Honda S-MX: 2000-mile review

Er, I’m not quite sure how it happened, but I seem to have clocked up 2000 miles in the S-MX already. About 2300 in fact. Blimey.

So, how has it gone? Seeing as I’m just back from yet another trip to the South East of England, I’m well placed to give a report.

Not entirely smoothly is how it’s gone. I’ve had to spend a fair bit of time, effort and money on improving this car, though the good news is that it feels like time, effort and money well spent. As already reported, the collection caper included fitting a new timing belt and water pump, as well as giving the poor thing a much-needed service and an optimistic transmission fluid change. That’s because these Honda gearboxes can be a bit weak. I found it was flaring, or revving up on downshifts, and also on upshifts when cold. I can’t say the fluid change has greatly improved matters, but it’s worth bearing in mind that you can only drop about half the fluid in the gearbox. I plan do it again and this time, remove all the solenoids and clean the gauze filters underneath. Hopefully that’ll speed up the changes. When I got the car home, I changed the thermostat, which got the torque converter lock-up working again. That does seem to have improved economy – it varies quite a bit between 32 and 36mpg on the previous two fills – I suspect because different pumps click off at different points. 32-34 is my gut feel. Not bad.

Honda S-MX on ramp

More work! Track rod ends get replaced.

I also had to get both track rod ends replaced, which then allowed me to get the tracking set correctly. It was way off, which destroyed a tyre and left it feeling exceedingly uncomfortable on wet bends. The local garage did this work, and I’m happy to report that it is much improved. That said, the steering is still hideously light – it seems they’re like that. This is not a car for hooning. It handles like a wardrobe on the Cresta Run.

That work included fitting a full set of Nokian Weather Proof all-season tyres. I’ve not tried all-season rubber before, so I look forward to seeing whether they really do work well in all conditions. Typically, it has been pretty much drought conditions since they went on, but they certainly grip well enough in the dry. They’re pretty quiet too.

At the same time, I liberally applied Bilt Hamber’s excellent Dynax UB anti-corrosion wax to the underside, having already treated the rear wheelarches to a dose of Vactan rust converter. None of this stuff was blagged by the way, this is all honest appraisal of stuff I paid for (though if I ever do blag stuff, I’m honest about that too!).

I was sent Autoglym’s Headlamp Restoration kit to try on my hideously ruined headlamps, and I can honestly say I’m very impressed with the results. I’ll do a more detailed report on that at some point, as it definitely deserves it. It’s so nice to have an actual headlamp beam pattern again! Night vision has been improved immensely. It’s quite a scary kit to use, because you make things a lot worse before making things better. Worth persevering with.

20160927_164006

Before. Note lens deterioration.

 

After

After. Note masking tape protecting the bodywork.

One small thing I did was paint the wiper arms using some matt black paint. That’s improved the looks no end, along with using Autoglym’s Bumper and Trim gel on the scuttle trim. Sadly, the paint on the roof remains terrible. I think it’s a combination of sun bleach and salt from surfboards. LIFESTYLE YO!

I also had to replace the rear washer pump, which became a bit of a farce. I discovered that the front washer pump was also leaking – huge globules of sealant hinted that someone had already tried to fix this one. A new pump sorted it out, so I ended up replacing both pumps in the end. Screenwash consumption has dropped dramatically! A drop or two of Captain Tolley’s Creeping Crack Cure seems to have cured a small leak at the rear washer jet itself. Water was dribbling down the inside of the rear window.

There’s still stuff to do though. The rear anti-roll bar drop links are utterly ruined. I’ve no idea how they got through an MOT to be honest. Thankfully, replacement looks easy, and they’re shared with an Accord, but I’m still waiting for another pay day to pass before sorting them out. It’ll be nice to banish the constant rattle from the back end. I wonder about a fresh set of dampers too, as it is really quite bouncy! Being a Lowdown model doesn’t help – it has shorter, stiffer springs from the factory – but firm doesn’t have to mean bouncy. Given the pitiful level of car this poor car has received in the past, it wouldn’t surprise me if the dampers are the originals.

Then, as mentioned earlier, I need to do another transmission fluid change and see if I can get the gearbox to behave. It’s generally fine, for a good 99% of the time. In fact, it’s a rather pleasant car to waft around in. It sailed back from Sussex with no bother at all. It’s like driving a cosy armchair. I’ve even got deep pile carpet mats, so I drove home in my slippers.

