Home » If Your Car Has A Timing Belt, It’s Not Really ‘Reliable’

If Your Car Has A Timing Belt, It’s Not Really ‘Reliable’

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The legendary Toyota Land Cruiser, the unstoppable XV20 Toyota Camry, generations of Honda Accords, the smooth and trusty Lexus LS — these are often mistakenly considered some of the most reliable cars of all time. I say “mistakenly,” because all of these vehicles are expected to grenade themselves after ~100,000 miles unless you tear their engine apart and spend four figures on a major repair job. That major repair job is replacing a timing belt, a part whose presence — in my opinion — disqualifies any vehicle from being considered truly “reliable.” Here’s why.

I realize this is a smoking hot take that might send Land Cruiser and Honda fans fuming, but it’s actually quite straightforward; it’s time for those of us hypnotized by factory maintenance guidelines to snap out of it. A timing belt does not fall under “regular maintenance” any more than a head gasket swap does (on a pushrod motor). It’s a major job, it’s not cheap, and it should be considered a substantial repair. Because the manufacturer decided to include an unnecessary consumable in the bowels of the engine, a 100 Series Land Cruiser or Camry or Accord has to go into the shop for a $1,300 repair after only seven years on the road; nothing about that is “reliable” (unless we take the word literally — in which case you can reliably expect to lose lots of money every 100,000 or so miles).

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Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s take a step back and talk about what prompted an even spicier edition of David’s Takes (my op-ed that runs every Sunday) than last week’s “It’s Time To Stop Hating On Fancy Pickup Trucks.” A few years ago, I was the proud owner of a 2001 Lexus LX470 — the Lexus version of the 100 Series Toyota Land Cruiser. The vehicle is, almost universally, considered to be one of the most reliable SUVs of all time. You’ll see it on safaris in Africa, on 15,000-mile overlanding trips through South America, and bouncing all over the Pacific Northwest and on Rocky Mountain trails; the 100 Series Land Cruiser is rough-and-tumble, and the vast majority of its reputation has been built on its longevity.

The Unstoppable Land Cruiser Is Stoppable. Every 90,000 Miles

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My 2001 (shown above) had 265,000 miles on it and ran beautifully. It towed my Jeep Forward Control across the country while keeping the Lexus’ cabin almost perfectly silent; the LX was really a no-bullshit SUV for me, and I enjoyed driving it.

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But as I wrote more and more stories about my adventures in that vehicle and read comments from Toyota fans stating how unstoppable that 4.7-liter V8 is, I decided to do a bit more research into the smoothest V8 engine I’d ever heard, and that’s when I spotted this in the Scheduled Maintenance Guide:

Replace Belt Schedule

 

This changed my whole perception of the motor.

This engine, known to be one of the most reliable of all time, has to have its timing belt changed every 90,000 miles. Since the average American drives around 13,000 miles per year, that means the belt has to be swapped every seven years. That’d be like buying a 2017 car today with 90,000 on it, and then the engine blowing up. Would anyone call that a reliable engine? No.

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But that’s what could happen if you forewent that timing belt job.

For those of you who don’t know, a timing belt is what connects the rotation of the crankshaft — which dictates the position of the pistons in their cylinders — to the camshafts, which dictate the positions of the intake/exhaust valves for each cylinder. It’s extremely important that the timing of the valves relative to each piston’s position in its stroke is precisely managed.

With a cylinder’s exhaust valves shut, the intake valves have to open as the piston goes down to suck in air; intake valves have to close as the piston moves back up to compress that air charge; both sets of valves have to remain shut as the piston is shot down during its combustion stroke; and then the exhaust valves have to open as the piston rises to expel its exhaust, ultimately out of the tailpipe.

If the valve timing — which is set by the timing belt spanning the sprockets at the ends of the crankshaft and camshafts — is altered, and, say, the intake valves are open when the piston rises up during its exhaust or compression stroke, the piston can hit the valves and destroy them. This could require a major engine repair. This happened to my colleague Jason.

