“Say, I have this 1995 Volkswagen bus, with 140,000 miles on it and I was thinking of taking it to México on a long trip. If it were yours, what would you look out for, or inspect carefully?”
“Hmm, that’s a lot of miles. Has the alternator been replaced? Then there’s the water pump and hoses, and then —-” You’ll usually get an earful of information. Some folks don’t want to hear it. They’d rather plug their ears, cross their fingers and hope for the best. However, If the mechanic is willing to do a thorough inspection for a reasonable price, I recommend getting the cooling system and motor “pressure tested.” Of all the fast and simple preventative maintenance steps that can be performed, a cooling system pressure check is by far the most valuable. One day, on a remote beach I went through a long line of parked pickups and vans with a Stant® pressure tester. Campers were shocked when I found eight out of eleven vehicles had cooling system leaks – the owners were grateful and wiser. Old radiator hoses and engine drive belts that fail while ascending a taxing grade are a common reason for roadside breakdowns. I’d much rather deal with stuff at my convenience rather than with lady luck’s sarcastic sense of humor.
Most modern tires originate in China. With the possible exception of Michelin, Kelly Springfield, and Cooper, you’ll find all the familiar brands in Mexico. But take note: Those big-spoke-wheel low profile tires, (17”. 18” and larger) can be a real headache to find, never mind trying to match tread styles and speed ratings.
- Tire prices are not ridiculously high in México, but warranties are severely restricted. Road Hazard and mileage warranties are virtually unknown even in big box membership stores.
- Finding a shop with tire balancing equipment can be a challenge.
- I would avoid replacing tires with unfamiliar brand names.
- Beware of used tires. In the old days a good used tire could be counted on to deliver reasonable service and value. Today, with weird modern rubber compounds, a six-year-old tire is likely to fly apart with no warning.
- US tire warranties are not valid in México. Not even if you purchased the tires at COSTCO and went to a Mexican COSTCO and see the same exact tire right in front of you (This fact has been verified with COSTCO headquarters in Washington).
MEXICAN CAR BATTERIES
It’s tough to find any new battery for less than ninety dollars worth of pesos. Money, power, and warranty: you’ll find a better deal in the US. Remember if you elect to buy a battery in a major store in México, sixteen percent sales tax will be added onto the sticker price at the register. Smaller stores include tax in the sticker price.
You’ll see display stands of batteries in markets,hardware stores, and of course refraccionarias, auto parts stores. Gohner, LTH, and a host of other brands. Some Wal-Mart stores are now carrying their private label batteries, which are manufactured by Johnson Controls Company in the US.
Most Mexican batteries are manufactured in or near the northern city of Monterrey. LTH brand is one of the largest. How does they stack up against their northern competition? Mexican batteries as a rule are every bit as dependable and long-lived (or undependable and short-lived as the case may be) as their gringo cousins. There are some differences: it’s difficult to find heavy-duty batteries in Mexico, and Mexican batteries come with a rather short time replacement warranty, which means free replacement should the battery fail within the warranty period. But take note: almost without exception a battery must be warrantied in the very same store that you purchased it in. An LTH battery that fails in a different city will not be warrantied. Look for the DATE CODE sticker attached to the battery A through L designates the month of manufacture, and the number is the year. A battery with a B3 sticker means the battery was made in February 2013. I am very reluctant to buy a battery more than 3 or 4 months old. This battery coding system is also used in the US.
Deep cycle RV batteries are becoming more common (however, in rural areas, don’t hold your breath). They are called ciclo profundo (cycle deep). Six volt golf car (RV) batteries can be found in parts stores in resort cities with golf courses. They are called bateria para carro de campo de golf. Most of these are LTH brand and the made in México battery will equal the lightest grade of golf car battery sold in the US.
Mexican battery warranties will not be honored north of the border. This includes, COSTCO, Sam’s Club (Wal-Mart, etc) and AutoZone. For that matter, Mexican stores will not honor warranty claims for stuff purchased north of the border. This is true of tires as well as batteries (see tires, below).
