Published: Wednesday March 18, 2015.

On thinking objectively

I had a somewhat rocky start to the day last Tuesday. It followed a short run of disrupted sleep nights, and wasn’t helped by some anxieties that keep playing on my mind.

Before my nan’s funeral, I paid a visit to a retail outlet for some black trousers. I stopped short of purchasing a full suit on the grounds that I won’t wear it outside of a funeral or court case. The only time I’ve been in front of a judge is as an expert, and never a defendant or witness. I intend to keep it that way. Buying a suit for a funeral just seemed to be wasteful with my lifestyle. You shouldn’t infer any disrespect from that, I wore black as tradition dictates.

Back to shopping. I didn’t buy a suit, but I did buy a stainless steel saucepan set that will last me decades. When I moved to Cornwall, I picked some domestic goods that I would find useful and long-lasting. One of these items was a non-stick pan set from Circulon. I cared for them, stored them safely and as a result they are in almost as-new condition. Save for a single small dink in one pan, the only areas where the non-stick coating is less-than-perfect is around the rim where the metal lids had contact.

Even with this care and attention routine, I seemed to spend a disproportionate amount of time thinking about protecting a thin, protective layer inside a piece of metal. Casting aside any health concerns about ingesting pieces of non-stick coating for a moment, it’s a trivial thing to have playing on my mind each time I load the dishwasher. Having realised that I needed to make a change, I saw a good deal on a stainless steel pan set, found a new home for the non-stick ones, and I instantly felt better about the situation. I still have a couple of frying pans and a wok with non-stick coatings, but the bulk of the cookware is now almost indestructable. The right tools for the job have been acquired.

The bumpy start to last Tuesday was largely resolved by a similar decision concerning my car. In 2009 I bought a Volkswagen Polo Bluemotion as a result of a particularly successfull marketing campaign with Podshow/Mevio, one of the people I was contracting for at the time. It was one of the first wave of highly-efficient, mass-production diesel cars. The main draw was its zero road tax and fuel efficiency, with the Volkswagen build quality being close behind in the list.

Working from a home office means a lot of time inside and short journeys when venturing out actually occurs. I explained this to the dealer and he said that this car was ideal for that situation. Short journeys – no problem at all, sir. I would still get excellent fuel economy, and all the benefits of this whizzy new technology that absolutely isn’t greenwash at all, no sir at an excellent price point. All this, plus the scrappage scheme to take crummy cars off the roads and give me an extra thousand quid off the bottom line price. Everyone wins, right?

In retrospect, believing what he said without researching it further was one of the dumbest mistakes I made in recent years. Modern diesel cars are fitted with an exhaust filter, known as a diesel particulate filter, which is a clever piece of gauze that stops a lot of the grunge being splurted into the air. The gist is that exhaus gunk is stopped by the filter, and the exhaust temperature effectively vapourises it. Neat, huh? Nice idea, in theory.

Practically speaking, the first three years of the car’s life were spent pootling around on short journeys to and from Waitrose. It was rare to have a trip longer than 10 miles. This was the downfall for the filter, which started to silently clog up. In 2013, I started seeing warning lights on the dash. I had the lambda (oxygen) sensor replaced (£160), and the warnings continued. The particulate filter was now beyond a routine regeneration, and this is where it gets expensive.

I have some options at this point: I could remap the onboard computer to completely ignore the filter (a few hundred pounds), I could take it to a cleaning place where they scoop out the gunk and regenerate it manually, which might last a few thousand miles, or perhaps more. There’s also the (illegal?) option of opening up the filter housing, taking a hammer to the innards, quietly disposing of them, and welding it shut. This satisifies the MOT garages that do an arbitrary visible check for a filter, but the unintended side-effects probably include giving puppies emphysema, or something.

The supply and fit of a replacement particulate filter is the wrong side of a thousand pounds. The main VW dealer wants north of £1500 to do it. Objectively, for a 5-year old car, that’s beyond economic repair. I’ve umm’d and aah’d about the situation in an entirely unobjective way for far too long.

I’ve driven it hard for hundreds of miles, I’ve used posh (premium) diesel, I’ve also tried gloopy mixtures that apparently help the filter recover, though they might as well be made from snake oil for all the good they’ve done. None of this worked, and again I spent far too long thinking about something that I should just be able to assume will work, with occasional maintenance that doesn’t involve a bank loan.

I’m quite keen for my car not to go up in flames due a blocked, misaligned, malfunctioning or exploding something-or-other. Again, objectively, I have a completely inappropriate car for my daily routine, line of work and local environment. Last Tuesday was when I decided that I need the right tool (car) for the job, and after I’d manned up and made that decision, the day started looking up. I noticed the sunshine. I heard birds singing. I thought about what I wanted for lunch.

Here’s the thing: I’m buying a new(er) car, getting the Polo cleaned up, valeted and sold on. I may already have a buyer lined up. I will be open about the DPF needing a regeneration or replacement, because it’s the right thing to do; it’s just a shame the Volkswagen salesman didn’t share this point of view at the time of sale.