Flawed Fleet

At home with the Robinson family garage.

Robinson fleet with the C6 hogging the limelight like the diva she is. Image: the author

It’s been a while since I contributed anything to DTW other than a few comments pegged onto others’ well-researched and insightful offerings. A rather thorny operational issue at the company I work for has meant that I’ve been somewhat distracted, but I would like to keep my hand in, so I offer some musings on our family’s current ‘garage’ of cars, all of which have previously featured in one form or other on these pages.

In our household, the hard work is done by our diesel (sorry) Škoda Octavia estate, the running around town and learning is the preserve of the FIAT 500 and the twice weekly, 90-mile round-trip schlep to the office is usually the domain of the Citroën C6. The Škoda is now over five years old, the FIAT is over six, and Citroën has been registered for almost thirteen years (although it was built fourteen years ago, according to records).

You might be surprised toknow that the prize for the most reliable / least bother between them has thus far been … the FIAT. Exogenously sourced damage aside, faults have been a dodgy control panel bulb, a dodgy interior lamp and failing air-conditioning (we’ll come back to that). It is having a service and MOT today and I was a bit surprised to be told that the service would include the recommended replacement of the timing belt and water-pump (for £650+VAT at at a local dealership).

FIAT’s 1.2L FIRE engine, requiring new water-pump and timing belt after six years and 35k miles, Really? Image: Car Magazine

At least, it would have been a surprise had it not been for the fact that a few weeks earlier the brainless service human at the Skoda dealer had given me a similar warning. Brainless because I was just collecting the Octavia from a warning-message prompted ‘oil-service’ at 58,000 miles when he decided to inform me that the Octavia was due the replacement of the cam-belt and water-pump at 60,000 miles (costing £750+VAT). Why did he not think to tell me when I first called to book the car in for the oil service and save me a second trip?

Back to the plot. Is it that modern day cars (the FIAT has a 1.2-litre FIRE petrol engine) can only be relied on to survive between five and six years on a single belt and water-pump? This is (expensive) news to me. Heavens, that makes the 110,000-mile life of the same items on the C6 look positively hardy (and cheap) – a first for the blessed Citroën.

Speaking of the giant leaky piggy-bank on wheels, it’s been working OK recently, at least since I had the power steering repaired for a second time (corroded pipe –  a different one to last time). I had a recurrence of the temporary turbo cut-out the other day (fixed by ‘re-booting’ the engine). The air-con has gone AWOL (patience, please) and there’s a gremlin in the window / door mirror switch panel, which seems to be exacerbated when it’s hot. Oh, and the passenger-side windscreen wiper also only works intermittently.

Gremlins in the switch – intermittent working means opening windows is a lottery. Image: the author

Otherwise, it works, and fuel economy has improved a little over the last eight months / 6,000 miles with an average of 38.8 mpg (up from 36.7). Thanks to Mr Putin, it currently costs over £130 for a full refuel of diesel. I am expecting the next visit to BL Autos to involve new front pads and discs (the latter are corroding), an effective bodge-it job to fix the window / door switch panel (maybe solved with parts from their latest resident salvage-car), similar for the window wiper unit, and further repair to the air-con unit should the re-gas planned for next week prove only a short-term fix.

Thank you for being patient. As well as puny cam-belts and water-pumps, what gives these days with air-con on cars? By the middle of next week, all three of ours will have had a new dose of gas in order to restore the necessary chill-factor (during another record heat-wave).

I can’t recall having to do this so often (it was the FIAT’s second re-gas) with the five previous cars we have had with air-con (two Subarus, one Toyota, a Scenic and a Xsara Picasso). Have manufacturers had to switch to a more environmentally friendly gas which is more corrosive to systems or does it just evaporate faster? We need to know!

C6’s aircon has gone AWOL – note early example of having to be activated via a menu! Image: the author

The Škoda has previously been reported here as having suffered from a failed alternator at just three years and four months old. A few weeks ago, at the end of a week’s holiday in Devon, we had a rear coil spring crack (TWANG!) and break. Fortunately, it only lost about 2cm from the bottom of the coil, which was still safely contained in the cup that attaches it to the rest of the rear suspension, so could be driven home. But, once back home, it required replacement of both rear springs at a cost of around £280+VAT all-in.

We have had this happen on a previous car (the Scenic), again whilst on holiday, but it’s not what one would expect from a VW Group motor. That said, an AA employee acquaintance of mine tells me that it’s a common fault on BMWs. This is a shame (not about BMWs) as it has shaken family confidence a bit in the robustness of the otherwise much-liked and admired Octavia estate. The Škoda really is an excellent workhorse in normal use. On a recent trip to Norfolk and back, a 240-mile round trip, it returned an indicated 72.8 mpg, even though there was much use of the (freshly re-gassed) air-con.

