Dear Tom and Ray:
I have a 2001 Honda Civic with about 53,000 miles on it. A few days ago, I noticed three oil drops on my garage floor, and then later three more in my driveway after parking it there. I took it to the Honda dealer, and the mechanic said a rear main seal is leaking. He estimated that to have this fixed would cost around $540. I'm disappointed, because I thought Hondas were supposed to be fairly maintenance-free. My dad said I can just let it leak if I don't mind it messing up my driveway -- because it won't hurt anything -- and as long as I keep enough oil in it. What do you think -- do I fork over the $540, or listen to my dad? -- Trudi
RAY: I'd say neither, Trudi. Your father is right that as long as you keep an eye on the oil level, you can continue to drive it. But this is a 2001 Civic, so it's a little early to be condemning it to "heapdom."
TOM: For those of you unfamiliar with the term, heapdom is defined as that period of time when your car is inexorably sliding toward the junk heap. Heapdom begins when you can no longer simply toss your keys to someone. Once the toss of the keys must be accompanied by special instructions (i.e., "don't forget to check the oil every time you get gas," or "you have to bang twice on the hood and jiggle the shifter before turning the key"), you have entered heapdom.
RAY: By the way, my brother has never owned a car that was not already in heapdom by the time he bought it.
TOM: But getting back to your Civic, Trudi, I also wouldn't just shell out $540 for a new rear main seal. You shouldn't have to pay for a main seal on a Honda with only 53,000 miles on it. That's outrageous.
RAY: I'll tell you exactly how many rear main seals we've replaced on Honda Civics with less than 100,000 miles on them: none.
TOM: So, call the dealership and ask to see Honda's zone representative (that's like saying, "May I talk to your supervisor, please?"). Ask the zone rep if this is a common problem with Hondas. Pride, if not honesty, will lead him to say "no." Then ask him why you should have to pay for it. Tell him that from what you've been able to learn, it's unheard of for a Honda to blow a rear main seal at 53,000 miles. So clearly, this was a factory defect of some kind.
RAY: Explain that you bought a Honda precisely because you wanted to avoid these sorts of problems, and ask if Honda would please consider taking care of this for you.
TOM: When the rep tells you to get lost, Trudi, take it to another dealer for a second opinion, because I honestly don't think it's the rear main seal at all. I think it's much more likely that the leak is coming from a valve-cover gasket.
RAY: I agree. The valve cover has to come off when the valves are adjusted (at 45,000 miles on this car). And if someone reused the old, worn-out valve-cover gasket or installed a new one incorrectly, the cover could leak.
TOM: If the valve cover were leaking at the back, the oil would flow down and then drip off the back of the engine. And it would look just like a leaking rear main seal, because the oil would gather around the same place.
RAY: If you need a valve-cover gasket, you're talking 100 bucks instead of 500. Or maybe even free, if someone recently screwed it up while adjusting your valves. That's a much better price for a clean driveway, isn't it, Trudi?