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It’s Too Risky To Skip 90,000 Mile ‘Service.’ But It’s Not An Easy Job

Jason owns a VW Tiguan 2.0T; when the car was 10 years old with 120,000 miles on the clock, its engine blew up (the pistons hit the valves and bent them) because the timing chain failed (see video above). Google “VW Tiguan timing chain failures” and you’ll see that this is a rampant problem that has, in many people’s eyes, ruined the first-gen Tiguan’s reputation. Meanwhile, the Toyota Land Cruiser and my old 1995 Honda Accord and various Toyota Camrys behave in exactly the same way; after 10 years or 120,000 miles, their timing systems can fail (their belts snap), and the interference engines can grenade themselves. And yet, these vehicles have a great reputation while the Tiguan doesn’t. Why? Simply because Toyota/Honda writes in their manual that the timing belt is a maintenance item? So all VW had to do it write in its service manual: “Replace timing chain at 90,000” miles and the Tiguan’s rep would have been saved?

Does this mean that all GM had to put in the Saturn Vue’s service manual was “replace JATCO continuously variable transmission at 120,000 miles” and the car would have a sterling reputation? All Subaru had to write in its service manuals is “replace head gaskets at 90,000 miles” and it’d change the way people see Subarus?

On some level, the answer is “yes,” because knowing when things are about to fail is pretty darn valuable. These cars with timing belts tell you: “Your engine is about to fail. Take it in to have the engine serviced,” and that’s useful. Having a transmission or head gasket or timing chain fail suddenly and unpredictably makes driving a car miserable. I’m also being a little facetious, because swapping a transmission, timing chain, and even a head gasket is typically harder than changing a timing belt, but still! It’s not like changing a timing belt is easy; it’s a job! (One that I’ve done too many times).

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On the Land Cruiser — which is among the easier vehicles on which to swap out a timing chain, as it has a longitudinal engine layout —  you’ve got to drain the cooling system, remove the radiator, take apart the accessory drive, undo the crankshaft pulley (which usually requires a HUGE breaker bar), and on and on. Some novice wrenchers say the job takes them 10 hours, though some who have done it before seem to be able to do it in half that time. Either way, it’s rough.

‘You’ve Got To Be Kidding Me’

Check out the video above and listen to this quote by YouTuber “The Car Wizard.” In the background is a relatively new Honda that needs a timing belt. The Car Wizard discusses a typical interaction with an owner who has to have this “service” done:

“So [customers] call up and say ‘How much is it gonna cost to do my timing belt service?’ And I look it up and figure it all up and I say ‘It’s gonna be $1300.’ And I hear the phone hit the ground. And they pick it back up and they’re like: ‘You’ve got to be kidding me!'”

That owner’s response makes perfect sense. Here’s this car known for its reliability, and it has to have a $1,300 engine service done every seven years. Meanwhile, many cars with timing chains have to do nothing. Zero. Nada. Timing chains and their guides/tensioners — if properly designed (Jason’s Tiguan proved that not all of them are) — are meant to last the entire life of the vehicle. In the case of a pushrod engine, they pretty much never fail, and engines with timing gears? Even better.

Well-Designed Timing Chains Never Have To Be Replaced

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So coming back to my Land Cruiser — it has a great, buttery-smooth and torquey engine, and I love how it makes oil changes and other basic maintenance easy. But the reality is that, by the time I got rid of the vehicle, its engine was due for its third timing belt replacement. That’s three times $1,300 — almost $4,000 to do something that, in my view, you should never have to do in the first place.

Why would I ever consider an engine reliable when it needed $4,000 in repairs done to it to get to 270,000 miles? My Grand Cherokee above, which had similar mileage, almost certainly never needed a new timing chain. Granted, it wasn’t an overhead cam design (meaning the cam and crankshaft are quite close, so the chain is tiny), but the point is, if an engine requires a new timing belt every seven years, then I’m just never going to consider it reliable. I could have bought an entirely new engine for my Jeep and still come out ahead over the Land Cruiser 4.7-liter V8’s timing belt jobs.

In my view, a reliable engine is one that’ll do 250,000 miles with basic maintenance. A good example is the Mazda MZR 2.5, also called the Ford Duratec 2.5; it’s a four-cylinder with a timing chain, and because it’s so well designed, the engine requires only basic maintenance. Basic. That means oil changes, maybe some new things on the accessory drive like the alternator or water pump, some filters here and there, new plugs, maybe a few ignition coils, and that’s about it. These are all relatively cheap and easy things to swap. A timing belt is not.

Compare a Honda F22B, which requires a pricy timing belt swap every 7 years to a Mazda MZR 2.5, which requires oil and filter changes, and you’ll understand why I consider the latter the truly reliable motor.

