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How To Fix Your Car’s Oxygen Sensor

 If your car’s “Check Engine” light is glaring at you, it’s probably because the oxygen sensor is malfunctioning. That’s right, the oxygen sensor. It’s a little device that’s a mystery for most drivers but its misbehavior is the problem that most commonly triggers a Check Engine light, according to CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. The oxygen sensor unseats the formerly most common Check Engine light culprit: a loose gas cap. There are fewer reports of that problem because savvy motorists have learned to fix it themselves and consumers now buy new cars with capless gas tanks.

But don’t despair. Replacing your car oxygen sensor will keep you from wasting money by burning extra gas, and the repair isn’t horribly expensive. We know this firsthand. We had to replace the O2 sensor on our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the subject of our Debt-Free Car project, and it wasn’t as much of a hassle or expense as we had feared.

After the dreaded Check Engine light appeared in our Lexus, we plugged the CarMD device into the car’s computer to read the error code.

Should You Fill Your Car’s Tires With Nitrogen?

 A member of the Dodge Challenger owners’ forum was buying a new car from a dealer and noticed green valve-stem caps on all four tires. The salesman told him that the tires had been filled with nitrogen, which would keep the tire pressure and temperature more consistent and that it would prevent tire rot from the inside out. It wasn’t a free add-on, though. The “nitrogen upgrade” was a $69 item on the supplemental window sticker. Another forum member later posted that his dealer was charging $179 for this same “upgrade.”

Some dealerships and tire stores claim that filling your tires with nitrogen will save you money on gas while offering better performance than air. But a closer look reveals that nitrogen has few benefits and much higher costs. For starters, a typical nitrogen fill-up will cost you about $6 per tire.

Why Nitrogen?
The Get Nitrogen Institute Web site says that with nitrogen tire inflation, drivers will note improvements in a vehicle’s handling, fuel efficiency and tire life. All this is achieved through better tire-pressure retention, improved fuel economy and cooler-running tire temperatures, the institute says.

How Old and Dangerous Are Your Tires?

 More recently, an investigation into the cause of the accident that killed the actor Paul Walker revealed that the Porsche Carrera GT in which he was riding had nine-year-old tires. The California Highway Patrol noted that the tires’ age might have compromised their drivability and handling characteristics, according to the Los Angeles Times.

These incidents illustrate not only the potential danger of buying used tires but also the perils of driving on aging tires — including those that have never spent a day on the road.

For years, people have relied on a tire’s tread depth to determine its condition. But the rubber compounds in a tire deteriorate with time, regardless of the condition of the tread. An old tire poses a safety hazard.

For some people, old tires might never be an issue. If you drive a typical number of miles, somewhere around 12,000-15,000 miles annually, a tire’s tread will wear out in three to four years, long before the rubber compound does. But if you only drive 6,000 miles a year, or have a car that you only drive on weekends, aging tires could be

Do I Need to Replace More Than One Tire at a Time?

You can safely replace only one tire if the others still have most of their tread.

Unlike the old days, when a pair of “snow tires” would be mounted to the drive wheels only for winter use, today we recognize that a vehicle should have four matching tires: same type, same model and, yes, even same degree of wear. The reason is simple: A car with four tires that behave the same — whether accelerating, braking or cornering — is balanced and predictable. If any of these factors are different at one or more wheels, traction characteristics can vary and performance will be unbalanced.

Tread depth is measured in 32nds of an inch, and most new tires typically have 10/32 to 12/32 (5/16 to 3/8) of an inch of tread. If a car’s other tires have lost only 2/32 or up to maybe 4/32 of their original tread depth, it’s probably OK to replace just the damaged tire.

There can be exceptions, though. Some manufacturers of all-wheel-drive vehicles recommend that all four tires be replaced, not just one or two, because a new tire will have a larger overall diameter than the other tires. The

What’s Causing That Smell in My Car?

If your vehicle is giving off an unusual or sickening odor instead of that new-car smell, follow your nose and find the source of the aroma. Bad smells can lead to expensive repairs or health hazards and shouldn’t be ignored. Here are some common odors and their possible causes:

Musty: If turning on the air conditioner generates a musty smell, mold and/or mildew have probably formed in the air-conditioning system. Moisture naturally collects on the cold air-conditioning evaporator (a small radiator that carries refrigerant into the car’s dashboard) and it may be harboring mold. Running only the fan at high speed (with the air conditioning off) can dry the evaporator.

However, that doesn’t guarantee the problem won’t reoccur — especially if it’s being caused by a clog in the drain tube that allows water to drip out under the car. A musty smell also can be caused by carpets that get wet when water leaks into the interior.