Amazingly, I still like this car!

Amazingly, I still like this car!

I really like this car though, which has surprised me. Hopefully that means an end to the frantic flurry of car changes during the latter part of this year.

 

 

Honda S-MX: Life on the road

The Honda has responded well to a dose of TLC. On Friday, I changed the thermostat, and this has fixed the gearbox. Brilliant! But how?

Fixing the engine, to fix the gearbox.

Fixing the engine, to fix the gearbox.

It turns out that the Honda’s electronic brain will not allow the torque converter to lock-up if the engine is not at full operating temperature. The lock-up feature is a major improvement to the world of automatic transmissions, and effectively bypasses the automatic bit by locking the engine to the road wheels, just like a manual transmission does. Without the lock up, the transmission relies on the torque converter, which in simple terms, is like a fluid turbine. The engine spins the fluid, which acts on the stator of the gearbox to create forward movement. This means you don’t need a clutch, because if you stop, the spinning fluid can’t overpower the brakes.

Anyway, with the torque converter locked up, engine speed is reduced (by around 250rpm) and, because transmission and engine are now physically linked together, it improves efficiency. The torque converter loses efficiency because all that spinning motion generates heat. Heat demonstrates the lack of efficiency, and indicates why automatics usually have a transmission cooler…

Changing the thermostat was pretty easy. There’s a drain tap on the radiator to drain the coolant, and just two 10mm bolts holding the ‘stat in place. Not that accessing them is all that easy – ratchet spanners proved ideal.

This all means that I wafted along the M54 on Saturday in a rather more relaxing manner than my run up the M5 after collection the car. The new thermostat, of course, also means quicker engine warming first thing, and that it maintains that temperature on the move. All this means better efficiency and hopefully, better mpg. Sadly, this hasn’t yet been borne out by the figures – the second tank of fuel seems to have returned 28mpg rather than the 32 of the first. That did include rather a lot of motorway driving at or around the speed limit, whereas the first tank involved some of that, but also rather more 60mph limit single-carriageway.

The trek along the M54 was the start of a 600-mile trip that saw me end up in Kent, then driving all the way back to Wales. The news is generally good. I’ve now covered 1000 miles in the S-MX in total and I still like it a lot. I’ve improved the bed situation with a self-inflating mattress, and while it’s still a bit uneven, I managed two nights of pretty good kip in it.

Not the most comfortable bed, but it is a bed nonetheless.

Not the most comfortable bed, but it is a bed nonetheless.

I do need to improve the headlamps though. They’re a bit dim at night. I’m hoping the newly-arrived Autoglym headlamp restoration kit can help here (see next update, probably). I do also still need to sort the alignment out and fit some new tyres. It makes embarrassing squeals on some surfaces, and just does not feel planted.

It must be said though, I still like it a lot. It may corner with all the grace of Boris Johnson in a thong, but unlike BoJo, I just want to spend time with it. Could this be the start of Good Times?

S-MX has been hard at work already, helping with both magazines.

S-MX has been hard at work already, helping with both magazines.

Honda S-MX: Time for TLC

Having awoken in Cornwall, it was time to head to a friend on Autoshite who happens to run a garage. The seller of the S-MX claimed there was no history of a timing belt change in the service history. This turned out to be lies, but I didn’t realise it at the point of sale. Thinking the timing belt was probably in dire need of replacement, I’d booked it in to be done, and my pal had offered a very good rate.

Off with the top cover. How old is the timing belt?

Off with the top cover. How old is the timing belt?

It didn’t take him long to get cracking. He’s a bit of a Honda fan boy, so I knew the car was in good hands. I opted to replace tensioner and water pump as well, having been let down by a cheap water pump on the RAV (fitted by a previous owner). I’d rather know everything is ok.

I also decided to change the oil and filter while we were there. With the oil filter buried down the back of the engine, this turned out to be a wise move. Much easier with the car raised several feet into the air. The filter looked quite old.

Yuck! Clearly not changed for a while.

Yuck! Clearly not changed for a while.