To Be Sure…

To be sure, timing belts can last longer than 90,000 miles (though some are expected to be changed at 60,000 miles). Heck, some have had them last 150,000 miles or more. But the reality is that the risk of blowing up the engine is too high, and this leads most folks to follow roughly the recommended service schedule. It’s also worth noting that Toyota Land Cruisers are known to survive timing belt failures, so even if you were to try to stretch that change out to 150,000 miles, there’s a chance that if the belt snaps, the engine will be fine. (Still, in general, timing belt failures in interference engines can often lead to bent valves or damaged pistons; it’s not worth risking it).

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It’s also worth mentioning that, while The Car Wizard’s $1,300 quote does line up with typical timing belt jobs you see posted to the web (especially recently, as labor rates have skyrocketed in the past few years), historically it’s been possible to do a timing belt at an independent shop for $600 to $700.

It’s also worth mentioning that some timing belts are easier to change than others. But I’ve done the job a few times, and it’s never been remotely fun. It’s easier to swap a head gasket on my Jeep 4.0.

Anyway, there’s a reason why timing belts are pretty much gone from modern engines. Expecting such an intensive and expensive service every seven or so years is just ridiculous. The weight/noise/cost reduction just isn’t worth it. As you can see in this table, Toyota has moved on from the clearly inferior technology:

I try to avoid engines with timing belts. In my eyes, they’re just not worth the worry, especially if it’s not clear when the latest belt-change was done. This isn’t a concern for a well-designed timing-chain engine.

Image credits: Toyota, Genems Systems via YouTube screenshot

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Baron Usurper
Baron Usurper
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I’m loving these articles DT! (serious)

J Money
J Money
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

It’s so weird how mad everyone gets (I know, this is the whole point of comments/replies on the internet) when they hear an opinion that is different from their own. And in this case, it’s backed up by facts….you can love your timing belt time bombs, people — but the fact remains that they’re time bombs.

Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
3 months ago
Reply to  J Money

The problem is his opinion is in theory. Most of the replies, mine included, are in practice. In practice the opinion is chains suck because of poor implementation. He can certainly have it, but it’s kind of like saying I’d be cute if I wasn’t so fucking fat.

Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
Bjorn A. Payne Diaz
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

I know. I shouldn’t have said it that way. Apologies. All else Chains are better than belts yes. Modern implementation of chains I don’t like as the OEMs are cheap and belts are cheap enough to make them good and chains are pricey and lead to cost cutting and failure.

That said, I find it interesting that although they don’t have nearly the market share as chains, belt driven bicycles are far more reliable even in single speed form than chain driven bicycles. Now, a difference is you need a special frame (or to cut yours!) to use a belt drive on a bicycle.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

David, I feel like it’s not really the issue of the points you make in the article, but more of the issue of using the word “unreliable” in comparison to timing belts, and then using images of a Honda Accord, Toyota Camry, and 100 series Land Cruiser/LX. Three vehicles known for their reliability, unless you skip the timing belt service interval, and/or cheap out on parts (i.e. not paying for a new tensioner(s)… that’s the owners, and maybe the technicians fault.

Doing a timing belt service isn’t fun, some are really easy (i.e. Ford Pinto Motors in Rangers) some look to be a fucking nightmare (Ferrari 360 Modena).

However, timing belt service IS part of routine maintenance. If you don’t want to buy a car with a timing belt, that’s understandable. But I feel like you should respect reliable cars that did use belts as, what they are…reliable cars. Much like the cheap Sienna you purchased that made it to >230k miles on a timing belt system, maybe it was even the original belt? Probably not though…

Side-note: go ahead and search the internet for what owners are saying about their timing chains (and associated hardware) needing replacement on Ford 3.5/3.7Ls (ecoboost or not), GM 3.6Ls, VW/Audi I4’s/V6’s/V8’s, various BMW motors, JLR V8/V6 post-2009, etc…

MOPAR switched from a belt drive SOHC to a chain drive DOHC arrangement going from the 3.2/3.5L to the 2.7L…. and we all know the 2.7L is garbage vs. it’s close relatives.

Why am I so adamant (borderline being a turd) about this issue? If you were a dealer tech (or independent) who got paid to work on enough OHC motors with timing chain issues, and stupid timing chain designs, I promise you, you would understand my position better.