Due to the lack of chill-factor in the Citroën, exacerbated by the aforementioned intermittent inability to open the front windows, I took the Octavia to the office on a recent hot day. I really appreciated the consistency of feel with everything from the weighting of the steering, gear change, throttle and brakes, to the handling and ride balance on what is a very simple suspension system. Only road-noise and occasional engine clatter spoil the effect.

The dashboard is a model of clarity and ease of use. Indeed, it’s miles better than that in the new-model Octavia, which has adopted the VW Group’s swanky-but-s#!t screen and touch-slider disaster-zone, experienced via a loan-car whilst the cam-belt / water pump work was being done (or was it while the rear coils were replaced? It all blurs into one these days). I’ll go further and say I much prefer our car’s looks to the latest model, which has tried to go ‘emotional’ and so lost some of what makes a Škoda look ‘Simply Clever’ (IMHO).

Which do you prefer – this third-gen Octavia dashboard… Image: Autocar
… or this new generation car with its cleaner (no HVAC knobs) look? Image: heycar

Going back to the trusty FIAT, it seems to benefit from being a relatively simple design that has been honed over many years into a decently engineered and built car. Its ride is quite poor and the steering becomes vague and slow to respond around the straight-ahead as speed picks up. It’s at its best in what one expects is its intended environment, around town. Here, the small footprint and low gearing allow it to zip around and be easy to park. Over the shoulder visibility is not great though, with wide rear pillars, tiny rear side windows and large headrests (unless, of course, occupants can be convinced to lower them after use).

Anyway, enough of my banal ramblings. I’ve just heard the FIAT passed its MOT and there was nothing beyond the anticipated service items which needed attention. The dealership is one of those multi-brand affairs encompassing Jeep, FIAT, Abarth, Alfa, Mitsubishi (still!) and MG(?!) I’ll have a nose around the showroom before picking up the cinquecento, especially at the GTAm Giulia which I spotted on a display podium earlier this morning – rather gorgeous.

Author: S.V. Robinson

Life long interest in cars and the industry

19 thoughts on “Flawed Fleet”

  1. Good morning, S.V. Thanks for your update on the three car garage. I think I’m glad I only have one car to take care off. It only left me stranded once, with a broken waterpump, which is a common fault on my N52B25. It happened within walking distance of the BMW dealership where I bought it.

    I use public transport to go to work these days, but on some occasions, like the really hot days that are coming by the end of the week I go by car. I prefer the air-conditioning in the car and our railway system is not capable of handling the heat too well.

    The thoughtless Skoda person reminds me of a small mishap we had with my moms Golf IV. The switch for adjusting the mirrors broke off and we notified the dealer. He told us to come by. Our family was used to the excellent service we got at the BMW dealership. If they tell you to come by, they fix the problem. But here the serviceman at VW managed to inform us that the switch had broken off. We just told him that on the phone… The car was still under warranty, but we left the dealership for service and maintenance elsewhere.

  2. Hello, in my experience vw and associated makes are not reliable. I have had a number of Audis and a Golf. All of them were disappointing in this regard. Also Honest Johns column in the Saturday Telegraph used to be littered with people writing in with their problems with vw cars seemingly far more than other makes. Just my experience of course.

  3. Hi S.V. In answer to your question on the two Skoda dashboards, whilst I agree with you, that the older looks better than the newer, frankly I don’t like either one. All I see is the acres of black plastic that are sadly so ubiquitous in cars these days. I think I’ll stick with my 2004 Jaguar XJ6 3.0L V6 petrol, with its walnut & leather. Fuel consumption might not be as good as yours, though it’s the best I’ve ever had, and not at all bad for a big heavy petrol car, with about 24mpg round town, 29mpg rural, and 32mpg on the motorway. Oh, and the air con still works, at 18 years old! Also no need for cam belts, as it uses chains. From what you’ve said, my maintenance & repair bills seem to have been cheaper too – not bad for a £40,000 car.

    1. I’m not sure a modern classic XJ6 is a fair fight against a Skoda Octavia estate, especially on comparing interiors. I think a fairer comparison would be between the C6 and the XJ6, but even then I suspect not really as the Citroën’s interior only really competes on quality of door pockets. Nice to know someone is still investigating effort in maintaining and using such a car.

  4. I don’t mean this in a derogatory way, but frankly, all this sounds like I would expect from the cars you own: a lot of expensive niggles on the Citroën, but overall a car that performs its essential function: driving; as you mention, the Fiat is on a – let’s say – ‘experienced’ platform and relatively simple, making any fault relatively easy to fix; the Skoda is hampered by VAG’s shifting of priorities from somewhat staid dependability, through chasing volume to marketing led that makes for superficially convincing cars that ultimately disappoint with their reliability (or their customer service because your experience sounds like the dealership is run from spreadsheets). Skoda, I think, would be expected to hold out longest against that, but as the newest interior shows, it ultimately has to follow the company policies (and parts bins). Increasingly so since the days of the Yeti.