The amount of Japanese writing was slightly worrying. Could it be the one fitted to the car when it arrived in the UK in 2008?! Having since gone through the hardly-comprehensive history, there is no mention of basic servicing. A timing belt change and alignment checks yes, but not a sausage about a basic ‘oil and filters’ change. In fact, the timing belt change included a transmission fluid swap too, yet apparently not an engine oil change! Worrying. The state of the air filter also confirmed sheer ignorance of the basics.

Spot the difference. Bleargh!

Spot the difference. Bleargh!

The air filter (red) was quickly ordered up from a local factors at short notice. You’ll note there was no trouble locating one. Thankfully, a lot of items are shared with other cars.

I don’t really understand this level of neglect. Yes, a Honda should be a reliable car, but any car needs looking after to give its best! I can’t comprehend this level of sheer ignorance.

I also decided to replace the transmission fluid. It turns out that this had been done three years ago, but it still looked pretty horrible.

ATF fluid should be clean and red. This is neither.

ATF fluid should be clean and red. This is neither.

That’s the sort of condition that I tell people to run away from when I’m writing buyer’s guides. I never was one for following my own good advice…

The fact that it had already had a fluid change three years ago suggests this is not a gearbox in the best of health. The slipping into gears simply confirms the fact. Hopefully, it’ll keep soldiering on…

My friend also replaced the melted headlamp connectors, so hopefully my headlamp woes have now been banished. With fresh fluids (including fresh antifreeze), I was ready to continue my journey. I refuelled just before crossing the border back into Devon again having finally used up the ‘free’ fuel that came with the car.

After an overnight halt in Bideford, I drove back today. It was a pretty blissful journey to be honest, with little traffic and a very pleasant halt at Gloucester Services.

Bar Tebay, the nicest motorway services in the UK.

Bar Tebay, the nicest motorway services in the UK.

By the way, note how neatly the rear fog light has been fitted. Far better than a lot of grey imports, where a square, dirt cheap aftermarket job is hanging by its wire after the bracket inevitably failed. This is a lot smarter. Though it doesn’t actually work…

The services marked the end of the motorway section, which the S-MX dispatched with great merit. It sails along very nicely at motorway speeds. Still not sure about the torque converter lock up, but fourth is a lot taller than third. No idea what’s going on to be honest, but it feels very comfortable at motorway pace, and excellent, large door mirrors are a big boon.

It does lose its composure on more minor roads though. Generally, it’s fine bar the light steering, but if a bend tightens, it feels slightly like it’s going to fall over its outside front wheel. The Nippa does something very similar. The RAV4, despite a notably tall stance, does not do this. You do have to accept that it is going to kickdown a fair bit too. Top gear is so tall that it runs out of puff, but third gear is so short that it’s immediately up at 4000rpm. Generally though, it’s not bad at all. Respect its limits and it’s fine.

After 285 miles, I had to stop for fuel again. This allowed my first fill-to-fill calculation. I was quite pleased when the sums revealed a figure of 31.95mpg. My hope was that it would do 32mpg. My hope was not in vain.

S-MX

Refuelling for a second time. 32mpg achieved!

Now, 32mpg is perhaps not that impressive by modern standards, but it’s pretty good for the time given the boxy dimensions, the engine size, the automatic gearbox and the fact that the engine is not running as efficiently as it might due to the stuck thermostat. Certainly not diesel economy, but then it runs on less smelly fuel and sounds a lot nicer too.

In conclusion then, this one is far from perfect, but doesn’t seem a bad base for further improvement. Certainly, it seemed nicely solid when it was up on the ramp, though I’ll need to protect it with anti-corrosion products aplenty to keep it healthy through a Welsh winter.

I’m going to boldly put this one down as a good buy then. Let’s hope it lasts longer than the Rover…

1200 miles in a £230 car

Now with video! (scroll down)

I’m quite rubbish at buying cars. I was going to buy a Lexus, but somehow ended up with a Mitsubishi Colt 1500 GLX automatic. This was clearly not going to be the ideal vehicle for our upcoming holiday to France, so panic measures were resorted to.

That meant heading to Ebay to see what was actually suitable for such a trip, and what was cheap. The Rover 600 was an obvious contender, the purchase of which I’ve already covered. Now, it was time to find out how it would do on the trip.

