Certain repair jobs are needlessly horrible. They require you to disassemble half the damn car just to get to one specific component. This can be frustrating for the technician and also extremely costly for whoever’s having the work done. My Nissan Versa’s spark plug replacement procedure is an example of such an absurdly difficult task.
Back in the ol’ Chrysler days that I so often allude to, I took a class called “Design for Serviceability.” The course was there to make sure that engineers were setting up the vehicle package in such a way that it allowed for easy wrenching, especially on components that typically require frequent service.
The instructor, a chill manufacturing engineer who looked like a surfer with his long white hair, sat in on “Chunk Team” meetings (these were meetings for each vehicle subsystem. At Chrysler, they were broken up into what was called BICEEPR: Body, interior, chassis, electrical, engine systems (though maybe it was exterior; I don’t remember), powertrain, restraints). The surfer’s job was to make sure 22 year-old fools like me weren’t placing electric water pumps in tight spots inside a wheel well where they couldn’t easily be replaced.
I’m sure some of you are amazed that someone like surfer dude existed at FCA, but he did. Serviceability was absolutely a consideration. Was it that important? No, but if you can get engineers thinking about it early in the design process, then they can theoretically build something that’s both efficiently packaged and easy to mend. As the vehicle development process continues, though, all bets are off. Desperation kicks in, and engineers shove stuff wherever they can. By this point, changes to the vehicle are already so costly and the change process already such a shit-show that serviceability can be damned.
Anyway, I write this now because I’m in the process of fixing a 2009 Nissan Versa — the cheapest new car available in 2009, and the posterchild for Cash For Clunkers (which took place in the summer of that year). My brother and his girlfriend asked me to find them a cheap Japanese car with under 100,000 miles, and given the current car market, this led me to the absolute bargain basement, where I found this small black, stubby-looking sedan:
I find myself in a bit of a pickle with this machine. If it were mine, I’d swap what needs to be replaced and be done with it. But since the car is for someone else who I know will have to take the vehicle to a shop for any and all repairs, I’m obsessively replacing damn near every maintenance item. Water pump? That could go at 97,000, absolutely. Serpentine belt? That’s just smart. Thermostat? Well, I’m replacing the water pump, so why not. Wheel bearings? They’re cheap, and they could absolutely go out anytime now. Tie rod ends and ball joints? One ball joint is toast, so I may as well swap all of this. Transmission oil? Definitely. Brake fluid? I think that should be swapped at 97,000 miles, absolutely. I may as well do the O2 sensor, too, since I have a check engine light indicating it’s a problem, and I can do this reasonably easily.
That brings me to a brief sub-point I’d like to make: I don’t know how much value there is in paying a premium for a 97,000 mile car versus a 150,000 mile car. By 97,000 miles, damn near every maintenance item is at risk of failing. By 150,000, there’s a good chance that many have already been replaced. In retrospect, since I’m doing all of this preventative maintenance anyway, I wish I’d just have bought a higher mileage machine, though I get why my brother and his girlfriend might find comfort in low mileage.
Anyway, the last bit of maintenance I’m doing is the ignition coils and spark plugs, and oh boy you don’t want to know what a pain in the ass that is. On a typical car like, say, any Mazda or Ford equipped with the Mazda MZR motor (called the Ford Duratec) — models include the Ford Escape, Ford Fusion, Mazda 3, Mazda 5, Mazda 6, and on and on — swapping spark plugs takes just a few minutes. The plugs are right at the top of the motor, and held in by a single screw. Undo a connector, loosen the screw, pop off the coil, shove in a spark plug socket on an extension, and boom: plug is out:
On a 2000s GM product with the ubiquitous EcoTec four-cylinder motor, again, swapping plugs couldn’t be easier. One connector, one bolt, one coil to yank off, throw on a deep well on an extension, and crank that sucker out:
But on this Nissan Versa, to get to the spark plugs, you literally have to remove the damn intake manifold. What in the actual hell is this?
Removing the intake manifold is a problem not just because it requires me to unhook intake components and remove a bunch of fasteners but also because I now have to replace the intake seal and hope I can avoid any leaks that would totally throw off the engine’s ability to run smoothly (the engine needs to have a good understanding of how much airflow is getting into the intake in order to create the right fuel/air mixture; a manifold leak would bypass the sensor assessing how much air is getting in through the throttle body, causing a lean condition).
It’s clear to me that engineers did this due to packaging constraints. There wasn’t enough room at the front of the engine (either in this Versa, or in another vehicle that shares the same engine and whose parts Nissan wanted to use across multiple vehicles), and in order to have the intake length needed to maximize efficiency, the top of the motor is where the manifold ended up. Highly unfortunate for me.
As much as I’m not looking forward to this job, I know many of you technicians have had it much, much worse. The North Star V8 found under the hood of Cadillacs a classic technician’s enemy for having its starter in the vee, under the intake manifold. It’s a bear to replace:
Then there’s annoying stuff like the Dodge Journey’s battery, which has to be accessed through the driver’s side wheel liner:
Oh and the Cadillac CTS. Holy crap, do you know how difficult it is to replace a headlight bulb in this car? You either have to remove the front bumper:
Or you have to undo your fuse box or air intake:
I’m going to start swinging some wrenches at this little Nissan. While I do that, please vent in the comments. I’d love to see some egregious examples of poor serviceability.