    All that’s a bit esoteric, though. You might well be hitting the nail on the head about aircons using different fluids these days. It may also be that what I assume are increasingly packed engine bays (certainly the Fiat) compromise the placement of the aircon components, making them more vulnerable. That, at least, seems to be a vulnerability of my 2008 Honda Civic, whose aircon also doesn’t work.

  5. Water pumps tend to be located behind the cam-belt, so it makes sense to change it while the belt is off. My understanding is that Fiat use plastic tensioners on their cam belts, which are only safe for 30K.

  6. Good morning S.V. and thanks for the update on your fleet. I’m not surprised that your 500 is generally proving to be a robust and reliable car as I haven’t heard much criticism of them, other than in respect of the twin-air engine, which is nothing as economical in real world use as the official figures indicate.

    I absolutely agree that the latest Octavia dashboard is a retrograde step in ergonomic terms and I hate the affectation of those ‘floating’ touchscreens, which always look like an afterthought. Likewise, the front-end treatment is a bit too fussy for my taste. Whatever happened to ‘Simply Clever?

    Good to see you’re persevering with the French ‘grande dame’ even if she is occasionally rather capricious and demanding!

  7. Where I live (Andalucia, Spain) a broken a/c is very bad news, as it makes the car useless. When my first car (Audi 100 C4) climate control went on strike in the heatwave of 2003, the workshop gave me an estimate of about €1000 for a compressor replacement. Being not too affluent at the time (like now), I said no. After a couple of days driving my non-a/c Audi completely soaked in sweat, I went back to the workshop and I begged to pay whatever proved neccesary to get the #%&@ a/c working again.

    A couple of months ago I bought a Merc W124 320 E and the first thing I asked by phone to the seller was “does the a/c work?”.

  8. Hello S.V. – it’s nice to get an update. Re the cam-belt and pump, yes, that is normal. The belt’s deterioration is time, not mileage dependent and I think you’ve done quite well. Many manufacturers recommend replacing the pump at the same time, for safety’s sake.

    It annoys me when dealers say ‘Oh, and you’ll need more tyres in 1,000 miles time’. That said, some people want to eke the last ounce of wear out of some components and would accuse the garage of ‘up-sell’ if they offered to do the work there and then. The sensible approach, though, must surely be to give the customer the choice.

    You can put things like spring failure down to the state of our roads, I guess. As for the aircons needing to be re-gassed, all I can suggest is that you run them regularly to keep the seals in good shape. That way, they should lose less refrigerant. I don’t think I would own a car without aircon, these days. The last one I had without it was a Vauxhall Astra F, in the mid-nineties, and after a hot summer, I vowed ‘never again’.

    Re the dashboards, I much prefer the older one – it looks better organized and more solid, somehow.

  9. For global warming reasons, AC refrigerant changed from R134a to R1234YF – as of 1st January 2017 in the EU according to the article below. As it was ‘kwik’ to find, by comparison Kwik-Fit charges £60 to recharge systems with the older gas, and £130 for the newer system.

    Surely the window switch is a common PSA part? The housing may (?) be C6-specific but I would expect the underlying elctronics to be shared with a large variety of vehicles.

    +VAT pricing is a bugbear, not just of car dealerships: just display the actual price, please!

    1. On the window switch, I hope you are right – I just know that certain items are bespoke and so can already be hard to source. We’ll soon see as the car will be going to BL Autos in a few week’s time.

  10. I hail from a location on the mid-Atlantic coast of the USA, where working Air-Con isn’t a luxury, it’s a must-have. Around 6 months of each year our area is similar to equatorial Africa. It gets so bad here that prior to most commercial and residential buildings being air conditioned, the British Government provided a “tropical” increase in pay to those stationed in Washington DC.

    Many antique cars I have owned, built from the 1950s and ’60s all have A/C. Most of them selected because they DID have factory equipped A/C, like the 1953 & ’55 Packards, 1955 Cadillac 60s, 1959 Ford Galaxie Skyliner [retractable hardtop], 1963 Studebaker GT Hawk, even my 1961 Vanden Plas Austin Princess limousine, one of only 3 equipped with high-output dual A/C because it was built for use in this area.

    The 2 Packards, the Cadillac & retract all still have the original R-12 freon in the car, thank goodness for that because a single 1# can is over $100 here, and those with the boot mounted units hold over 5# of Freon. Once the A/C looses it’s charge, it will be necessary to change over to the R-134A type of refrigerant, and that is a huge cost.

