Automakers leave out a $5 part and dealers reel in big bucks

Feb 21 2011 - 10:57am

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Clearly, I was born half a century too early.

A week or so ago, a co-worker was complaining about her 2007 Jeep Liberty. She needed to check the automatic transmission fluid level in the vehicle, but was having a difficult time locating the dipstick for that particular diagnostic procedure. She'd even had a friend of hers, who has worked on automobiles most of his life, take a look, but he couldn't find the dipstick, either.

A quick search on the Internet revealed why. Turns out, the 2007 Jeep Liberty -- like an increasing number of vehicles on the road these days -- doesn't even have a dipstick to check the automatic transmission fluid level.

Insert stunned silence here.

When the co-worker brought up the Case of the Missing Dipstick at the office, it sent a ripple of disbelief throughout the older folks in the newsroom. We were all incensed. What kind of a, well, dipstick would build a vehicle with an automatic transmission and not provide a way for motorists to check its fluid level?

I was right there with them, complaining alongside everyone else, matching my colleagues' incredulous tones as we bemoaned the current state of the car industry.

And yet all the while, in my heart of hearts, I was secretly giving thanks to the automotive gods that yet another confusing vehicular maintenance responsibility had just been taken off my plate.

Yeah, I know. I'm a guy. I'm supposed to know all about gear ratios and spark-plug gaps and timing belts. It's in our genetic code.

But seriously, have you ever tried to check the fluid level on an automatic transmission? The last time I attempted it, sometime in the early 1990s, it was like doing an extremely greasy version of the Hokey-Pokey: Park the vehicle on a perfectly level surface. Get the engine up to a specific operating temperature. Move the shifter from "Park," through all the gears, and back again. Repeat. Click your heels three times and chant, "There's no place like Auto Zone, there's no place like Auto Zone, there's no place ..."

It was a terribly involved procedure. And that was just checking a simple fluid level with a dipstick. Imagine if you needed to, say, rebuild a carburetor.

Which I actually tried doing once, on my old 1971 Datsun pickup. Four days and several thousand invectives later, when I finally got the carburetor back together, there were a significant number of small-but-nevertheless-important-looking parts left over on the workbench.

I think I ended up donating that one to one of those cars-for-bodily-organs programs.

And not only are automakers removing the transmission fluid dipsticks, they're beginning to do away with engine-oil dipsticks as well.

All of this points to the fact that I was born 50 years too early. Back in my 20s and 30s, when I had a young family and money was tight, I had to do most of my auto repairs myself.

By "myself," of course, I mean finding a friend, relative or ward member who knew how to work on cars and asking them if they'd help me change a water pump.

And by "help me change a water pump," of course, I mean that I'd go to the auto parts store and buy the pump, and my "helper" would spend his Saturday replacing the water pump while I stood nearby and feigned an interested "Mmmm-hmmm" occasionally as he explained some fascinating feature about the engine compartment.

But now that I'm in my 50s, technology has finally advanced to the point where it's starting to make MY life better. Netbooks and smartphones and iPads and 3-D high-definition televisions? Big deal. But high-tech vehicles that feature onboard computers and factory-sealed engines and require some sort of security clearance from NASA to work on them? Now you're talking.

My wife couldn't possibly expect me to work on our vehicles these days, even if I wanted to. And it's not because I'm less of a man, either. It's because no one outside of an authorized dealer has the tools, training or computer equipment to actually diagnose and fix an ever-expanding number of complex automotive problems.

Indeed, I look forward to the time in the not-too-distant future when you'll need a special $2,500 tool just to open the hood of your car. Ooh, or better yet, maybe they'll just weld the hood shut at the factory, and the only way to do any work on your vehicle -- check the oil, fill the windshield washer fluid reservoir, jump-start a dead battery -- is to have it towed to the dealership.

Who knows? One day we may get to the point where the only thing we can do to an automobile is put gas in it.

And even then, wouldn't it be great if you didn't have to do that? I mean, maybe they could invent some sort of futuristic gas station, where you just pulled up, sat in your car and somebody else pumped your gas for you.

OK, so maybe I was born half a century too late.

Happy Daytona 500! Contact Mark Saal at 801-625-4272 or msaal@standard.net.

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