Not To Be Trusted With Knives

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Stuff I Learned This Year: Car Part Edition

Much like the Plumbing Edition of Stuff I Learned This Year, this is a lesson I’d have been happy not having learned. It all started on my drive home from work on Friday – I was slowing down for a red light on Stewardson Way and my car jerked (sort of like it would if you were driving a manual transmission car and accidentally put it in the wrong gear) twice, and then as I stopped at the red light, it died. Like, it would not start. And I was on a busy road during rush hour! I put on my four-way flashers and called BCAA to get some emergency roadside assistance. Pretty soon, a couple of women came up to my car and asked if I need some help: “We can push your car around the corner and into this parking lot”. A guy from the business whose parking lot they were referring to, Kirmac Collision1, also came out to help push. Since I drive a Smart car, they were very amused at how light it was to push! I was so thankful that they took the time to stop and help me – no one wants to be the car that they talk about on the traffic report: “A stall on Stewardson Way is blocking the right lane, so there’s only one lane getting through eastbound and everyone just wants to be home already!”

The BCAA tow truck driver showed up in about 20 minutes, which is exactly the time the BCAA dispatcher had estimated (and was more than enough time for me to take over the Pokemon Gym that was there), and he was super nice. Here was where I learned the first thing of this adventure: the location of the battery in my car! Now, lots of things in Smart cars are not where they are in other cars – the engine is in the back and the ignition is in between the driver’s seat and the passenger seat, near the gear shifter, for example. Well, it turns out that the battery is located under the foot well on the passenger side! Also there was the tow hook for the car! I’ve never needed to check my battery before – it’s never been a problem. And the only other time I had it towed was when I had a flat tire and that time it was still under warranty, so I had Smart Car roadside assistance still, and they just took care of it. I knew the battery was working, as I could still roll up my windows and the radio was still working, but the tow truck guy tested it, and decided that I would indeed have to get it towed somewhere, because whatever was making the car not start wasn’t something he could diagnosis on the spot.

Now, I’ve never had any trouble with my car before and I’d only ever taken it to the dealership for its regular maintenance (while it was under warranty I had to take it there or else the warranty would be void and once the warranty was up, I just kept going there out of habit/being too lazy to find an alternative). Smart cars are sold at Mercedes dealerships, so you know that there is going to be a bit of a premium on their prices. But I really wasn’t prepared for how bad it would be!

First, when I called the dealership to say I was going to have my car towed there, they said it was no problem even though they would be closed for the night, the driver could just drop off the car and put the keys in an envelope with my name and number on it through the drop spot they have for just such occasions. However, the next day when the service guy contacted me, he was all “We have 68 cars with appointments ahead of you, so we can’t even look at it until Monday and I won’t do anything until you approve the $200 minimum fee to diagnosis it. Plus it is due for a major service appointment (replace spark plugs, belts, oil, etc.) and that costs $970. So with have halted everything until you approve the fees”. My first thought is “why is he making a big deal that other cars have appointments. My car died with no warning. Sorry I didn’t make an appointment for that!” And my second thought was “why would I approve $1000 of maintenance if I don’t know what is wrong the car? What if it isn’t even fixable and they just do all that maintenance on a car I’m going to throw away?” So I said I’d pay the $200 diagnostic fee, but not approve the maintenance before I knew what was wrong with the car.

IMG_4775On Monday, they contacted me with a diagnosis – the clutch actuator motor had died – and an estimate – $900 for the part, $800 for labour (including the $200 diagnosis fee). So in total they wanted $2700 + tax to fix my car, which is 8 years old and only worth about $4000 (if it weren’t broken!). So this made me an unhappy camper because I have a lot of more exciting things that I would want to spend $2700 + tax on, such as anything else. I would rather spend that much on pretty much anything else. Also, they would have to order the part of Toronto and it wouldn’t arrive until Friday, and that’s only if they placed the order that day (i.e., trying to pressure me to make a quick decision!).

