The Dreaded Timing Belt
So you’re sitting in the waiting room, catching up on issues of magazines you would never order for yourself when your mechanic steps out from the mysterious back shop and says you need a new timing belt. You don’t know what this is but you know by the price he just quoted you, they’re definitely proud of it. You may not have noticed a problem. Perhaps you came in for something else. And you may have heard stories about shady shops recommending work you don’t need in an effort to add items to the bill. So do I really need one? Or does my mechanic’s kid need braces? Well, what is it and why? A timing belt is a rubber belt with teeth that goes along one side of your engine to keep the crank and camshafts timed properly.
In English, it’s part of a system that keeps the top half of the engine- cylinder head, valves- synchronized with the bottom half- crankcase, pistons (thanks for the simplification, Freddy “Tavarish” Hernandez). If you have a car that’s from the 90’s or before, you likely have a timing belt. Newer cars from certain manufacturers will have them still, but some have changed over to a timing chain which, in theory, lasts longer. Great, but I didn’t notice a problem. Why would I need a new one? You wouldn’t necessarily have any warning from the car if a timing belt is “going bad.” If it’s already broken, your car won’t start. If it’s on the way out, sometimes a squeak or an odd noise might give it away. If you were in for an oil change, a mysterious noise, or a service light from the dash, your mechanic may have noticed cracks on the belt or worn teeth that made him sound the alarm or he may be checking your mileage. Belt lifespan varies from model to model. At minimum, they’ll give you 60,000; some will double that and most will fall somewhere in between. Depending on your manufacturer recommendations, if you’re at 105,000 and you stare blankly at the tech when he asks if your belt has been changed, he’s likely going to recommend replacement. Even if you agree the belt needs to be changed, you have that dirty, four-letter word to contend with: COST. Parts are generally nothing special for this task, ranging from $150 to $250 in the most common models, even though certain models can be higher. What can often be misconstrued as fighting words is the labor cost. Also highly variable, labor could range from $170 to $600 or more.
The major factor is accessibility. To access the timing belt, you may be removing accessories, an engine timing cover, the water pump, pulleys, tensioners—no biggie if you have space to work under the hood but an unholy nightmare taking many labor hours if you’re poking around a V6 sedan with no easy access to inner parts. But that’s several hundred dollars I’m not prepared to part with yet. Do I really have to? No, the only things we have to do are pay taxes and die. Talk to your mechanic.
Cracks in the belt may not necessarily mean it’s bad. It could carry you a couple thousand more miles until you can sock away the cash. However, if your mechanic is particularly concerned for it’s condition, you may want to bite the bullet. No sense adding a tow bill and missing a morning of work to a project that’s already potentially costly.