Firstly, I decided to investigate the air conditioning. It wasn’t working, and a heatwave was forecast. I decided to ask my local garage to investigate, and they found a failed hose. There was no time to source a new one, but they reckoned a local agricultural firm could make a new hose with the existing connectors. All was going well until, the night before we were due to depart, the new hose blew apart. One of the connectors had not been sufficiently crimped. This was especially annoying as I’d actually dug my bicycle out of the storeroom and ridden it 4.6 miles to collect the car! The hose was swiftly removed and the garage offered to try and get it remade the next morning. I decided to take the gamble, even though that meant collecting the car on the day we were due to leave.

The day of departure arrived and I got to the garage just as the new hose had been fitted. It was time to fire it up! Thankfully, the new hose held, and beautifully chilled air came out of the vents (after I’d previously fixed the blower motor). Fantastic! I said my thanks, drove back home, we loaded the car and headed off to our overnight stop in Sussex.

It was already pretty sweltering, so I was glad of the air con. It truly transforms a motorway journey in the summer, because you can keep the windows up. That makes it much, much more peaceful. We even managed to listen to music at a reasonable volume. Perfect.

However, our joy was not to last. During the latter stages of our trek along the M4, I began to notice that horrible hot-electric smell that suggests all is not well. It reminds me of model railways, when dirt is making it difficult for the voltage to get through to the wheels. Sure enough, when we hit traffic on the M25, it became apparent that the fan was not actually spinning – the cool air had merely been a result of the ram air effect of travelling at speed – or perhaps that ram air had been helping the fan to spin. Either way, it was back to windows down.

I did briefly consider trying to strip the motor out at my sister-in-law’s house, but decided eating dinner was a better idea. I also didn’t fancy having a car in bits hours before our chunnel crossing. Noisy windows it was then – at least it was cool on the eurotunnel train!

We then had several hours of French autoroutes to contend with, and it was noisy going. Until I decided to just run the air con with the ram air effect. At 130kmh, this worked very well and we were kept at a comfortable temperature. It only fell down whenever we stopped.

There followed a few days of family, too much delicious food and much sitting around before I got a chance to get the fan motor out.

Essential holiday antics - fan blower motor removal.

Essential holiday antics – fan blower motor removal.

Removing the fan quickly revealed that all was not well. It was reluctant to turn and indeed, was refusing to do so entirely without a little assistance. I recruited my father-in-law to investigate, as I knew he’d enjoy the project. With the motor apart, we could see the problem pretty clearly.

Trying to revive the motor with a clean-up.

Trying to revive the motor with a clean-up.

That’s some pretty drastic wear on the commutator. That step at the end of the brush should not be there. The brushes too were pretty worn. We were hardly going to find replacements in the middle of rural France on a Sunday afternoon, so a bottle of meths was provided, and we settled for just cleaning things up as much as possible. That included using a cocktail stick to clean out the carbon muck between each of those segments to reduce the possibility of short circuit. The brushes act on each of those segments in turn. I also cleaned out the nose bearing and the guides the brushes sit in, to ensure they could move freely.

With that done, I then reassembled the motor and a bit of machine oil was added to the nose bearing. With some scepticism, I plugged the motor back into the car’s loom and prepared to turn it on. Well, I was glad I’d got a firm grip of the motor housing, as the difference was staggering! It had gone from a lumpy, reluctant rotation to generating so much torque that it threatened to rip itself from my grasp! I looked all dramatic as the huge movement of air blew my hair backwards. This was a proper little wind machine.

Now all I had to do was reassemble everything, which I did with only one screw remaining. I’m clearly getting better at this lark. The next day, we went sight-seeing and enjoyed beautiful air conditioning once again. Lovely!

Of course, it didn’t last. The next day was even hotter, and having left the car parked all day, I moved it to a better position for loading up, prior to our long drive home. I turned on the air con, but the vents resolutely refused to chuck out air that was very cool. Sadly, that continued for our drive home. The pump was kicking in, but the air conditioning unit merely made a wheezing sort of a noise and no cold was forthcoming. Bother!

Things got even worse at the Eurotunnel entrance, where British security checks were causing a major hold up. We queued for ages, at the hottest part of the day, with not a cloud to be seen.

Feeling hot. V8 Mustang sounded nice though!

Feeling hot. V8 Mustang sounded nice though!