Sweet: Antifreeze has a sweet, syrupy odor, and smelling it inside a car usually means there’s a leak somewhere in the cooling system. The source may not be easy to see. For example, the leak could be

Do You Need To Change Your Car’s Power-Steering Fluid?

Replacing power-steering fluid generally is not listed among the regular maintenance items that should be performed, so on most vehicles replacing it is at the owner’s discretion.

When you take your car in for routine service you may hear an urgent pitch for having your power-steering pump flushed and filled with fresh fluid because the current fluid has turned dark. Bear in mind that engine oil and transmission fluid also become darker after a while, so a deeper shade of red doesn’t mean the power-steering fluid is bad. Before you jump at paying for this service, see what your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule says. You probably won’t find mention of changing the fluid.

You should check the power-steering fluid reservoir monthly to make sure it has the proper amount and that the power-steering system isn’t leaking. Reservoirs on many vehicles are the see-through plastic type, so you don’t even have to remove a cap to check the level. Consult your owner’s manual for the location of the reservoir in the engine compartment for help. You also should check the manual for the type of power-steering fluid that is required. The manufacturer may call for a

How to Remove a Sticker From Your Car

Stickers on cars can symbolize just about anything under the sun. They can show support for a certain political candidate, identify you as a proud parent of an honor student or the fact that you just love that one special dog breed. Others are required by local laws, like city stickers. Some even come attached to your new car straight from the dealer.

But political campaigns and straight A’s end at some point, and those city stickers need to be replaced every year.

While removing stickers isn’t as easy as putting them on, we have some advice that should make the job a little less sticky.

What you need:

  • Hair dryer with hot air settings
  • Razor blade or a box cutter (if removing from glass)
  • Sturdy plastic card — could be a library card, credit card, frequent shopper card or ID
  • Two clean rags or detailing towels
  • Glass cleaning solution (if removing from glass)
  • Tree sap remover solution
  • Quick detailing spray

What to do:

1. Ensure that the sticker and the surrounding area are free of dirt. Doing this removal process works best after a car wash.

2. Plug in the hair dryer, turn the

Do You Really Need to Change the Transmission Fluid?

Yes, though how often this service should be performed varies by manufacturer and vehicle, and it’s open to debate.

The manufacturer’s maintenance schedule for many automatic transmissions doesn’t call for fresh fluid until 100,000 miles or, with some Ford transmissions, even 150,000 miles. A lot of mechanics say that is too long and it should be done at least every 50,000 miles. Manual transmissions may be on a different schedule, so it’s best to consult the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.

Like other vital automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time. Hard use — such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing — will accelerate the deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.

If you do a lot of driving under high-stress conditions, you should check the transmission level more often and have a repair shop check the condition of the fluid. Transmission fluid often is red but can come in other colors, and as it deteriorates it tends to turn darker. It

Do You Really Need to Change Your Oil Every 3,000 Miles?

No, you don’t, according to every auto manufacturer we’ve talked to. The main advocates of the 3,000-mile oil change schedule are those who would profit by it: repair facilities, quick-lube chains and service departments at some new-car dealers.

Years ago it was a good idea to change the oil and filter frequently, but because of advances in engine materials and tighter tolerances, as well as the oil that goes into engines, most manufacturers recommend intervals of 7,500 miles or more.

Ford, Volkswagen and Porsche, for example, recommend oil changes every 10,000 miles. So does Toyota on several engines, including the Prius’ 1.8-liter four-cylinder and the Camry’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder. BMW says owners can go up to 15,000 miles between oil changes (with synthetic oil).

The intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that the Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W20 synthetic oil, for instance.

Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-go

What’s a Cabin Air Filter and When Should You Replace It?

The cabin air filter, a feature found on most late-model vehicles, cleans the air that comes into the interior through the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. It catches dust, pollen and other airborne material that can make riding in a car unpleasant, particularly if you have allergies or other respiratory problems.

Recommendations on when it should be replaced vary by manufacturer — some say every 12,000 or 15,000 miles, others longer — and how often can depend on how much you drive and where. Check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual. If you drive in heavy traffic in an urban area that has poor air quality, you could need to replace the filter annually or even more often. However, that also could be true in a desert climate where there is a lot of dust.

Some signs that you need a new cabin air filter are reduced air flow through your climate control system, such as when you crank up the fan too high and get more noise than results. Another is persistent bad odors. Even if you don’t have these warnings, you should have the filter checked at least once a year, and you

How Often Should I Replace My Accessory Drive Belt?

Most vehicles have a rubber belt on the front of the engine that drives accessories such as the air-conditioning compressor, power steering pump and alternator. If this accessory drive belt (also called a V or serpentine belt) breaks, the battery won’t get charged, the air conditioner won’t blow cold air and the power steering will go out. In addition, if the belt drives the water pump, the engine could overheat.

