What is a Tune Up? Does Your Engine Need It?

What is a Tune Up

Demise of the Engine Tune-Up

If you read the paper or watch television you probably see the same ads I do. I saw one today that said “4 cylinder tune-up $49.95”. For auto repair chain stores, advertising tune-ups is very popular. In fact some still have the word tune or tune-up in their name. With that in mind I can see why they would want to keep the term tune-up alive. The truth is the old fashioned tune-up went away in the early 1970’s with the arrival of electronic ignition. Points were no longer used in these vehicles. Consequently ignition timing, points replacement and dwell adjustments were no longer necessary as routine maintenance. Later, in the early 1980’s, computers were introduced for fuel control. This meant that the air/fuel ratio was being controlled electronically as well as timing and dwell. As a result carburetor adjustment as routine maintenance was no longer necessary. Most of the cars on the road today fit into another category that requires even less maintenance. Fuel injected and distributorless. This means that not only are adjustments to timing and fuel control not necessary, they’re not possible! There is no way to adjust timing or fuel mixture even if you wanted to.

So what are these places calling a tune-up? What are the adjustments or fine tuning procedures they are using? Although it is possible to adjust timing and some fuel controls on older carburetor vehicles it isn’t necessary unless it was tampered with in the first place! Not to mention most adjustments made to most computer controlled carburetors require removal and modification of the carburetor. I seriously doubt they are including hours of carburetor modifications in their $49.95 price. Chances are all you will get for your money is a set of new spark plugs and a visual inspection under the hood. Granted this is a valuable and sometimes needed service but why are they calling it a tune-up? Because people are willing to pay $49.95 for a tune-up but are less willing to pay $49.95 for 4 new spark plugs and a sales pitch for additional parts and labor!

What most car owners don’t know is they already have most of the information they need to make an informed decision on their routine maintenance needs. Its all covered in the maintenance section of the owners manual. Usually things like spark plugs, wires, oil changes, filters and belts have a recommended service interval and it is listed there in the book.The only time you need to go beyond the book is if you have a problem with the way the engine performs. When this happens you need a diagnosis. The cost and the diagnostic procedure will vary depending on the symptoms. Just like going to the doctor, you may have to describe the symptoms in detail so the correct tests can be run. Just like an x-ray of your left ankle if you have chest pain may be futile, so could a scanner test on your car’s computer if you have an engine miss. If you don’t describe your symptoms correctly you could end up paying for some unnecessary and costly diagnostic procedures. To aid you in this, most reputable repair facilities ( including ours ) will spend lots of time up front drilling you on your symptoms before any testing or repair work is performed .

Consumer reports had a good article recently on this subject and also had advice on how to choose an auto repair facility. We keep copies in our waiting room for customers to read. Their expose’ on deceptive advertising practices of chain store auto repair operations had some good advice on how not to be taken. Their bottom line advice, based on reader surveys, was to think independent. Independent repair facilities left a vast majority of their readers more satisfied with performance, price and quality.