It was pretty much unbearable, though things improved when we opened both front doors. There was hardly a breath of wind though. Seriously sticky. At least the train was a little cooler, and it was also a fair chunk less scalding in Dover too. Phew. It got a lot hotter soon enough though, with the M25 being pretty bad. I knew there was a weather front heading along the M4 though. If we kept going, perhaps we could meet it!

Having refuelled 45 minutes from Calais, I certainly didn’t need to stop for fuel, but we eventually reached Cricklade in Gloucestershire, where it was decided that tea was most definitely needed. It had been 400 miles since our last brew! Seconds after we sat down, there was a power cut, but it was ok. We had tea. And possibly scones…

As we headed towards Wales, things became cooler still. We eventually arrived home at just after ten pm, having covered well over 500 miles that day, and some 1200 miles in total.

And here’s the thing. While the air conditioning certainly played up, the rest of the car just did what a car should. I drove it at 70-80mph (80mph=130kmh on the Frenchside) for hour after hour. It had to queue in major jams (Calais and M25). It never overheated, it never needed a drop of fluid. It was all quite boring really. In fact, if it weren’t for the air con related woes, it would have been a thoroughly boring experience that would hardly have been worth writing about. It just proves that £230 really can buy you an entirely capable vehicle. I still reckon it looks superb too. It may not be a Lexus, but it might just be the best value car I’ve ever bought.

Resting in the heat at the French services. What a car!

Resting in the heat at the French services. What a car!

New Rover: What’s it like?

Apologies for the radio silence. Things have been rather busy of late. However, the new Rover has been collected. It didn’t make for a particularly exciting collection caper though. I handed over £230, drove it to London, stopped the night, actually had to put some fuel in it, then drove back home to Wales. The only problems were both indicator related – the offside side indicator fell out of the wing (it had obviously been glued in after failing before) in the final few miles, and the nearside front indicator bulb fell out of its housing (and then into the lamp where I couldn’t retrieve it) somewhere around Gloucester.

So, what of the car? First, some boring geekery. The Rover 600 is very much a Honda Accord. No surprise there, as most of Rovers cars at this time had shared development with Honda. Here’s the thing though, of all the Rondas, the 600 was the one that Rover had least say in, under the skin at least. Honda didn’t want to mess with a successful formula, so Rover were pretty much restricted to styling tweaks. What tweaks they were though! Here’s a Honda Accord of this period.

The 1995 Honda Accord yawnfest.

Bland is the key word. The rear end is even worse. A featureless rump that has absolutely no design interest whatsoever. Now, Rover had a challenge. It had to use the same basic structure as this, with the same windscreen, roofline and even the front doors. Yet somehow, designer Richard Woolley came up with this marvellous design.

Rover's design magic.

Rover’s design magic.

Frankly, I consider the 600 one of the best looking Rovers of all time. I rate it ahead of the 75, which always looked a bit bulky to me – and the front indicators were always odd, or even ugly. I may concede that a P4, 5 or 6 win it, but move into the 1980s and 1990s and there’s simply nothing to touch it. In my opinion.

Under the bonnet, there’s a further step away from Honda as Rover’s own L-Series turbo diesel is fitted. This is a rather fine evolution of the old Perkins Prima, as used in the Maestro and Montego, but now with electronic control of the throttle – albeit with a cable still involved. It’s a bloody marvellous engine, with practically no turbo lag at all. It pulls very smoothly indeed from just 1000rpm. Honda actually started to use this engine in its own cars. It is very good – I’d rate it as even better than the 2.1 turbo diesel in my old XM. It isn’t as powerful though, a shade over 100bhp in quite a large car. It never feels slow though, just not neck-snappingly brisk.

The steering is good too, though it was some hours and well over 150 miles into my ownership until I really got to exploit it on entertaining terrain – ie Welsh border country. It turns in very nicely and doesn’t have the worrying nose-heavy feeling of the XM.

Looks nice from behind too.

Looks nice from behind too.

It ambles along beautifully at motorway speeds too, which is good. Frankly, the only reason I have bought this car is because I need something good at motorway speeds. I’ve only used quarter of a tank of fuel so far (65 litres, 15 smaller than the XM), so I’ve no idea what the economy is like. Pretty bloody good is my best guess.