So this is the major car part thing that I learned: what the heck is a clutch actuator motor? I knew what a clutch was from my years of driving manual transmission. When you drive manual, you step on a clutch pedal, which allows you to shift gears (or to start the car moving from a stationary position) – basically, stepping on the clutch pedal disconnects the running engine from the turning of the wheels so that you can shift gears; then you release the clutch pedal, which allows the engine to continue turning the wheels with the car in the new gear you’ve just selected2. However, Smart cars don’t have manual transmissions – they have something called a Tiptronic – with this type of transmission, you can shift the gears yourself, but you don’t need to step on a clutch pedal and if you fail to shift correctly, the car will just shift it for you so that the car doesn’t stall. In the photo above, you see that there is Park, Reverse, Neutral, and Drive, which in an automatic car and you can just drive your Smart as an automatic using those. If you want to do the shifting yourself, when in Drive, you push the stick over to the left (where the + and – are) and then you push up (towards +) and release to shift up or down (towards -) and release to shift down. I did this when I first got my car, but it just wasn’t as satisfying as driving a real manual, so I’ve driven it as an automatic after about the first month of owning. Anyway, the clutch actuator is a part that basically takes the place of the clutch pedal that you would step on to change gears in a manual transmission car. So, the fact that the clutch actuator died and was making my car not work was like insult to injury –  it’s a part that my car has because of a feature I don’t even use!

Anyway, I called a friend of mine who is into cars for advice and he said, “They are likely charging you a Mercedes tax. I know this other shop run by a good guy – they know their stuff and they are straightforward and charge fair prices.” So we contacted them and they gave me an estimate for all the same work (replace the clutch actuator and do the full maintenance service): $1200 + tax! So basically Mercedes was trying to fleece me out of $1500! So I called them back and said I would not be having them do anything more with my car – I would pay their $200 diagnosis fee and then have a tow truck come to take it away. He said it would take some time to put my car back together and he’d call me when it was ready. And then he called me back shortly after, said he’d talked to his manager, and since I’ve been such a good customer, they wanted to know what I was planning to do with the car3. I said that I was taking it somewhere else to get it fixed, where they are charging me a reasonable price and where they can get the part tomorrow, not Friday. He asked what the other place was going to charge me and when I told him, the guy says that because I’ve such a good customer4, they can match the price for replacing the clutch actuator ($1000 for parts & labour, instead of $1700), but he didn’t believe that the quote of $200 for maintenance (vs. Mercedes charging $970) could be right. “Are you sure it’s a full maintenance, with spark plugs and belts and everything? Are you sure it’s not just an oil change?” And I was sure, because I’d sent the shop the list of what was included in the list of things for maintenance. But he was all “nope, we can’t drop the price on that”5. And then he also dropped in that “We’ve found the part locally, so we can have it by today instead of 5 days from now”. At this point, I was just pissed off, and I said, “Well, if you can drop the price of replacing the clutch actuator almost in half, just like that, now I just feel like you were trying to fleece me! And that’s a very interesting coincidence that all of a sudden you found the part locally, once I told you that I taking it to another shop! I’m taking my car – please tell me when you have it reassembled so I can tell my tow truck driver it’s ready.”6

So that was Monday. They didn’t have my car reassembled until the next morning, but I got a tow truck to take it to Deckers Auto in Burnaby, who had the car fixed and all the maintenance done in about 24 hours, and the cost was right on what they’d estimated! And to put a cherry on top, when I got there, the guy was super friendly and helpful, he showed me the parts that had been replaced and explained what was wrong with them, and basically treated me like I was a person capable of understanding information about cars (which many mechanics do not do when they speak to women.). He also told me that my car is in great shape, so I shouldn’t have to worry about it for quite some time! I was just so pleased with their service and I will be definitely going back to them for all my maintenance from now on. If you are ever looking for a great auto shop, I highly recommend them!