Most manufacturers call for periodic inspection of the belt as part of scheduled maintenance, but few list a specific replacement interval, and inspection intervals vary widely.

Mercedes-Benz, for example, says to inspect the belt every two years or 20,000 miles, while Volkswagen says to check it every 40,000 miles. On most Ford vehicles, the manufacturer says to start inspecting it after 100,000 miles and then every 10,000 miles. On many GM vehicles, the first recommended inspection is at 150,000 miles or 10 years.

Though these belts often last many years, they can become cracked or frayed and need to be replaced. That’s why they should be inspected at least annually on vehicles that are more than a few years old. In addition, if a belt

How Often Should Tires/Wheels Be Balanced?

Smooth driving is a balancing act that requires getting the wheels and tires to rotate at high speeds without vibrations. That’s not a slam dunk; a dirty little secret about wheels and tires is that they usually aren’t perfectly round, even when brand new. What’s more, their weight often isn’t evenly distributed, so they’re heavier in some spots than others.

Either issue can cause annoying vibrations. Out-of-balance tires can also cause rapid tire or suspension wear, so it’s not just about ride comfort.

That is why when new tires are mounted on wheels they’re spin-balanced to detect vibrations. Some vibrations can be eliminated by rotating the tire on the wheel so the heavy or “high” spot is in a different location that better matches up with the wheel. Small weights are attached to the wheels with adhesives or clips to counteract the heavy spots and provide a smooth ride. Over time, though, the weights can fall off. If that happens to a front wheel, you may feel vibrations through the steering wheel that typically become more pronounced as vehicle speed increases.

Many tire dealers include free lifetime rotation and balancing with new tires (something you

Is Oil for High-Mileage Engines Worth the Extra Cost?

Most major oil brands market oil made specifically for engines that have more than 75,000 miles of wear, claiming that additives help reduce engine wear and provide anti-aging benefits. They are often a blend of synthetic and petroleum-based oils, and they typically cost at least a couple of dollars more per quart than conventional oils.

But are they worth the extra dough?

Some oils may be more beneficial than others because they contain conditioners purported to rejuvenate seals to prevent or stop oil leaks, a common ailment in engines with a lot of miles on them.

Internal seals and gaskets become brittle and shrink as they age, allowing oil to seep by. Sometimes this becomes visible as oil stains on a garage floor or as streaks of oil on lower engine parts. When valve-guide seals wear, oil can leak into combustion chambers and the engine will literally start burning oil. With small leaks, blue smoke from burning oil may not be visible from the exhaust, but your oil level will probably drop below the full mark on a regular basis.

The seal conditioners found in some high-mileage oils may reduce or eliminate small leaks

How Often Should I Change Engine Coolant?

For some vehicles, you’re advised to change the coolant every 30,000 miles. For others, changing the coolant isn’t even on the maintenance schedule.

For example, Hyundai says the coolant (what many refer to as “antifreeze”) in most of its models should be replaced after the first 60,000 miles, then every 30,000 miles after that. The interval is every 30,000 miles on someMercedes-Benz models, but on others it’s 120,000 miles or 12 years. On still other Mercedes, it’s 150,000 miles or 15 years.

Some manufacturers recommend changing the coolant more often on vehicles subjected to “severe service,” such as frequent towing. The schedule for many Chevrolets, though, is to change it at 150,000 miles regardless of how the vehicle is driven.

Many service shops, though — including some at dealerships that sell cars with “lifetime” coolant say you should do it more often than the maintenance schedule recommends, such as every 30,000 or 50,000 miles.

Here’s why: Most vehicles use long-life engine coolant (usually a 50/50 mixture of antifreeze and water) that for several years will provide protection against boiling in hot weather and freezing in cold weather, with little or nomaintenance. Modern vehicles

5 Tips for Choosing the Right Auto Body Shop

It’s not uncommon for estimates from different body shops to vary wildly. One shop might give you an estimate for $500 while another wants $2,000 for the work. What’s the difference? And when is it OK to choose the cheaper shop?

John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body & Paint, in Long Beach, California, knows better than most people how to choose a reliable shop. Mallette started working on cars when he was 12 years old and has been in the body shop business for 24 years. Here are some of his tips for choosing the right shop to work on your car — particularly when you’re the one paying the bills.

1) Pay Attention to Word-of-Mouth
Any business can advertise, but you’ll do better with a shop that friends, family or acquaintances recommend. It’s a business that has proven it can satisfy customers. And it might not be the biggest or best-known shop in your area.

