4×4 Mechanics and Vehicle Repairers
Mechanics and technicians come in many flavors that range from the exceptional, to the good, to the merely competent, to the barely adequate, to the grossly incompetent. As a 4×4-vehicle owner, you will already know that your vehicle has special needs, but if you are considering investing in an off-road vehicle, you need to understand that the problems and issues off-road vehicles are subjected to, require mechanics with exceptional skills to diagnose and repair. The good news is that there are still mechanics that have these skills, and in this article, we will tell you how to find him, but first, you need to decide if you are going to stick with the dealer, or go with an independent mechanic. Here is how to decide the issue-
Dealers vs. 4×4 Specialists
If you are planning to buy a new off-road vehicle, or a vehicle on which a balance of the original manufacturer’s warranty is still valid, you need to ask yourself the following questions-
What will the vehicle be used for?
If you are planning on using the vehicle for the occasional off-road trip to game reserves or other off-road destinations on good roads that do not require any modifications of any kind to the vehicle or its equipment, you are probably better off sticking with the dealer. In these circumstances, the issues of “driver abuse” and/or “use of unauthorized equipment and/or accessories” are very unlikely to arise.
Dealers often use the above excuses to get out of warranty claims, since they are almost never fully compensated by the manufacturer for warranty-related work and they sometimes have to wait for several months to be paid.
If on the other hand, you will be using the vehicle for extended overland safaris, you will almost certainly need to make extensive modifications to the suspensions, fuel tank/fuel system, and other equipment using parts and components that may or not be acceptable to the manufacturer. In some cases, and depending on the modification, the warranty may be limited, while in other cases, the mere mention of some aftermarket equipment and/or accessories will completely void the warranty.
Discuss all proposed modifications with the dealer before you hand over your money, and make sure you understand how the use of unauthorized equipment will affect the vehicle’s warranty.
How important is the manufacturer’s warranty to you?
If you are going to be spending a lot of time in Africa’s hinterland, the manufacturer’s warranty is next to useless to you anyway, since no dealership is going to recover the vehicle from hundreds, or sometimes thousands of kilometers away. In these cases, you may want to purchase third party-insurance that guarantees roadside assistance or recovery of the vehicle should it break down.
If however, you plan on remaining within South Africa’s borders at all times and not to modify your vehicle in any way, it makes good sense to remain with the dealer (if only to maintain your warranty) since there is likely to be a branch in all, or most of the major towns and cities in the country. This brings us to the next issue to consider-
Can the dealership repair my 4×4?
The short answer is that a dealership may not always be able to repair an off-road vehicle, and in fact, many dealers refer these types of vehicles to independent repair shops on a daily basis. There are various very good reasons for this, with the most important being the fact that dealership mechanics are often inexperienced and/or poorly trained, and therefore do not possess the skill to diagnose problems.
This is especially true where new models are involved, since most dealership mechanics almost always only receive a rudimentary introductory course on new models- if they receive any training on a new model at all. This is not the mechanics’ fault, but regardless of whose fault it is, it can take many years before a meaningful number of dealerships have staff that is adequately trained (by the manufacturer) on a new model or before a useable body of technical knowledge and experience is developed across the dealership network.
Add to the above the fact that many dealership mechanics tend to specialize in certain models and can therefore spend an entire career without ever seeing the particular issue that is occurring on your vehicle, and you have a recipe for the general unhappiness of all involved. However, this is not to say that dealership mechanics are always clueless- far from it. In fact, many dealers employ highly skilled master technicians that possess levels of knowledge and skill that border on the magical, but the question is this; does the dealer in your town employ a suitably skilled technician that can weave his magic on your particular vehicle?
Moreover, can you really afford the time it would take to get your issue fixed if your dealer has to refer the vehicle to another dealership where a suitably skilled technician is employed? The fact is that even though manufacturers insist that all dealers always employ suitably trained staff, it is a rare event to find a dealership that employs staff that is adequately trained on, and experienced in, all the products sold in that dealership, which begs the next question-
Can any independent shop repair my 4×4?