Reflecting back, I have a lot of people to thank for helping me out in this situation:

  • the two lovely women who stopped to help me out when I was stalled in traffic, along with the lovely gentleman from Kirmac who helped them push my car. Also, the other nice guy from Kirmac who came out while I was waiting for my tow truck to make sure I was OK
  • the friendly and professional BCAA driver who came for emergency roadside assistance
  • my friend Tig who gave me a ride to our hockey game that night!
  • my friend Randy who recommended Deckers Auto and who talked with me through my options
  • the amazing mechanics at Deckers Auto who treated me fairly and professionally and who charged me a fair price for the work they did
  • my Dad, for teaching me about how cars work
  • my sister, for pointing out that my Dad’s legacy lives on through our tendency to call people out on their bullshit

Here’s a video of how a manual transmission works, in case you are interested:

Image Credits:

  • Cross section of Smart car showing engine location is from Wikimedia Commons shared with a Creative Commons license.
  • Gear shifter in my Smart car photo was taken by me!


  1. Those of you from New West may be noting that Kirmac just so happens to be right next to New West’s craft brewery, Steel & Oak. And if I didn’t have a hockey game to play later that evening, I definitely would have meandered into S&O’s tasting room for a pint after the tow truck took my car away! []
  2. Here’s a simple explanation, if you are interested: []
  3. At this point, I was assuming he was going to try to sell me a Merc. []
  4. Interesting that they didn’t seem to care that I’d been such a good customer until I was threatening to leave! []
  5. Of course, he couldn’t drop the price on that because then if I came back for my next service appointment, they wouldn’t be able to charge me the hundreds of extra dollars anymore! []
  6. I was telling my sister this story and said that I wished Dad was here to help me deal with this car stuff – he is the one who taught me all the things I know about cars – and she said “It seems like he is. What you said to them was such a Dad thing to say!” I guess the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree! []


The Car Co-op

modo. the car co-op.And while I’m phoning in blog postings, I decided to tackle item #86 on my 101 list, which was to write a blog posting about the Car Co-op. Which, you know, made sense as something to do 995 days ago when I didn’t own a car and the Car Co-op was my ticket to ride. And if I hadn’t been so lazy, I could have written this posting back then, or shortly after I bought my car while my Car Co-op’ing experience was still fresh. But I didn’t. However, in the interest of knocking one more item off my list, and since Krista Lee’s recent comment reminded my that I can totally half-ass this blog posting, I’m writing it now.

For the uninitiated, the Car Co-op, officially known as Modo, is a car sharing organization. Basically, everyone who is a member is technically a part-owner of a few thousand cars, trucks, and vans that are parked all around Vancouver. When you want to use one of the vehicles, you book it, you use it and you return it to the place from whence you picked it up. You pay a usage fee – some combination of hours used and kilometres driven. The amounts have changed since I used it regularly, but you can go look at the rates on their website if you are interested1. It’s super convenient because someone else deals with insurance, maintenance, and all the other annoying things that go along with having a car. All you have to do is drive it and leave it in the condition you found it in.

Back when I lived just a quick bus ride from work (and didn’t have to drive all over hell’s half acre for my job), the Car Co-op was perfect for me. I really only need a car to get to hockey game and for the occasional hiking trip, so it was soooo much cheaper and more convenient to use a co-op car than to own a car. And even since I bought my car, which I needed for my job, I’ve kept my Car Co-op membership because it’s handy to have such ready access to a truck or a van if I need to move something big. Or even just to have access to a car with more than two seats in it! It only costs me $1 per year for my membership, which is totally worth it.

So there you have it – #86 on my 101 list, consider yourself checked off!

Image Credit: Posted by Christian Paul on Flickr.

  1. Also, since I last used it, they seem to have added a casual membership, where you don’t hold shares in the Co-op but you can use the cars under a different rate structure. []


I Drive A Lot. And A Review of Fuelly.