Mallette went to a shop years ago on such recommendations and found that the owner was a “real stand-up guy…. He doesn’t advertise on the Internet; it’s a family-owned shop,” Mallette says. “But, golly, if you take your

How To Tell if Your Body Shop Did the Job Correctly

When you last saw your car, it was a twisted mess being towed away from the scene of the accident. Now it’s weeks later and the car is parked in the driveway of a body shop. All you have to do is write a check and the car is yours again. But how do you know that everything under the surface has really been fixed correctly?

One key to getting your car fixed right is choosing a reliable shop in the first place. But you should still inspect the work performed before you drive away. To better understand what to look for, here are some insider tips from several knowledgeable veterans of the body shop business.

Have a Clear Understanding Up Front
The process of having your car fixed right starts when you drop it off, says Aaron Schulenburg, executive director of the Society of Collision Repair Specialists. Be clear on what the shop is going to fix and how it will do the repair. Get everything in writing. Ask about the shop’s warranty on its work. When you return, review the paperwork to confirm that the shop did the repairs correctly.

“A reputable repair

What Your Check Engine Light Is Telling You

When your car’s “Check Engine” light comes on, it’s usually accompanied by a sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach. The light could mean a costly problem, like a bad catalytic converter, or it could be something minor, like a loose gas cap. But in many cases, it means at minimum that you’ll be visiting the car dealer to locate the malfunction and get the light turned off.

The Check Engine light — more formally known as the Malfunction Indicator Lamp (MIL) — is a signal from the car’s engine computer that something is wrong. The car dealer’s service department can diagnose the problem for about $75. But there’s a way to preview what the problem might be.

Prior to 1996, carmakers had their own engine diagnostic systems, primarily to ensure their cars were compliant with Environmental Protection Agency pollution-control requirements. Starting with model-year 1996, automakers standardized their systems under a protocol called OBD-II, which stipulated a standardized list of diagnostic trouble codes (DTC) and mandated that all cars provide a universal connector to access this information. It’s usually located under the steering column and is easy to access.

Deciphering the Code
Do-it-yourselfers can

How To Prep Your Car for Long-Term Storage

There are a number of times when people need to store a vehicle for an extended period of time. Maybe you have a convertible that you love to drive in the summer, but winter is on the way. Or perhaps you’re going to leave town for a job or an extended vacation. Maybe you are in the military and are being deployed overseas.

Whatever the reason for your time away from the vehicle, you’ll need to put it in storage. If you simply let your vehicle sit on the street or in a garage for an extended period of time, you may return to a dead battery or — worse yet — a damaged engine, ruined tires and a rat’s nest under your hood.

Here are important steps to take before you store a vehicle. They will preserve the life of the engine and ensure that your car starts when you return to it.

Keep It Covered
A garage is the ideal place to store a vehicle. This will protect it from the elements and keep it at a temperature that’s relatively stable. If you don’t have a garage and you can find accommodation at

Is Cheap Gas Bad for Your Car?

Gasoline is expensive and you’re looking for every way possible to save money at the pump. You already shy away from premium fuel, knowing that your car doesn’t require it. You’d like to save a few pennies per gallon more by going to an off-brand gas station. But you can’t get rid of the nagging fear: Is the cheap gas going to damage your car’s engine?

Edmunds.com put this question to experts in several fields, including an automotive engineer at a major carmaker, gasoline manufacturers and two engineers with the American Automobile Association (AAA). It boils down to this: You can stop worrying about cheap gas. You’re unlikely to hurt your car by using it.

Because of the advances in engine technology, a car’s onboard computer is able to adjust for the inevitable variations in fuel, so most drivers won’t notice a drop off in performance between different brands of fuel, from the most additive-rich gas sold by the major brands to the bare-bones stuff at your corner quickie mart.

Still, spending a few extra pennies per gallon might provide peace of mind to someone who just purchased a new car and wants to keep

How To Find a Good Car Mechanic

We hear it all the time: “Where can I find a good car mechanic?” In the past, word of mouth was probably the best way to find an auto repair shop that would do the job right and charge a fair price. But now, a good mechanic might be only a few mouse clicks or touchscreen taps away.

Crowdsourced review sites have greatly simplified the search. Here are a few tips on how to work these sites to find a good car mechanic in your area. Keep in mind that this isn’t an exact science. Sometimes a highly rated shop might disappoint, but at least you can tilt the odds in your favor.

Yelp
Yelp.com describes itself as a site that “connects people with great businesses,” whether that’s a hot new restaurant or a top-notch dentist. And, luckily for car owners, it also has auto repair reviews. The site is free and has a mobile version, plus apps for Android and Apple mobile devices.

We’ve had good experiences with Yelp recommendations as we looked for a mechanic to work on Edmunds’ long-term 1996 Lexus ES 300, which is the subject of our Debt-Free Car Project.