The short answer to this is generally yes- provided you use the services of an independent mechanic that specializes in off-road vehicle repair in general, and in your particular make and model of vehicle, in particular.
Unlike dealerships, independent repair shops (and especially specialist independent repair shops) rely on repeat business to stay in business and the best way to obtain repeat business is to establish an excellent reputation for excellent customer service, reasonable prices, and professional after sales service. Moreover, unlike a few decades ago, almost all independent repair shops today have access to the same diagnostic equipment and software, as well as the latest technical information that is available to dealerships.
However, and most importantly, since most specialist off-road vehicle repairers specialize in only one or two vehicle makes, they see more problems that are specific to a specific vehicle (or model) in a month than a dealership does in a year. In practice, this means that almost all specialist repairers already have a body of knowledge of, and experience in, almost any problem that regularly afflicts the vehicles that they specialize in by the time you present your vehicle to him.
Add to this the fact that many, if not most independent off-road repairers are themselves experienced off-road drivers, and therefore there is almost no chance that your chosen specialist repairer has not seen the problem you may have with your vehicle. Nonetheless, while independent mechanical repairers have a lot going for them as a “species”, choosing a mechanic that both falls into the “exceptional” side of the scale, and is right for you and your particular off-road vehicle at the same time, is not as easy as you might have thought.
Fortunately, there are ways and means to do this successfully, and the selection process starts with answering this question-
What makes a great independent 4×4 mechanic?
While the above question might sound like asking how long a piece of string is, the best mechanics have clearly identifiable traits and characteristics that make them stand out from the crowd of lesser beings. Here is what to look for when you are trying to find your 4×4 mechanic-
Look for an off-road vehicle specialist
This is without doubt the most important aspect to consider when you are looking for a mechanic. There is no point in trying to have your 4×4 repaired at a shop where the staff only works on family cars and SUV’s- no matter how skilled these mechanics happen to be. At a bare minimum, you want a mechanic that understands the nature of off-road vehicles, and what it is that makes them do what they were designed to do.
At the same time, you want a mechanic who knows and understands your particular make and model. Again, there is no point in allowing an expert in British-, or American-made off-road vehicles to work on your Japanese-made vehicle if the expert has no experience in, and knowledge of, Japanese vehicles.
Look for a good communicator
The best mechanics are almost invariably great at communicating the problems he finds on a vehicle to the vehicle owner in simple terms. In practice, this means two things; first, it demonstrates that the mechanic understands the vehicle and what caused the problem, and secondly, that you, the owner, knows what it is going to take to resolve the problem, in terms of both money and time.
At this point, a mechanic that is good at communication will also provide you with a written quotation that clearly describes the problem, but also the parts, components, and the costs involved in resolving the problem. Any mechanic who refuses to provide this information is a dishonest mechanic, so walk away, and continue to look for an honest mechanic elsewhere.
Look for qualifications- the more, the better
Some mechanics are great talkers, and while most talkers will gladly give you a written quotation, what you need to see are qualifications as well- and not just a basic trade qualification either. While a basic trade qualification is not a bad thing to have, the fact is that modern off-road vehicles have developed way past the point where a basic qualification is sufficient to maintain/repair such a vehicle.
At a bare minimum, your prospective mechanic should hold recent qualifications in both common rail and multi-point fuel injection systems, as well as in automotive electronics/diagnostics, 4WD systems, and if possible, in lubrication technology.
While all experienced off-road drivers know that the most reliable off-road vehicle is one with no electronics, such vehicles are becoming increasingly difficult to find. In fact, almost all driver assist and safety systems on modern off-road vehicles are electronically controlled and diagnosing/repairing faults in these systems reliably and definitively very often requires dealer-grade diagnostic equipment, and a technician that knows how to use this equipment to best effect.
Look for equipment
Being a mechanic is not easy, and therefore, no expert mechanic will make his job more difficult for himself than it needs to be. Thus, a decent mechanic will have all the equipment required to handle heavy 4×4 vehicles safely and easily.
