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Late coolant checkup leads to cooked engine

A driver who skipped the recommended 68,000 km checkup now faces a $6,400 repair bill after her engine overheated.

Published June 4, 2012
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Q: I was on the highway when the “low coolant” light came on. My first instinct was to get to the dealership in case it was serious.

I don’t know much about cars, but reasoned that “low,” like in low fuel, means you still have some left. I was less than a kilometre from the dealership when my car stalled. I was terrified and alone with two small children.

My husband came with his vehicle so we could transport the kids in their car seats to safety. My car started and I drove it to the dealership.

The dealership said that my driving the vehicle was an “outside influence.” They want $6,400 for a used replacement engine. I can’t pay this, and I don’t feel I should have to. I lease vehicles so they are under warranty, safe and reliable.

No one has taken responsibility for why the light came on. Rather, I’ve been told that I should’ve stopped and read my manual when the warning light illuminated. Since I didn’t, my warranty is void. Additionally, they say that if I’d done the recommended — not mandatory — service at 60,000 kms, I would have known my coolant was low. My coolant was checked at an oil change at around 68,000 km, and it was not low.

How do I know it’s not the manufacturer’s problem? Why would the car stall the first time the light came on?

As a driver, any one of us could be doing something to void our warranties without even knowing it. My contract says my responsibility is to maintain the vehicle. I did so the best that I knew how, and (I feel) made the most responsible and practical decision I could at the time.

They keep telling me I should have called a tow truck.

I now have an unusable, fully paid leased vehicle.

A: Don’t shoot the messenger but, frankly, I believe that drivers share the same duty of care as an air pilot, ship captain, or bus driver to have read the owner’s manual and be familiar with emergency procedures prior to operating the vessel and assuming responsibility for the safety of those in your charge.

Any driver, regardless of mechanical aptitude, can perform a basic “walk-around” check. Here, you simply look at the tires (low, bald, uneven tread wear), check all lights and signals, and look underneath the vehicle (for a dangling muffler, for example). Also, check for leaks where you normally park overnight. There are no normal leaks, other than water from the air-con. Report any concerns to your mechanic.

A weekly walk-around check might have spotted a coolant leak before it became a serious issue. Leaks can occur anytime in any part of the cooling system. A leaking water pump will soon fail, and impact damage (e.g. airborne pebbles) can cause an immediate radiator leak.

Driving with insufficient coolant will quickly cause the engine to overheat and seize. Likewise, an underinflated tire due to neglect or a slow leak (eg. nail in it) will eventually overheat and blowout.

Both examples above can either be easily repaired or result in catastrophic damage — all depending on whether or not the driver notices the problem and takes appropriate action.

As for whether an automaker issue caused the initial coolant leak, this may be near impossible to determine from the now, fully-cooked engine with resulting damage throughout.

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