Car trouble – just when I needed it (of course)

Last night’s skyline from the country:

Country night skyline

It’s not often I have to be urgently somewhere in the car, but it was the case yesterday. “Don’t be late!” I’d been (lightheartedly) told.

It’s not a trip that is completely impossible by public transport, but with only three trains a day, and the first of the morning getting me there 45 minutes late, that wasn’t an option. It had to be a trip made by road.

I’d started the car briefly on Thursday to check I had enough fuel to make the trip. That may have been my undoing.

When I got in the car on Friday morning to head north, it wouldn’t start. It grumbled and spluttered. I sat back for a moment, swore under my breath, then tried again. No go.

I contemplated possible plan Bs, and how it was possible this could happen after (as I recall it) zero engine-related troubles with the Astra since I got it in 2008 (and no hint of forthcoming issues at the last service).

The third time, it finally came good, but with a deep rumble somewhere in the engine. I thought I might as well go for it, and eased it out of the driveway. As we moved down the street the rumble stopped, and it was fine.

I didn’t dare stop along the way. Two and a bit hours I’d made it, and gratefully pulled into a parking spot.

Since then it’s got me home again too, even with a brief stop along the way.

So, those of you who know more about cars than I do (which is most of you, I suspect): is it the battery? Is it on the way out? Time for a replacement?

And if so, any particularly recommended vendors for someone like me who probably doesn’t have the time or energy to do it himself?

Servicing a car that barely gets used

Somewhat to my surprise, I’ve now had my car for almost three years.

This means the dealer warranty that came with it is just about to run out, which in turn means I don’t have to keep driving it across town to Alan Mance to keep it current. Good.

I’ve only made use of that warranty once or twice, and of course it didn’t wipe out the cost of a service/repair, merely reduced it. (At one stage there was a problem with the engine stuttering, and another time one of the electric windows failed.)

I’m actually wondering how little servicing I can get away with. Consider this: I barely drive during the week. It’s not uncommon for the car to sit in the driveway from Sunday morning to Saturday afternoon.

Apart from long drives such as this past weekend (up to Marita’s parents and back; a total of about 320 km) and suburban jaunts, I reckon I’d normally do less than 50 km per week. So (and I haven’t checked this) I might drive about 3000 kilometres in a year — a long way from the Australian average of 14,600.

So I’m thinking for the basic twice-a-year checkup (including oil change) I’ll probably just start taking it to the local Ultratune, which is closeby (in Mckinnon) and in fact is closer to a railway station than the nearest Holden dealers at Elsternwick, Oakleigh or Glenhuntly.

Occasionally they might need to order a part and wait a day or two, but given how little I drive during the week, it’s unlikely to matter.

(By the way, Ultratune is one of several companies that sell roadside assistance, for $65/year — cheaper than RACV’s basic rate of $86 plus $46 establishment, and you don’t see Ultratune out lobbying for more freeways, do you…)

How to replace a 2000 Astra car key battery

My car key remote went flat.

This is a major pain when one is used to the joys of remote key locking. Having to go to the door with the keyhole every time and fumble to get the key into it — bleuch.

I assumed that like most things in the world of cars, I’d have to take the key to a dealer and get some kind of specialist to open it up and replace it with a non-standard Holden battery not generally available to the public, all costing a small fortune of course.

I shouldn’t be so cynical.

A little Googling found the solution (with various steps in a couple of different places, so I’m compiling it all here for future reference). It was as simple as:

1. Carefully wedge open the key with a screwdriver

2. Ease out the old battery, and put in a new one (watch battery type CR3032)

3. Put the key back together

4. Resync the key with the car, by turning the key in the ignition (so the lights, radio etc comes on; no need to actually start the car) and press the button on the key. The locks will trigger.


Dream machine

The other week, in one night, I had a trio of ridiculous dreams. So ridiculous that you half know it’s a dream, and it’s a ridiculous situation, but you keep on dreaming it anyway.

I’ve forgotten the first.

In the second, someone was knocking at my front door and trying to look through the frosted glass while waiting to be let-in, and I, then undressed and taking cover at the corner, kept calling out “Who is it?”, but they wouldn’t answer. You can’t actually see anything more than abstract shapes through my front door anyway. Ridiculous.

And in the third dream, my car (which has worked perfectly in the almost-year I’ve had it except for an electric window going kaputsky — ch-ching!) was behaving really sluggishly, and accelerating ludicrously slowly, especially up hills. Ridiculous.

Then last week in real life it started happening. On cold days, 5 degrees and below. Stalling. Shuddering. Sluggish. Blah.

See, life is full of gambles. I gambled my money away when I bought the car. I’ve gambled that it’s worth trekking across town to the dealer I bought it from every six months to keep the warranty up-to-date. Even though it seems like the warranty is worded in such a way that there are so many exceptions that they might never be liable for any repair costs.

So yesterday morning I woke at sparrow’s fart and headed out the door just after 7am, which is normally about the time I’m getting up, in a failed attempt to beat the traffic. At least I may have beat some of it; it took about 45 minutes to get to the dealer. I’m glad I normally avoid driving in rush hour.

Dropped it off for the six month checkup and so they could look at the stalling/shuddering.

The verdict? A bill of $245, of course — and that included no charge for the fault. On the one hand, just part of the exorbitant cost of personal motorised transport; on the other, quite low for a visit to the car dealer for a service.

According to the receipt (which is mostly made up of the usual mechanic gibberish) they checked the car’s computer history for misfires. Yes, apparently this humble 9-year-old Astra has a black box recorder. Apparently it gave them enough information to tweak things.

Just hope it worked. I hate those early mornings.

