Help diagnose this P0012 code

Camshaft Position A – Timing Over-Retarded (Bank 1).
Had low oil for months and of course the son pleads poverty on doing simple maintanence. I threw my $60 scanner and got a P0012 code. Here are the symptoms:
Starts rough. Maybe lasts 30 seconds or so on a cold start but then no more grumbling and seems to run fine. Refilled his oil (none showing on the dipstick) but did not change the filter as it was a “Oh I happen to have 6q of 5w30 handy.” moment. No change.
3 months later he finally gets the oil change and a new filter. Of course he took it into a shop rather than ask me to do it. Now he says it stutters for the first 15 minutes of a drive. I would test it, but again only on a cold start. I can come back later and describe it in more detail but he just got home (so car is warm) and all I can get from him is, “Uhhhhn, it’s just more money.” because apparently he doesn’t have enough money for little stuff but has enough to be lazy (ask me about his passport. he’s willing to pay $130 to not look through his boxes for 10 minutes. remember he has to save for 3 months for an oil change.)

Ok enough of a rant. Do those symptoms point to something clear? I am going to take it to a shop I trust but I’d prefer to have some ideas before I go.

What kind of vehicle?

The error code is describing a problem with the variable valve timing system on the intake cam. The computer is requesting a certain amount of valve timing and not getting it.

The timing is likely set by oil pressure controlled by a solenoid or other valve type. Most systems have a very fine screen filtering oil going into this valve, and that screen could be clogged due to the poor maintenance you described. This is consistent with it running rough until enough oil pressure builds to be able to push through the clog.

Other options are a bad valve or solenoid, or something in the wiring to either the valve or the cam angle sensor. Worst case may be a worn timing chain, also caused by poor maintenance, but there would probably be more symptoms.

2007 Mazda CX-7
What does it take to fix that? Strip the covers off to get to the filter?

One of these recent South Main Auto videos might help point you in the right direction.

Sounds like he’s a potential candidate for “Just Rolled In” on Youtube. People who don’t maintain even cheap cars boggle my mind.

Looks like you have to pull the valve cover off, it’s not a crazy DIY but it’s not simple either.

In this picture the solenoid is 14-420 and the screen filter is 14-3X2.

On a 2007 there’s probably some “while you’re in there” things as well, the valve cover seals chief among them.