Downsides? Well, naturally, there are some. For a start, the suspension is rather on the firm side. Pity the poor Rover engineers who must have wanted something rather more supple. Instead, they got Honda’s short-travel, double-wishbone suspension. It makes the handling superb, but at the cost of ride comfort. It does crash a bit over broken terrain (ie London streets), and never really feels like it’s settling. It’s always jiggling about. Mind you, I’ve driven many modern cars that behave in exactly the same way, so maybe it was just ahead of its time…

I must concede that I’m not entirely won over by the colour either. These cars actually work well in lighter shades. I would have liked a sunroof too, and that was made even more desirable by the non-working fan blower motor and therefore non-working air conditioning. I’ll include something about that in my next report.

The gearchange isn’t the best either. I know bits on this one have been replaced, so it feels nice and tight, but it is also heavy in operation. It’s not great for quick changes.

But mostly, this story is all about the positives. The Ti-spec seats are a touch firm perhaps, but I got out after six hours at the wheel with no notable backache. There is a flick wipe feature. I can listen to Test Match Special on long wave radio. There is a foot rest (something I always longed for in the XM) for your left foot. I also got a ton of history with the car, including the owner’s handbook.

Frankly, it seems utterly ridiculous that such a good looking, competent car can be bought for so little money. Rover 75s attract plenty of enthusiasts, but the 600 remains overlooked. Having owned both, I know which I prefer already.

The next report will contain fault-finding and even some eradication! After that, I’ll be putting 1200 miles on it in a week. Let’s hope it really is reliable…

Mitsu Mission – I don’t like it

After not even a fortnight of ownership, I have come to the conclusion that I really don’t like my 1987 Mitsubishi Colt.

Colt hatch

Sorry Colt, but you’re not for me. Easier to get in than the sports cars in the background though!

Poor F774 NDL shouldn’t be considered a dreadful car though. That would discredit it when it has been quite remarkably loyal in the 500+ miles I’ve covered since purchase. It has done everything I have asked of it. As a conveyance, it is brilliant.

But, it is not just ordinary to drive, it’s actually unpleasant at times. It has steering which inspires as much confidence as a speech by Donald Trump. The engine sounds about as exciting as underwater snooker. It has all the body control of a walrus in a wheelbarrow. It is to car handling dynamics what baked beans are to the world of fine cuisine.

Sure, I admire it’s ability to start, impeccably every time, just as I admire beans on toast, but this will not go down as one of my better purchases. To be fair, the list of not-very-good purchases is very long in my case…

Do I regard this as a disaster then? No, I do not. I greatly enjoyed buying a sub-£300 car and trusting it with my 500-mile crazy roadtrip weekend. I also appreciate the chance to reset my baseline when it comes to trying other vehicles. It doesn’t pay to stay too blinkered in one particular area. I’m appreciating Citroen BXs and XMs all the more right now, for their remarkable blend of comfort and handling. It’s an opportunity to forget the flaky electronics and problematic brake calipers! Hmmmm, rose tinted glasses.

It’s proof that I love variety. During the short time I’ve owned this vehicle, I’ve been able to drive it back-to-back with a Jaguar XK140, a Nissan 300ZX Z31 and a Toyota Supra Mk3. The Colt is much easier to climb in and out of than all of them, and has a more comfortable ride. See? It does have good points!

But, it has also served to remind me what I really want in a car. Handling prowess is important. I like to drive a car that feels like it wants to corner well. But not at the cost of comfort. I don’t like being jolted, so an actual sports car probably isn’t what I want. That’s why the Prelude had to go (fantastic handling, but it was rather firm of suspension).

To be fair to the Colt, I fell out of love with the Austin Maestro for very similar reasons. Oddly, I found the van version more entertaining to drive. It’s also why the Nissan Bluebird didn’t tick the magic box for me. Even a Volkswagen Golf Mk2 proved a disappointment – more for ride than handling. Dynamics are important to me. I think it’s why I like French cars so much. They really understand suspension.

Another car that didn't tick sufficient boxes.

Another car that didn’t tick sufficient boxes.

So, the search is on for the next vehicle. I’ve done a lot of head scratching already, but I think what I’d really like to own is something actually nice! I will be attempting to do that after a little holiday in France. I was hoping to buy something pleasant in which to travel, but I bought the Colt instead. So, it looks like the RAV4 will be getting that gig after all. Who knows what I’ll end up with after all this!