view to determine what the fault is with a component if you're getting the complete piece, rather than just the item at fault.'
The program isn't that intrusive in normal dealership service operations.
'We haven't had any where I've had to do it,' says Bruce Kersting, a master Oldsmobile technician for Classic Oldsmobile & Mazda in Naples, Fla. 'I think I've seen one transmission go back. It was a leak, but they wanted it back anyway.'
None of the Big 3 is willing to discuss numbers when it comes to returned components, or the cost of the programs.
'When you start talking about numbers, how often (components are returned) comes down to failure rate, and nobody is going to talk about that,' says Rob- ert Moser, director of service engineering for Chrysler Corp.
Component exchange programs have some basic similarities:
All are geared toward the first year of a newly introduced powertrain.
All are intended to bring data back to the manufacturer for repairs or modifications revealed by failures in the field.
Chrysler has its Fast Feedback Program, GM its Engine Exchange Program and Ford a program that spokesman Hunt says has: 'an internal name ... it's not something we would really want out there.'
Hunt declined to give details on the company's program.
For the manufacturers the component exchanges can be a two-edged sword. They allow factory technicians to find and fix problems, but the programs could be misunderstood by customers as a form of unpublicized warranty.
'It's not a guaranteed replacement. I think it would be a specific case. The dealers and the company would talk about an issue, the company would identify if this particular fault was something we wanted to take a further look at, and that would be the circumstances,' says Hunt of Ford.
At GM, where the Engine Exchange Program has been in place since 1991, root cause analysis is important - but the driving cause is customer satisfaction during the critical early phase of a vehicle introduction.
'The purpose is mainly customer satisfaction, but secondly, and more important to our product team, is the information we get back from the field,' says Rick Jones, who administers the Engine Exchange Program for GM's Powertrain Division. 'I remember back in 1991 when this first came out, we had letters from people, astonished that GM would put an entirely new engine in their vehicle. A lot of people really expressed a lot of gratitude to the dealers.'
The program at GM only exchanges engines that are new to a particular model year.
'That is the mode of service for us for the first year. It is really the only way he (the mechanic) can service it. We try to restrict the parts he has so he is, not necessarily forced, but he really should be exchanging that engine,' says Jones.
'It does tend to enhance customer satisfaction, the fact that you're going to get a replaced engine right from the factory. Our goal is to get an engine to the dealer within 48 hours.'
Engines go back to the manufacturing facility that built them; some are tested on a dynamometer for noise, vibration and harshness, and all are torn down and analyzed.
A separate GM exchange program covers transmissions. Service Replacement Transmission Assembly is administered through GM's Service Parts Operations, and is meant to limit in-shop transmission rebuilding. The program applies to any automatic transmission produced by GM Powertrain, and goes back to vehicles as early as the 1985 model year.
'It allows the technician to get the customer in and out quicker. For a variety of reasons, he has to spend less time diagnosing the internal part of the unit. He has less time repairing the part of the unit. It reduces the number of comebacks we have, because he either misdiagnosed or had a bad assembly,' says Bill Hanley, spokesman for the program.
Hanley says root cause failure analysis is performed on a limited percentage of transmissions. The program is large enough to keep four U.S. remanufacturing sites and one core management center busy.
Chrysler's Fast Feedback program focuses less on customer-by-customer satisfaction, and more on long-term product improvement, says Moser. For six months after introduction of an engine, transmission or transfer case, Chrysler offers dealerships diagnostic support and component replacement. The six-month period can be extended if the Chrysler team feels it needs more information from component failures.
'When we have a (powertrain component) failure, we will partner with the dealer in the diagnosis of what's going wrong, and at the time of diagnosis will make a decision of whether to make a field repair; whether to send engineering and manufacturing folks out to see what the powertrain unit looks like; or whether to exchange that component and bring it back for teardown,' says Moser.
He says the diagnostic participation gives Chrysler an advantage over programs that simply exchange components.
'A teardown by itself doesn't answer all questions. Any part return has a fairly high ratio of 'no trouble found' (codes) because you've removed the unit from the environment where it was having difficulty,' Moser says.
Chrysler also has integrated its Fast Feedback program into dealership technician training.
'We're not going out and training the dealers' technicians on doing unit overhauls and repairs, and then not allowing them to do it for a year and losing the knowledge base. We train them in basic functional diagnostics that really support the level of repair that's available during the Fast Feedback program, and as we're seeing the end of the program coming up (for a particular vehicle), then our service training folks introduce the overhaul.'
Tim Moran is a Detroit-area free-lance reporter.