A properly equipped workshop will have more than one four-post vehicle lift/hoist, several heavy-duty floor jacks; many jack stands that are rated at five tons and above, as well as a proper wash bay that has a high-pressure washer. The point is that the equipment listed here are essential to be able to work on your vehicle safely- thus, a workshop that does not have this basic equipment is very likely to skip or overlook important inspections and/or repairs simply because they cannot gain easy access to all parts of your vehicle.
Look for evidence of good house keeping
While it is normal to see 4×4 vehicles in various states of disrepair and/or disassembly in any specialist repair shop, it is important that there be no vehicles that have obviously been in a state of disassembly for months.
Vehicles that have obviously not been worked on for weeks and months mean two things: first, the mechanic, or shop owner is not good at managing either his customers or his workflow (or both), and second, that there is a more than even chance that your vehicle will end up in the same way. A sloppy workshop is sure sign of a sloppy mechanic that delivers shoddy work, so there is no reason to believe that you will have a positive experience in such a shop.
Look for a valid RMI registration certificate
While membership of the RMI (Retail Motor Industry Organisation) is not compulsory for South African vehicle repairers, there are nevertheless many excellent reasons why you should only deal with service providers that are registered with the RMI.
Some of the basic requirements for RMI registration and membership include prescribed equipment the shop must always have on hand, as well as minimum levels of training of the staff in such a shop must have. Moreover, all registered RMI members are subject to a strict code of conduct, but perhaps the best part of this is that if you, the vehicle owner, is not happy with the service or repairs performed by a member you can initiate a dispute against the member- at no cost to you. Moreover, all service providers in South Africa are obliged to register with the Motor Industry Ombudsman of SA (MIOSA), regardless of RMI membership status.
In practice, this means that if your dispute with an independent mechanic is bogged down, you also have protection from the Consumer Protection Act No. 68 of 2008, by virtue of the fact that the Ombudsman is a statutory body that oversees the RMI. Thus, by using the services of a non-MRI registered service provider, you lose a layer of protection against bad service, overcharging, and shoddy workmanship, which you must admit, is not a good thing.
In addition to the above, independent operators who hold a franchise from most of the large chains are almost always required to maintain a valid RMI membership at all times as a material condition of their franchise agreements, agreements which incidentally, also prohibit a franchisee from employing unqualified mechanics.
Having said all of the above, there is yet one more issue to consider, which is-
Why you should use a diesel specialist
If you are a hard-core off-road enthusiast you will almost certainly own a diesel-powered vehicle, and also know that diesel engines are subject to problems and issues that do not occur on petrol engines. If however, you are new to off-roading and considering your options, you should know that even if any given mechanic is an expert on petrol engines, his expertise does not qualify him in any way to diagnose and fix most problems on diesel engines.
For instance, while diesel and petrol injection systems have much in common, how well a modern diesel engine functions depends on more than just having the diesel fuel ignite under compression in the combustion chamber.
A case in point is the ideal air/diesel fuel mixture that makes modern diesel engines run. Twenty years ago, the ideal air/fuel mixture was as high as 17 : 1 (17 parts of air to one part of diesel): today, a diesel engine can run, and outperform some petrol engines with one part of fuel to as many as 40 to 60 (and even more) parts of air under cruising conditions. Considering the fact that this minute quantity of diesel fuel can only be ignited with the heat of compression, it should become clear that a modern diesel engine has to be in perfect condition for it to work at all.
However, there are many other factors at play, including how well the emission control and fuel management systems work together, with special emphasis on EGR (Exhaust Gas Recirculation) which affects diesel engines differently than it does a petrol engine. Diesel emission control is also vastly different from the systems in use on petrol engines, and failures of the emission control system on diesels are a common cause of poor performance, excessive fuel consumption, and breakdowns on diesel vehicles.
A full treatise on the differences between diesel and petrol engines fall outside the scope of this article, but given the above examples, would you now consider allowing a mechanic that does not know his way around a diesel engine to work on your off-road vehicle? We certainly hope not, but we also hope that the information in this guide has helped you to make the right choice in choosing a mechanic that is right for you, and the vehicle you depend on to keep you safely mobile while you are exploring the hinterland of Southern Africa.