I took my beloved Zaphod Beeblebrox the Car in for its 45,000 km service appointment this week, so I figured it was as good a time as any to write an update about my beloved car. Also, it gives me a chance to tell all y’all about the new fun website I’ve been using to track my gas usage (spoiler: it makes graphs!)

Ever since I got my car, I’ve been tracking my mileage. To do this, I’ve been using a handy dandy spreadsheet1. And because of this, I can easily tell you that in the 2 years and 2 months that I’ve owned my car, I have:

  • driven 45,609 km2 – that’s an average of 57 km per day!
  • used 2,839L of gas
  • spent $3,656 in gas and about $1,300 in other car maintenance-related expenses3

But I was recently introduced to Fuelly 4, a website that tracks your mileage for you… and gives you pretty graphs and infographics! Being a graph-loving nerd, I naturally had to try it out. Fortunately, Fuelly lets you import data so I could just import the data I’d been tracking on my handy dandy spreadsheet and viola – graphs!

fuelly 1

fuelly 2

fuelly 3

fuelly 4

Aren’t they pretty?

If you are interested in my ongoing tracking of Zaphod’s mileage – and who wouldn’t be, really? – you can “follow” me on Fuelly.

  1. Spreadsheets. Is there anything they can’t do? []
  2. For my American readers, that’s 28,340 miles []
  3. e.g., regular service appointments, deductible for replacement windshield, replacement of flat tire. []
  4. As per usu, I have no affiliation with Fuelly other than that I use their free service []


How Often Do You Check Your Tire Pressure?

Under Pressure by ThenAndAgain.

One of the fancy pants things that my new car came with was a “Tire Pressure Monitoring System” – that is, an indicator light on the dashboard when the pressure in one of your tires is low1.  Now, I’m sure that most new cars probably come with such a thing, but the last car that I owned was a 1989 Honda Civic, so this feature, to me, constitutes “fancy pants.”  And yesterday, said fancy pants TPMS alerted me to the fact a tire – or tires – was a little low on the old pressurino.  So off I went to yee old Canadian Tire to buy me a tire pressure gauge.  Now, I realize that when you go to the gas station to fill up your tires, the air hose thingy has a tire pressure gauge attached.  But I decided that I really should be more pro-active and actually test my tires regularly, as I have some vague recollection of reading in the owner’s manual2 that you are supposed to not wait until the TPMS alerts you, as by then the tire pressure is already too low!

Long story short, I managed to lose two of my four tire valve caps inside my hubcaps3 and the digital tire pressure gauge I bought doesn’t work.  It will only give me readings of “0.0,” and my tires certainly contained *some* air.  Also, it was freezing and rainy and miserable as I tried to do all this.  Anyhoo, I went to a gas station first thing this morning and used their gauge and filled the tires up and all was right with the world.  Other than that I have to go back to Canadian Tire to return the crappy tire pressure gauge I bought and pick up two tire valve caps.

But all this got me thinking – how often do people check their tire pressure?  My owner’s manual says you should do so once a month or once every two weeks, depending on where in the manual you are reading.  So readers – how often do you check your tire pressure?

And for bonus points – how often do you check your oil, windshield washer fluid, brake fluid, antifreeze, etc.? My owner’s manual says you are supposed to check those every time you fill up your car with gas (!), but seriously, I don’t think I’ve *ever* seen anyone checking their oil at a gas station.

Image Credit: Posted by Then and Again on Flickr.