I hope you feel that you aren’t being attacked, because that’s not cool. And at the end of the day, it’s all just opinions, and a matter of preference.

david kenney II
david kenney II
3 months ago

I agree with you and have done the chain replacements on some of these vehicles. unfortunately there may be an audi 4.2 chain service in my future, (customers car, not mine).

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
3 months ago

Yikes…sorry to hear that. Unless it pays good flat-rate and you’ve done it before so you know how to do it quicker?

Would you rather have to do the timing belt service on an older Audi 4.2 V8?

Col Lingus
Col Lingus
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Good story DT. Thanks. Learned my lesson about 35 years ago. No more timing bels ever. Never had a big issue, but I refuse to buy another car with a timing belt.
Thanks again.

MP81
MP81
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

Tell that to Audi S4 owners with timing chains on the back of the engine, against the firewall that definitely requires service.

Ok_Im_here
Ok_Im_here
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

As a Honda Odyssey owner, I’ve been waiting for someone to say this. I love this minivan, but this is the thing I literally have to bank money for. And I know a few people who have said “we had all kinds of serious engine problems with ours” and the first question out of my mouth is, “did you do the schedule timing belt and transmission fluid changes?” Honda’s are particularly finicky about both. I swear the only reason why the timing belt is there is because Honda makes money on it.

Anonymous Person
Anonymous Person
3 months ago
Reply to  David Tracy

We just bought the new 2024 Trax LS with the 1.2L Turbo 3-cyl. The owner’s manual says to change the timing belt and oil pump at 150,000 miles. Of course, you never have to touch the transmission fluid (6-speed auto) for the life of the car (transmission) unless it’s used in a “severe duty” application.
Our local stealership included the “Warranty Forever™ program in the MSRP of the vehicle. As long as I bring it to the stealership (or any certified service center if I call a toll-free number and let them know first) for all scheduled maintenance and promise to never personally do any oil changes or scheduled service on the vehicle, they will, in turn, cover the entire powertrain from the turbocharger all the way to the front wheel bearings for the life of the vehicle or until the cost of the repair exceeds the NADA book value of the vehicle.
I’m skeptical, but does this make it more “reliable”?

Ernestas
Ernestas
1 month ago

This article just shows in what crazy world we are living in. What people consider as reliable makes no sense. Ferrari can be considered as exceptionally reliable cars. They are just going to bankrupt you in maintenance costs. This flawed logic which you hold has no merit. People never thought about their concept of reliability and thus it doesn’t hold to scrutiny.

Timing belts are ridiculous. A reliable car is one which can be maintained with minimal costs over long period of time. Most German cars are just ticking time bombs. You are going to need belt replacement regularly. That is a very expensive job of disassembling the engine in order to replace piece of rubber. Over a thousand euros spent over something trivial which timing chain completely eliminates is insane.

Are you aware what is normal maintenance cost for a reliable car? 500 euros annually (or twice per year if not used a lot). Having to constantly do maintenance jobs which are worth half of old car’s cost is really bad. You are just throwing money away while big corporations are just raking in cash. They save few bucks by going cheap timing belt while you spend thousands replacing those belts. A reliable car would not have plastic inside engine block which routinely cracks every 5 years. It would have metal parts which would last for a lifetime.

German cars are no longer good. Volkswagen are known to be a money pit to maintain. People make a bad purchase and they get accustomed to what they are used to. Hence, brand image and popularity of sub-par cars from manufacturers which never get their act together.

Box Rocket
Box Rocket
2 months ago

I’ve been thinking about this article for a few days, and I think I figured out why David is so against timing belts, and it’s not for reasons outlined in the article nor the comments (unless I missed it, there’s 494 of them right now).

However, it is a VERY David reason:

Timing belts don’t rust.

“I don’t trust what doesn’t rust!”
– David Tracy (probably)

J P
J P
3 months ago

I’ll agree with the author on one point — requiring a timing chain to be replaced before 150K miles is not routine maintenance. I’m 70 years old now and I’ve owned or operated over 50 different vehicles. They’ve been manufactured by Americans, Germans, Swedes, Japanese and Koreans — from my first car (1963 Dodge Dart with a 225 Slant Six engine) to my current cars, a 2006 Volvo XC-90 2.5L Turbo and a 2017 Honda Ridgeline RTS. Except for the Rigdeline, all have logged over 125,000 (the ’63 Dart logged over 325,000 miles).

