MANILA, Philippines--You?ve heard the argument about why buying grey, especially second-hand, converted imports is dangerous to you, the other roadside users and is damaging to the local economy. Well, even brand new cars, imported through grey means can pose a problem for you. Here are some technical but very practical reasons to consider.
Locally sold cars, especially high-end models have their engine control units (ECU) tuned to match local conditions. Humidity, weather and especially fuel quality are key factors. I once test-drove a US Market new MINI Cooper S and it felt really, really slow, far less than the advertised 170+ hp rating. A few months after, I drove an official import MINI Cooper S and the difference was night and day. A call to British United Automobiles confirmed my hunch: the US spec cars all go into limp-mode after a few weeks of driving with our local gas because the ECU senses the poor quality fuel and retards boost and ignition timing, throws in more fuel to give better heat management of the combustion process and eventually causes a partial shutdown of the engine?s performance to help protect and preserve the engine until it can receive immediate attention. The local MINIs are tuned to match our poor quality fuel and thus deliver the expected performance. To rectify the problem, that US Market MINI owner spent over a hundred thousand pesos to change all the sensors and have his ECU re-flashed or programmed to take into account our poorer quality fuel.
This problem isn?t confined to the MINI brand. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Porsche, Audi all suffer from similar problems.
Even worse are the diesel engine options from Mercedes Benz. A German expert bared at a media briefing a few years back that our diesel was simply unfit for use in their diesel engines. Judging by the number of grey-market ML Class SUV?s that are constantly having problems in various independent automotive repair shops in Metro Manila, this comes as no surprise.
Tire choice and selection
On a trip to Germany not too long ago, I had the opportunity to visit the Porsche secret testing facility in the outskirts of Zuffenhausen, Stuttgart. There was a plethora of Porsche sportscars for testing and the test driver noted that they go through tires very quickly in the process. I checked the tire model and remembered it, since I was impressed by its performance. When I got back to the Philippines and visited the PGA Cars Porsche showroom, I decided to check all the cars on display and saw that none of these cars were shod with the same tire model as the ones I saw in Germany. I quickly asked the technical people present and they told me that certain tires ride too harsh for our poor roads and don?t last long given the heat and humidity, plus the amount of rainwater we get during the wet season makes these tires dangerous should you be driving them in the rain. These are fine in Europe where they have smooth roads and little rain but are not ideal here. You don?t want to be changing P25,000 rear tires (each!) every year or worse, lose control in the rain.
Cooling system woes and air-conditioning issues
Cars have what are known as heat exchangers, i.e., components designed to cool down fluids or gasses to help stabilize the temperature of your engine, transmission and air-conditioning systems. Unfortunately, these heat exchangers are heavy and expensive, hence manufacturers tend to design the smallest heat exchangers that can maintain its cooling efficiency in specific markets or more precisely, road and weather conditions. The greater the capacity or ability to shed heat, the greater its thermal mass.
In the Arab and Asean regions, cars need as much thermal mass in their heat exchangers to be able to withstand the heat and crucially, constant idling in bumper-to-bumper traffic with the a/c at full blast.
In cooler climes, heat exchanger components tend to be smaller since there is no need for cooling systems to withstand super high ambient air temperatures we experience locally, and they have far less traffic to contend with. Additionally, people in Europe and the northern states of America tend to use the air-conditioning system sparingly because it is cold enough to just roll down the window and allow fresh air to cool the car?s cabin. Hence the cooling system is even far less burdened.
An a/c condenser is the heat exchanger of your a/c system. It is placed in front of the radiator. By design this isn?t good because it blocks airflow to the radiator and can hit almost double the operating temperature of the engine?s radiator. But due to space limitations, it has become the industry norm to mount it ahead of the radiator because the condenser also needs airflow to cool itself and chill the air for the a/c. If the condenser is small, the pressurized air it is cooling for your a/c exceeds its parameters and is unable to cool down. A/c mechanics call this phenomenon high-pressure. You get hot air out of your a/c. Worse, it heats up the condenser beyond its operating temperature, thereby heat-soaking the radiator, making it exceed its own operating temperature. End result is over-heating in traffic.
Lastly, in automatic transmission equipped cars, the automatic transmission fluid or ATF requires its own heat exchanger. Some imported cars, especially those from Japan have undersized heat exchangers or simply rely on an ATF passage line through the radiator to help cool down the ATF. Locally sold cars rely on a specific heat exchanger for the ATF and unburdening the radiator further. On sustained use, the both the ATF and the coolant in your radiator can overheat, causing both engine and automatic transmission failure.
There are even more parts aside from the heat exchangers: automatically switching push or pull-type electric fans help draw out heat form the heat exchangers. In the Philippines, some cars can have as much as four fans to cool the radiator, condenser, intercooler if the car is turbocharged, and even the engine oil cooler or ATF fluid cooler. Imported cars might not have as many fans to help draw out heat from the heat exchangers.
A lot of imported batteries are not designed to operate in very hot temperatures. It is made worse when they are placed in oven-hot engine bays. This significantly shortens the lifespan of the batteries, sometimes as much as half. Imported cars from cold countries usually have batteries that are not suited for our climate, and are smaller in size and capacity. Coupled with an alternator that has a lower ampere rating typical with cars sold in moderately cool countries, ampere ratings drop significantly as the engine gets hotter such that it is unable to charge up the battery to provide the right amount of electricity to power the modern car?s sophisticated electronics such as the ECU, entertainment system and various safety equipment that rely on electrical sensors to activate. Motolite stands proud in this respect as they claim that all their batteries are designed and tested to operate in very hot and humid conditions.
