QDear Tom and Ray:

Our 1996 Saturn SL2 (90,000 miles) is burning more than three quarts of oil between oil changes. The dealer suggests an engine tear-down to determine the problem. Most likely it's the rings or -- worst-case scenario -- engine block. If we go ahead with the repair, what is the success rate of this curing the oil-burning problem? -- Pam

ARAY: The success rate is very good.

TOM: The only reason it's not 100 percent is that when somebody rebuilds an engine, there's always a chance he might make a mistake. He could rebuild something incorrectly, break something else while he's in there or leave his pastrami sandwich in the oil pan.

RAY: That's why we'd recommend that you simply replace the engine rather than having your dealer tear it down and rebuild it.

TOM: Most Saturn dealers will install a factory-rebuilt engine for you for $3,000 to $4,000. Or you can go to an independent shop and probably get it done for between $2,000 and $3,000. "Factory-rebuilt" means that it's been built at a factory that does nothing but rebuild engines. . . . The Saturn factory rebuild comes with a three-year warranty, too. That suggests Saturn is pretty confident in the workmanship.

RAY: There's one note of caution I'd sound, though: Before you put a wonderful new engine in this car, you'll want to have it carefully checked out to make sure the engine is not going to be powering a broken transmission in six months. Or that some other major component is on its last leg.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I'm a service manager at a Honda dealership, and I read your recent article about a Civic's rear main seal leaking at 53,000 miles. Your advice was just about the dumbest thing I've ever heard. You want the customer to tell the Honda service rep that Hondas shouldn't have that problem, so he ought to fix it for free? So, I guess the three-year/36,000-mile warranty means nothing, and Honda should just fix their cars under warranty no matter what the mileage? Have you guys ever worked in a dealership? And you're saying that no Civics have ever had a rear main seal leak before 100,000 miles? Where did you get that information? You guys make it hard for a good dealership to keep its service business with statements like this -- Jeff

RAY: Jeff, we're printing your letter in the interest of fairness, but we stand by our previous statements. What we said was that we've never had a Civic in our shop with less than 100,000 miles that had a blown rear main seal. And we've worked on hundreds, if not thousands, of Civics during nearly 30 years. So that's where our information comes from.

TOM: The reason people buy Hondas, and the reason we recommend Hondas, is that they are very, very reliable cars. Stuff like this doesn't usually happen.

RAY: So, if somebody buys a Honda because of the company's reputation for reliability and then has an unexpected, expensive problem early in the car's life, if I'm Honda, I rush in and say: "I'm sorry, that never should have happened. We'll fix that for you."

TOM: Honda may decide not to do that. That's its call. You're a Honda dealer, and you may decide not to advocate for the customer in a case like this. That's your call. But if you do jump in and help, my guess is that you'll have a customer for life, and a great spokesperson out there talking about how well she was taken care of.

RAY: And if Honda's reputation is deserved, it can certainly afford to fix the rare car that has a defect.

TOM: We didn't guarantee the customer that Honda would respond positively. In fact, we even suggested that she seek a second opinion, because we feared the car might have been misdiagnosed (again, based on our experience). But we still think it's the right approach.

RAY: Sometimes adversity is actually opportunity, Jeff.

TOM: Yeah. Like when my brother hit his head on the lift at the shop and passed out, it was an opportunity for me to reach into his pocket and grab the 50 bucks he owed me. You see, opportunity out of adversity!

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(c)2004 by Tom and Ray Magliozzi

and Doug Berman