PS. Lunchtime: Rae has a rant about her drive to work.

The Astra

PTUA sticker on carI’m getting used to the “new” car. You know how it is when you switch, especially between manual cars, and you have to learn the feel of the accelerator and clutch for the new vehicle? Otherwise you either take off too fast, or stall it.

Things I’ve noticed about the Astra which are different from the old Magna:

The gear stick is at a different angle. The Magna’s seems almost vertical next to the Astra’s.

Despite the Astra being a smaller car, it seems reasonably roomy. The ceiling seems higher. Leg room is reduced, but I’m already used to it. I’ve considered reflecting this by getting the customised licence plate “TARDIS”, but given the $395 cost — I don’t think so. Just can’t justify it. (Interestingly, according to the VPlates web site, “DALEK”, and “DRWHO” are already taken. But amazingly perhaps, “DANIEL” is available.)

Not just roomy, also zoomy. It accelerates much faster than the old beast. On the first day, a couple of times I took off so fast from the lights I nearly pranged into the people in front. I must confess I tried to see how fast it takes off compared to other cars on Wellington Road. The only one I’ve noticed get to the speed limit faster was a Jeep Wrangler, which apparently burns about 50% more fuel.

Maybe it’s the silver paint instead of black, or maybe it’s just a better design, but it doesn’t seem hot when left in the (winter) sun like the Magna gets. Will be interested to see how it goes over summer, and how good the aircon is.

I’m already noticing it’s using less petrol. The theoretical fuel consumption is 20% less, but I suspect it may be even lower. (Apparently alloy wheels alone can save 10+Kg off the weight of a car; and the Magna may have been burning more than advertised.)

The Astra is not without its faults. The left side of the driver’s seat squeaks when changing gears (eg when pressing down the clutch). As does the windscreen wiper; it may need a new set of blades. That’s what you get in a $10K car, I guess.

The turning circle seems much smaller, although it’s just 10.3 metres instead of 11.0.

I may get to the stage where I don’t understand how I ever survived without remote keyless entry.

Love the cruise control, for those occasional jaunts on the motorway.

I’m getting used to the indicator and windscreen wipers being on opposite sides. Though once or twice I have wiped the windows accidentally.

Opel Astra in Midtown Madness 3.I do need to get used to the electric windows — specifically, closing them before stopping the engine, though you can do that thing where you lock the door with the key and the windows will close.

And finally… both Midtown Madness 2 and Midtown Madness 3 have an Opel Astra modelled in them (the former is a download). It’s only a 3-door model, but it means I can zoom around in a virtual London, SF, Paris or Washington, driving like a maniac. Woo hoo!


I just bought a car. Well, subject to a mechanic giving it a going-over.

Holden Astra CD TS, 2000 hatchback “Olympic edition”. Which means it’s from two Olympics ago, and that it has a few little extras like fog lights. Silver, electric windows, airbags, ABS, CD player, alloy wheels (like I care), remote locking.

Perhaps not the ultimate in motoring, but a nice little car that’ll cut my petrol consumption by about a quarter, and heaps nicer (and zoomier) than the old beast, if a little less roomy inside. And at a price which is reasonable given how little driving I do.

After signing the paperwork and leaving, some other people were looking at it, a tad disappointed. Seems I beat them to it by mere minutes.

Will probably pick it up next week. Pics later.

The only catch is no trade-in. Anybody want to buy a 15-year-old Magna?

PS. 5-door, manual, from a dealer.

Cars again

The solar hot water upgrade meant I postponed the car upgrade for a few weeks. But I’ve been looking at what I might get.

My current car, the aging and increasingly unreliable ’93 Magna, has a theoretical City consumption of 10 litres per 100km. Although I don’t drive much, downsizing should reduce consumption a little bit.

Despite GM Vice Chairman Bob Lutz’s remarks about global warming being “a total crock of s***”, following some comments on one of my previous posts, I’m quite enamoured of the Holden Astra. Evidently the 1998-2005 models are a good buy: good build quality (good things come out of Belgium — eg Tintin, chocolate, and the Mannekin Pis), good safety rating, and the 4 or 5-door models are probably about the size I’m looking for. I like the cut of its jib. Fuel consumption is 8 to 8.5 litres per 100km, depending on manual or auto.

Other possibilities:

  • VW Golf — my sister’s buying one, and I think she’d like us to drive twin cars… I don’t doubt it’d be nice, but I think it’d be more money than I’m keen on spending for my low-distance driving — one review says you might as well buy an Astra! — 8 to 9.5 litres per 100 km
  • Ford Focus — I quite like the styling, but the safer late-model versions probably aren’t in my price range. Yes they sponsor my footy team, but I don’t feel strong loyalty because of it — 9 to 9.5 litres per 100 km
  • Mazda 3 — only average safety rating — 9 to 10 litres per 100km, so no big saving on fuel.
  • A Peugot 307 or a Mercedes A-series would both be nice, but are probably too expensive for me, for anything decent.
  • Prius — like the one I’ve driven, but cost can’t be justified for me, unless somebody’s giving me a $30K contribution towards it.

I’ve also been told to consider buying an auto instead of a manual. I prefer manuals (even if the first hill start I’d done in ages last weekend scared me half to death), but it’s been suggested to me that an auto may be better suited maintenance-wise to driving short distances. Anybody got any opinions on that? Most of the Astras out there are manual.

Meanwhile, I’ve found that Ultratune Roadside Premium Assist is only available to vehicles less than 12 years old. 247 Road Services doesn’t seem to have that restriction, but maybe I’ll leave it until the upgrade… it’ll be an extra impetus to get on with it.