    And that brings me to the main reason for my comment. When the USA made R-134A the standard, the government also required techs to be certified in A/C systems, and as I was they guy running the shop, I also felt it was important that I be certified. The course teacher explained that it was his belief the change would make A/C systems more likely to leak down over time. As someone who operated an antique car repair & restoration facility until retiring in 2001, I am familiar with most A/C systems because many of my customers, also living in a tropical climate half the year, value that A/C immensely. Besides R-134A being better for the environment, there is another big difference between it and R-12. Or should I say it’s a small difference, because the actual gas molecule is much smaller compared to R-12.

    This means every possible place the refrigerant gas can escape must be designed and manufactured to far tighter tolerances. Combined with the need to assemble modern vehicles faster, with A/C gas connections often reduced to a single bolt to hold both the intake & output lines on the compressor as well as the firewall connection, and instead of depending on wide gaskets and large seals, modern A/C connections depend on small “O” rings that often fail early due to huge temperature changes while under pressure.

    This also affects other A/C parts like the flexible hoses to/from the compressor. As the hoses deteriorate over age, the gas begins slipping thru microscopic cracks & voids. As the pressurized seal on the front rotating shaft of the compressor begins to wear, it becomes harder to keep the gas trapped inside. I’ve seen evidence of gas leaks in these areas, yet when a vacuum pump is used to check if there is a leak, the leak is so small that it won’t quickly show up as a change in vacuum.

    My 2008 Toyota Camry has finally begun leaking R-134A gas, and the leak detector indicates it’s not just the O-rings at the compressor , but evidence of small pinholes on the 2 lines, so I’ve purchased both lines and will be installing them very soon. I should have gone ahead and done this earlier, as the car is approaching 300,000 miles. My 2001 Dodge 1-ton truck has only 85,000 miles, but the A/C stopped working at about 60,000 miles. Since I rarely use it, I’m just not going to use the truck when it’s really hot outside.

    1. Thanks Bill for this comprehensive insight based on your extensive experience. I feel I have learned a few things today, unexpectedly, just from posting this piece based on my own experiences. Thanks again

    2. I’m sure the C6 is using R134a but the Fiat will have R1234yf which is a completely different number altogether. Not only will it produce hydrofluoric acid once it burns (and it’s inflammable) but all components have to be designed to cope with the aggressive fluorine content of it, it’s expensive (that’s why DuPont lobbied the EU to make it the only legal refrigerant today) and it’s a pain in a sensitive part of the body to work with.

  11. Well, running a car can be expensive – about a tenner a week, according to the BBC, in 1970. That’s about £110, now, which seems about right.

  12. Hello SV and many thanks for sharing your fleet experiences. A really interesting and informative article. I have only one question. Why three cars when it appears that two would do? Is it because you are so fond of the Citroen?

    1. Hi, yes there is a whole separate history to the C6 which is well documented in a series of 4 articles I wrote at the start of last year (‘The Definition of Obsession? 10 years with a C6’) which you can find by using the search function on this site. Basically it was on the verge of replacement when my wonderful family intervened and convinced me to keep it – which has to be the most decadent thing I’ve ever done. Anyway, it’s treated as a bit of a modern classic. Thanks for asking.

  13. My favourite (if that’s the word) power window switch block anecdote concerns the one which opened and closed windows at random as I went around corners. The reason was that the switch had been flooded by an overly enthusiastic car valet, and had liquid slopping around in it. When it dried out, of course, it was completely dead, so a replacement beckoned…

    1. Michael, Ever seen a 1960s Lincoln Continental electric window switch? Each one is a separate 5 sided plastic box about 1 inch to a side, the top of the box is open, and the contacts and wire plug are on the bottom of the box. An upright chrome rocker assembly is inserted into the open top, with a pivot rod pressed in from one side to the other. Moving the chrome lever forward makes the window raise, backward and the window lowers. The entire top area is covered by a very thin black rubber cover, with the chrome lever extending up thru a hole in the center.

      These were designed without a drain hole. The switches were installed FACE-UP in the door armrests, directly below the window openings. After only a few years the rubber covers began cracking. I’ve even seen NOS window switches inside their Lincoln spares boxes, and the rubber covers have cracked.

      And of course like many 1960s drop-top cars, the seals around the side windows often leaked, and of course sometimes the owners left the windows open when it rained, or [god forbid] left the convertible top stowed back in the rear where it was protected by the boot lid, while the power window switches slowly filled up with water. Many times I would take a small rod and pull the rubber off to the side, only to see the entire switch filled with water.

      I used to specialize in the top repairs and adjustments of the 1961-67 Lincoln 4-door convertible top mechanisms, and each time a car came in for work, I would tell the car’s owner about the need to drill several little drain holes in all the window switches, cleaning the contacts, and I used a more flexible neoprene cover I glued into place. If the car had power vent windows, there were 11 switches to rebuild.

      While the Thunderbird used the same basic type of switch, they were located in the center console, and at least for the hardtop bodies, those switches were usually dry.

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