Of all those cars, only the Volvo had a timing chain failure — at 177,000 miles. Meanwhile I’ve just been informed the Ridgeline will need to have its timing chain replaced — at 80K (severe service) or 95K (normal service). The 80K Sever Service factory recommendation includes replacing transmission service, trans fluid replacement, coolant service and replacement, power steering and brake fluid replacement, and a host of other minor services. That doesn’t include the “secret” warranty service on the engine’s fuel injectors (discovered when the engine started throwing codes at 78K). The Ridgeline currently has only 81,000 miles.

No wonder the dealership is so eager to sell or lease me a new car! Much as I love the Ridgeline, I’ll have to think long and hard about getting the service interval done vs trading it in for a new purchase or lease.

Bizness Comma Nunya
Bizness Comma Nunya
3 months ago

Very random, but from this article and long comment section, I thought “has there ever been an engine with pushrods AND a timing belt from the factory?”

Surely not, right? I’ve never heard of it.

Turns out, there is at least one! Duetz diesels has at least one model that is pushrod and has a belt! Super weird…

https://www.youtube.com/watch?app=desktop&v=qqyKdPpLayE

Brew Dirch
Brew Dirch
3 months ago

As a shop owner, recent timing chain engines make my opinion always in the wrong when giving customers advice. They often ask, “when should I change my timing belt?” I will reply, “ma’am you have a timing chain engine there is no service interval it is a lifetime part”. Next month vehicle gets towed in…”Ma’am your poorly engineered timing chain system that was built with inferior cost cutting parts has failed and you will need a new engine”. Guess that’s the “lifetime” of that vehicle lol

Chi_spotting
Chi_spotting
3 months ago

Totally agree; timing belts are a scam. They were absolutely designed so oblivious owners would grenade the motors and have to buy a new car.

Hondaimpbmw 12
Hondaimpbmw 12
3 months ago

Certainly not all Toyotas and even other overhead cam engines with timing belts are interference engines. My sister had a car w/ an OHC and the timing belt failed. The car was towed to a shop and the belt replaced, nothing damaged. OTOH, my Hondas have all been interference engines. You can bet that I changed those puppies on time.

Sadly, the Germans have not been great at implementing timing chains. Too often, metal and plastic guides fail, leaving the timing chains to wander about w/ little guidance. Failure ensues.

Conversely, I had a 318 Dodge that had a timing chain that wore so much that the chain dropped off the crank sprocket when my wife shut it off. Kinda ruined her afternoon of shopping before we were to live on vacation. There is an easy way to check that wear. Remove the distributor cap (remember distributors?) and put a wrench on the crank bolt. More than 10-15° of crank rotation before the rotor moves is a good indicator of repair needed.

Last edited 3 months ago by Hondaimpbmw 12
Myk El
Myk El
3 months ago

I had the timing belt replaced on a Honda V6, it wasn’t a long repair and in 2018, less than $1000. But the part of me that hates hydraulic hood struts and prefers low tech hood support prop rods feels similar about belts vs. chains in timing. Gimme the robust one that’s not definitely going to fail at some point.

Musicman27
Musicman27
3 months ago

In the words of Adam Savage, “I reject your reality and substitute my own”.

david kenney II
david kenney II
3 months ago

I still hold on to that “reliability” is a loose term to use. Any vehicle can be reliable or not depending on regular maintenance allowed or performed buy the owner of the vehicle. Engineering aside, vehicles can break no matter what.
That being said, as a mechanic, do I recommend belted cars to all my customers? Almost never unless it is a vehicle they really want and actually do care about timing belt maintenance. Now other customers do purchase vehicles and have no idea about belt service, which I make sure that they are aware of. Some of them listen and adhere to the maintenance, others do not, forget about it, or end up selling their vehicle.
The way vehicles have been engineered over the last several years really makes me question the reliability of timing chains. Albeit that timing chains are no longer just spinning camshafts yet are under changing loads of cam phasers and one cam operating a high pressure fuel pump for direct injection. Plus extended oil change intervals don’t help.
Personally I do own a couple of 4G63 Eclipses and do I trust those timing belts? Not in your life!! I also do not trust any modern German car with timing chains either.

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