Even if the electrical system was fine and the battery mounted in the trunk, I?ve seen wire conduits and insulation made of plastic melt in the intense heat of the engine bays of grey-market cars. Once these conduits and insulation melt, they fuse with the wires and often cause the wires to short. Then it will take you forever to find your electrical gremlin. Locally sold cars usually have a wire conduit or insulation made of a fire-resistant fabric and/or a rubber sock or boot, especially in areas where the entire wiring loom pass very near the engine?s exhaust side.
Special options unsuitable here
In the Philippines, we admittedly get dumbed-down specifications in our cars compared to what other countries receive. But this is also for a good reason: some of these special options are useless (such as satellite radio and full-country satellite navigation) or will not be sturdy enough given our rough roads. Suspension is a good example. When Mazda launched their Mazda2, they opted to leave out the sports suspension package available in other countries in Asean simply because it would have been too low and too harsh for our local road conditions. Another example is Lexus? LS460 luxo-barge. Lexus Manila opted not to offer the air suspension because it is a potential problem in the future given our very poor roads. Browsing through the Lexus USA website, I also noticed the availability of downright bling, handsome 19-inch wheel and tire package that isn?t offered here precisely for the same reason. Those big wheels will be too harsh and firm given our roads, something unacceptable for an P8-million ultra luxury car.
While satellite navigation is slowly becoming popular in our country thanks to third party mappers and hand-held GPS devices, cars with integrated screens for SATNAV and the like still cannot use this same software. Do you want to pay for an expensive decoration and be reminded each time you get into your car?
As for satellite radio, this will definitely take a while to happen in our country.
If your car is a Euro, Japanese or US spec different from what is offered locally, you will have a tough time finding some wear and tear and replacement parts since they do not match with the local variants. Examples of these parts include fuel and oil filters, brake pads and rotors, fuel pumps, and if should you find yourself with cooling-related problems, the radiator and a/c condenser for your imported grey market car will most likely be different from what is readily available locally.
A friend had an original LHD but Japanese market-spec BMW E36 325i that had its radiator burst. He went to buy a radiator from the local dealer but discovered that the orientation of the coolant lines were different from his own and could not fit properly since the mounting tabs were different. He ended up special-ordering a radiator for his car which took months and cost more than the local variant. Needles to say he was car-less for that entire duration.
Another friend decided to change his German-spec Audi?s fuel filter but when the part arrived, it was different from his own fuel filter. He again ordered from abroad, costing him time, money and irritation over such a small part.
Another one had his converted /imported Pajero suffer from warped brake rotors and worn out brake pads. The local Pajero brake rotor equivalent was different in size and thickness and he ended up paying double the price of the local equivalent as his only choice was to buy an upgraded aftermarket rotor set. And he also needed new brake pads but again, the same problem of parts incompatibility.
Pundits can always argue that the Internet makes buying pats easier from abroad. But the argument of cost and most especially down-time for your car is a problem you can avoid. Imported parts can take over a month to arrive by sea-freight, or if you go via express air delivery, the cost is tremendous.
Lack of after-sales service, warranty and recall coverage
Sometimes, it is unavoidable that you?ll have problems with your brand-new car. If it is a grey-market car, you?ll have no warranty as the local dealer will definitely not give you warranty coverage from a car you didn?t buy from them. That means shelling out more money on what should be a completely-reliable brand new car.
If your car has special features unavailable in the local variants, almost nobody can fix it properly the first time too so you?ll be throwing money into an otherwise noble experiment to help teach the mechanics of your choice on how to repair that special part, feature or option. You?re better off paying for someone?s scholarship than paying for someone to learn how to fix your car, which ideally, should never have happened and you hope will never happen again. Ever.
Sometimes, certain cars have inherent problems due to accountants trying to find the cheapest way to build your car, or a specific component wasn?t tested thoroughly in its prototype stage, or a supplier of a particular part decided to cheat on the manufacturer by skimping on quality work or raw materials. American car companies have been hit hard by numerous recalls. What is worse is when they try to keep it from the public eye so as not to damage their reputation, making customers lose confidence in their products. At the very least the manufacturers can downplay the severity of the need to replace the part in question, simply stating that it is a better component and hence an added service given to valuable clients, all the usual PR rag.
Quite often, there?s a confidential service bulletin advising dealerships to change particular parts free of charge without notifying their customers. Even if you are not charged for this part, it makes you wonder what else could be wrong with your car. And if your car was brought from abroad, chances are you?ll never know there was a recall and the part/s in question might be of consequence to your life. Granting the recall is made public, the local dealership will not change the part and perform the service for free (since your car is grey-market), resulting to additional cost to an otherwise brand-new car.
In the end, buying brand-new grey-import cars are not necessarily dangerous. This article is simply meant to enlighten the buyer to make an educated choice, knowing full well what he or she is getting into. There will always be a niche for grey-importers. But read up on the Internet, do some research about the quirks and idiosyncrasies of the particular grey-market car you?re targetting.
For the adventurous type looking for a sports/luxury brand unsold here, the allure will always be there since it is rare. But for these people, such cars will be second, third, fourth, even a fifth car in the garage which will be used only on early morning weekend fun-runs, special days and holidays. They will not be even used in the everyday work-week grind since they know their limitations. You want a super-reliable car to use at work because a breakdown can mean getting fired or failing to close that important deal while you are stranded in the heat of the midday sun, causing traffic and inconvenience to people in the process.
As for second-hand imports and converted cars, walk away. More often than not, these are a bag full of serious, expensive and time consuming, not to mention dangerous, problems.
Please email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org