  1. someone, I believe it may have been Kalev, said that if my car was so “smart,” why doesn’t the indicator tell me *which* tire is low.  To which I said, “touché‘ []
  2. yes, I read the owner’s manual []
  3. seriously, I have tiny hands and I still found it nearly impossible to get the tire valve caps off and then even more nearly impossible to get the tire valve caps back on, because the hubcaps are designed in such a way that the valve is sort of inset in the hubcap such that there is almost no room to put your fingers in to unscrew the cap []


My First Tank o’ Gas

So, I fill up my tank with gas for the first time yesterday! And, because I’m a nerd, I’m going to be keeping a spreadsheet to track my fuel economy.  Here’s what the numbers look like:

  • Distance driven:   414 km1
  • Volume of gas at fill-up: 26.1 L
  • Cost of fill-up: $30.13
  • Cost per km: 7 cents
  • Fuel economy: 6.3 L/100 km

So, this first tank of gas didn’t quite get the fuel economy listed on the smart website (which lists 5.4 L/100 km for combined city & highway driving).  But I’ll keep a running spreadsheet and let you know how things progress when I can average out a few tanks of gas.

Also, I just noticed this evening that my rear window is leaking window washer fluid (!), so it looks like I will need to call the dealer to have that looked at. Thank the FSM for warranty!

1I spoke to my dad yesterday and he proudly informed me that he’d put more than 2000 km on his new truck, which he got the same day I got my car. And I thought I’d driven a lot!


A Not So Brief History Of Cars I’ve Owned

ZOMG, I love my new Smart Car.  I still can’t believe it’s mine mine mine!  It has new car smell.  And it’s shiny!  I’ve never understood before why people do things like wash their car or vacuum their car or not leaving their car full of empty coffee cups1 and various other pieces of garbage. Until now. I’m seriously thinking of places to drive to, just to have an excuse to drive it!

Of course, this is the first new car I’ve ever owned. I’ve owned cars before, but they’ve been of the decades-old-rust-bucket variety.  The kind that are so cheap that a starving student can buy them with the meagre bit of money they have and insurance for it is dirt cheap because why would you insure a decades-old-rust-bucket for more than the bare minimum anyway?  I’m of the philosophy that if you are gong to own a car, it should be something awesome (like, say,  a Ferrari) that you totally, totally love or it should be a most ridiculous piece of trash that anyone in their right mind would be embarassed to own and you totally, totally love it.  Either way, you get good stories out of it.

The first car I drove was my parents’ Jeep.  A silver ’86 Jeep Cherokee Pioneer.  And it was probably the worst car ever made.  It went through something like 3 engines and 8 transmissions.  God, that thing was a piece of crap.  On the plus side, my sister and I got to drive it when we were in high school and not everyone has a car in high school, right?  My mom never got a driver’s license, so as soon as my sister got hers, my dad bought the pick-up truck he’d always wanted but could never justify having because we needed at least one vehicle that fit our family of four and really, how could he justify having two vehicles with only one driver in the family?  After high school, my sister went to the Ontario College of Art and so moved to Toronto, where the transit system is very, very good.  When I was done high school, I went to McMaster, so I moved to Hamilton, where the transit system is very, very not good.  And so I got the Jeep.  This would have been around 1996.  The thing somehow lasted a couple more years and finally gave up the ghost around 1998.

scan by you.

It’s not a very good photo, but it’s the only one of the Jeep
that I can find.
That’s my sister, showing off a shirt
that she painted a picture on, but in the background is the Jeep!

And that was when I bought my beloved ’89 Honda Civic. It was 10 years old, had a manual transmission and I believe cost $2,000.  I had her for a few years in Ontario and then brought her out to Vancouver when I moved here.  In all that time, I never once had any engine problems.  The brakes had to be fixed after towing her from Ontario to BC (it was never really clear what happened, but when we took her off the towing trailer when we got here, the brakes just didn’t work anymore), but that was really the only mechanical issue we had.   It was an amazing little car – by the end, it had a 402,798 km on it, was more rust than car (too many Ontario winters did it in), the passenger door didn’t open (so passengers had to get in through the driver’s side door) and trunk didn’t close fully.  Oh yeah, and the gas gauge didn’t work – it always said the tank was full, regardless of how much gas was in it, so you pretty much just had to fill it up all the time, just in case. But I didn’t care, I still loved that car.

scan0012 by you.