BRAKES AND CLUTCHES
México manufactures a huge percentage of replacement brake parts for the US market. Rotor discs, calipers, and master cylinders are manufactured in México. It is quite common to find a rotor disc for a heavy duty pickup truck selling at a fraction of the price it would be north of the border. Rebuilt parts tend to be of high quality. A pair of disc brake rotor calipers I examined came with stainless steel sleeves and top quality hardware. New brake shoes come with top quality friction lining. I would rather get a brake job done in México than in the U.S.A. any day of the week.
The same holds true for clutch components. Mexican made pressure plate and disc quality is top notch. If you need machine work of any kind done anywhere on your car’s machinery, a machine shop in México is called a taller de torno. tah-YEHR de TOR-no.
Just like in the US, when you leave the parts store with an electrical part, it’s yours. No returns, no exchanges and no warranty.
Electrical wire and cable quality is mediocre in México. Electrical terminal “ends” are scarce and many times almost laughable in quality. Replace old battery cables before you leave home. Ponder the age of your battery while you’re at it. Check the hold down. Rough roads can bounce loose batteries to the point where plates shatter and the dashboard warning light flickers on.
I carry extra taillight and turn signal bulbs. The last thing I want to do is worry that my maneuvering intentions will be misunderstood, or that I have stopped at a stop sign without the driver behind being alerted to the fact.
Unless you are near a large city or driving an older vehicle with minimum accessories, you may have the dickens of a time getting a malfunctioning alternator or starter motor repaired correctly. Newer cars require an exactly correct voltage regulator and if the replacement turns out to be wrong, not only will the alternator not charge right, the vehicle computer may throw a snit and turn the “Limp Home Mode” on. This may mean loss of top gear, and feeding greedy fuel injectors. Eighty thousand miles is a good all-purpose benchmark when to get an alternator rebuilt or replaced. If you can afford it, US new car dealer rebuilt starters and alternators are of superior quality.
Newer cars use a broad neoprene belt inside the motor to link moving parts in exact synchronization. If the belt should break or slip, very bad things can happen to some engines. Find out if your automobile or small pickup truck has an “Interference Engine”. If it does, you need to pay extra careful attention to have the belt renewed before your trip. Failure of the timing belt will cause almost complete destruction of the engine. An auto parts store can tell you if your car has an interference engine. I asked for a timing belt for my V6 Dodge, and the Mexican parts store guy was amazed that that model automobile was available with a V6. Needless to say, when I get a timing belt it will have to come from the states. Many manufacturers recommend having the timing belt replaced every sixty-thousand miles.
MOTORS AND TRANSMISSIONS
Except for camionetas, most of the motor vehicles in México have four cylinder motors. Few vehicles except vans have an automatic transmission. The reason for the first is fuel economy, the reason for the second is because there are mighty few mechanics skilled in the black arts of automatic transmission repair. Automobiles with six cylinder motors or automatic transmissions should be carefully inspected and (if needed) repaired before heading south. Vans and pickup truck owners needn’t fret as much.
Stock up! I didn’t see a deep pothole while driving on a dirt road and the next thing I know a rock punched a hole in the automatic transmission oil pan. Lucky for me “home” was a few hundred yards away and I limped into the driveway just as the transmission started to slip. A mobile mechanic came, removed the part, and brazed up the hole (and painted the pan a pretty shade of green). But this particular model of transmission demands special synthetic fluid. Several phone calls later I was left shaking. The overwhelming consensus (including the factory service manual) shouted “The use of “ordinary” transmission fluid in this model transmission, will result in certain failure within a few thousand miles!” I was afoot until I got the correct fluid! I won’t detail the hoops I had to jump through or the number of prayers I mumbled while searching for the correct fluid, but I ended up finding some in a parts store a few hundred miles distant. I now have an extra gallon stuck in the trunk.
