I have had my 2003 Chevy Roadtrek for seven years and 113,000 miles now, and I have no complaints about the engine and transmission. All those years and miles, and I've never put a wrench on either, except for maintenance. What I have had to do, however, is replace some of the accessory drive components. Here's my history with maintaining these items, along with a few pointers on how much use you can expect out of each.
Accessory drive components are those things that are mounted on the front of the engine, and are driven by the serpentine belt, changing the engine's kinetic energy into various other forms of energy to help run your vehicle. They include the water pump, the alternator, the power steering pump, and the air conditioner compressor. Each is vital to operating your vehicle, and they're all mounted in a modular fashion so that it's not major surgery to replace them.
The two most vital are the alternator and the water pump/radiator fan. Back in the old days when cars were simple, there were three pulleys on the front of your car's motor, and a V-belt, the precursor of the modern serpentine belt, running around them. The crankshaft pulley drove the alternator and water pump, and you had circulation for your engine coolant and air through the radiator, and electricity to run your ignition system. That's basically all a car needed to keep running. Today, cars are too heavy to steer without power steering, and we're all wilting blossoms who can't live without air conditioning, so now we have four vital components, not two.
You may think it a bit excessive, but I replaced my alternator and fuel pump (an electrical pump in the fuel tank) a few years back while they were still going strong. Each of these is in the $150 price range. Throwing money away? Maybe. I will never know for sure, but losing either of these two components will stop you dead on the road wherever you are. I go places where it's a hundred miles or more to the nearest auto supply place, so I didn't want to take a chance. They were middle aged by average component life standards (they'd both be expected to last about ten years), and I didn't want to worry. So far so good – the new components have performed faultlessly.
Each of the other three components were replaced when they failed. The water pump started leaking three years ago, a little early since they usually last ten years or more, and it was an anxious moment when I looked down and saw the water temperature gauge in uncharted territory. One nice thing about the Roadtrek having an onboard supply of water is that you can just keep putting water in the coolant reservoir until you get to a place where you can repair your rig. Water pumps cost maybe $60-70.
The power steering pump didn't exactly fail – it started leaking after eight years or so, and I hate a messy engine, so I replaced it a couple of years ago. They're really nuisance money- maybe $40 for a rebuilt pump with reservoir, ready to bolt on, so it was an easy decision. The air conditioning compressor crapped out a year and a half ago, but I'm never in too hot a climate, so I just waited until I got back to my relative's house in Florida for a convenient workplace rather than replace it while on the road. They're a trifle spendy – about $220 for the compressor, and figure spending $300 by the time you buy all the other stuff and get it recharged with Freon. But it sure is nice to have air conditioning again after a few months without it. AC compressors usually last a dozen years or so – less in Florida where they're in use almost all year.
Is this a lot of work? Accessory component failure is frequent enough to be annoying, but it's what you do unless you want to trade your vehicle in every year or two and let someone else worry about it. I am closing in on 140,000 miles and am very happy with my rig. All in all, I spend a lot of time enjoying it, and relatively little time working on it and spending money on it – a much better ratio than back when I was young and my cars were all older than I was. You just have to realize that component failure is part of the automotive life cycle.
To keep your serpentine belt drive system happy, you also have to keep your eye on the idler and tensioner pulleys. These position the belt to best drive the accessories and also maintain proper belt tension. They are also nuisance money (less than $50), last ten years or so, and bolt on easily.
And now my power steering pump is starting to make some bearing noise on cold mornings. I looked at the receipts I saved – yep, 3 years and 36,000 miles for the parts warranty. They sure timed that one precisely. Oh well, time to get the tool box out again. It's a one hour job, and it'll last another three years or so.