My beloved Civic. Image credit: me! on Flickr

She died at Granville & W. 70th Avenue when my ex2 and I were driving back from the airport after dropping off my friend Kaede, who had been visiting.  She stalled at a couple of intersections, but we managed to get her started again, but when she stalled at Granville and W. 70th, there was no bringing her back.  My ex had been rear ended in it a few days before and I maintain that the car was being held together by rust and getting hit resulted in the rust getting knocked loose and so her insides fell apart.  A homeless person helped us push her off the road and into a parking lot3 and that was the end of my beloved Honda Civic.

Civic Odometer by you.

Image credit: me! on Flickr

After the Civic, we bought a little red Dodge Colt and it was OK, but I never loved it the way I loved my Civic.

Photo Not Available by you.

I know I have a picture of it somewhere, but I’ll be damned if I can find it.

Then my ex and I broke up and he took the car, but killed it shortly thereafter as it had an oil leak and he didn’t replace the oil and you know what’s not good for an engine? No oil, that’s what.

After the divorce, this became my main mode of transportation:

20070924-3 - Blurry cars, buses and trains by roland.

Image credit: roland on Flickr

As proof, here’s a photo of me and some friends on a bus.

IMG_0956 by you.

Image credit: me on Flickr

Oh, the good ole’ bus!

In 2007 I supplemented my bus pass with this:

car co-op by velkr0.

Image credit: velkr0 on Flickr

The bus served me well most of the time – I live one block from a bus stop and it’s only a 15 min bus ride to my current office and a 15 min bus ride in the other direction to UBC for teaching. But the one thing the bus couldn’t do was get me to hockey. In 2007, I joined a hockey team that plays in Coquitlam on Sundays and you can’t get there by bus. So the Car Co-op was the perfect solution – it allowed me access to a car for my once per week hockey games, but I didn’t have to pay for having a car the rest of the time, when I didn’t need it.  An average month of using the Car Co-op to get me to hockey once a week cost, all told4, about $130.  Which is less that you’d pay for insurance on a new car. And that has worked for me for the past two years.

Enter: the new job.  The new job, which I’m starting in just more than a week, requires me to use a car 5 days a week .  Well, unless I want to take the bus an hour and 40 minutes each way, which I most certainly do not. Plus, I’ll need to do some driving around for the job itself, which is difficult to do without a car.  And at that level of usage the Car Coop actually becomes more expensive than having your own car. And so, enter the Smart Car.  My first ever brand new car. And I love it so so so so much5.

IMG_4871 by you.

Look how cute it is! Cute cute cute!  And safe and fun to drive and ridiculously good on gas!  I have decided that I am, in fact, going to name her Zaphod Beeblebrox the Car6,7.

IMG_4797 by you.

Me and Zaphod.
Or “the Beeb” as I like to call her.

Anyone wanna go for a drive?

1As the last time I owned the car I wasn’t quite the travel-mug-using-hippie I am today and I used to get paper cups. *hangs head in shame* From Tim Horton’s. Which I now find to be very not good. Like undrinkably ungood. But I digress.
well, he wasn’t my “ex” at the time.
3A lot of people honked at us and yelled at us to get out of the intersection (as if we were just sitting in the intersection for fun!), but only the homeless guy offered to help us.
4That includes the use of the car, maintenance, gas, insurance, BCAA and tax.
5My friend Alicia used to work for a company that had Smart cars as their company cars and she *hated* them. We have agreed to disagree on this.
6“the Car” is to differentiate my Zaphod from Zaphod Beeblebrox the First, the Second, the Third, the Nothingth, etc.
7Kalev is loudly and vehemently protesting this name8, which he believes is horrid and, despite being on the brink of getting his British citizenship, he hates British humour. We have agreed to loudly and vehemently disagree about both of these issues.
8He is referring to Zaphod as “Dr. Car” instead.