SOME TIPS FOR GETTING AHOLD OF HARD TO FIND CAR PARTS
- The AUTOZONE chain has expanded throughout northern and central México. AutoZone México is based in Monterrey. Many state capitols and larger cities have Auto Zone. Check their Mexican website for locations. The company uses the package delivery service Estafeta for special orders, and parts usually reach the store in three to six working days. Many branches have at least one employee who speaks English. I’m all for using locally owned and operated refraccionarias, but sometimes time is money. If you know your vehicle’s technical aspects such as motor size or transmission option code, you can surf the Auto Zone website and write down the part number for the part you need. This may save time and confusion when querying the Mexican store. You will have to pre-pay for special order parts. (See the next paragraph.) The breadth of Auto Zone’s stocked inventory of made in US car parts is impressive. Dig out your car’s registration or the Mexican car permit copy down the VIN number. You might be asked for it to I.D. The correct part.
- Many Mexican business rely on customer payment at any of the store’s bank’s branch offices. Some large businesses have as many as five different banks that can accept payment for car parts on special order. If you don’t speak Spanish or if there isn’t an employee available who speaks English, you can ask a helpful local to copy down bank account information. The idea is to deposit funds in their account. You do not reveal any sensitive information about yourself or your own bank account except your name, and the particular parts store account information (account numbers are called clave) that they tell you to use. The bank teller accepts the money then issues a receipt. Because this is a popular way to do business in México, the company will be notified by email promptly that payment has been made. Personally I have had excellent luck doing business this way. It sure is convenient. Many larger parts stores now accept online Pay Pal payment. Be sure to ask. Both services can save you from a lot of driving or bus rides. Ask a distant parts store for advice as to which package delivery service would be best.
- Items sent from the US are eligible (for the first ninety-nine dollars) to be exempt from importation duty and taxes (part of NAFTA). For some reason, if the sender follows your request to put in large block letters, “Part Not Available In Mexico” it speeds up delivery time a bunch. All packages go through México City, even if they are ordered Next Day delivery. Mexican Customs inspects each package. When something is examined and is not eligible for tax exemption, the duty will be eighteen percent. IMPORTANT! Ask the sender to NOT tally in the shipping fee on a single invoice. As nuts as it may sound, Aduana will tax the shipping charges if they are listed! Ask the US company this and ask to have the shipping charge listed on a second invoice and then bury it deep inside the package. Beg and wheedle the sender to add any extra handling charges on the second invoice. Have them scribble SALES TAX across that invoice. So far this Rube Goldberg arrangement has saved me lots of dollars. It is completely ethical and legal. To clarify things, when you buy from a Mexican company, import duty is not charged except if you direct them to purchase the item in the US., and have it shipped to you or to their store. Ask a U.S.A. based sender to unpack and trash the original sales carton or box for the part if the box label says the part was manufactured in the Orient, India or Europe. This isn’t trivial. Something made in China for example has 400% duty slapped onto it. Ouch! I remember a conversation with an unfortunate traveler who had a two hundred dollar automobile axle imported via expensive overnight express. The manufacturer’s box stated in large letters “Genuine xxxxx Part Made In Japan”. The duty was insane – I don’t remember the exact amount that was collected for duty but the dollar conversion figure had a comma in it.
- On a truly expensive car part, such as an engine or a transmission that needs to be imported into Mexico by truck, make sure the sender writes PARTS MADE IN U.S.A. boldly all over the package and on the invoice. To repeat, PART NOT AVAILABLE IN MEXICO written on package and invoice alike will twist as many Mexican Customs agent arms as can be hoped for. These tips have worked for me. You won’t know if there is duty to be paid or how much the duty is until the delivery man offers the invoice. Duty is payable in cash only. Some delivery service offices accept credit cards or VISA ATM payment. The nice part is you needn’t fret about where to pay duty – the delivery service collects the money due.