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Monthly Archives: December 2016

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 facility will go through everything with you, walk you through all the steps they took,” Schulenburg says. “Good shops will even touch up bolts under the hood that have been scratched while being repaired.”

Clean Car Is a Must
Appearances matter. When you pick up your car, it should have been washed, cleaned and vacuumed, says John Mallette, owner of Burke Auto Body and Paint, in Long Beach, California. There should be no dirt or dust in the car and definitely no old parts in the trunk. Mallette says he even tries to wash down the engine compartment before he hands over the keys.

It can be a challenge to return a clean car to a customer, says Mike O’Connell, owner of Golden Hammer Auto Body in Los Angeles. With all the dust from sanding, he says, “body shops are the dirtiest places on earth.” He says his workers take precautions to keep the cars clean by using paper and masking tape to protect different areas. And then they carefully wash the car before the customer comes to pick it up.

Closer Inspection
If the car’s general appearance passes muster, take a close look at the area that was repaired. Mallette recommends looking for gaps between body panels first. If the gaps are obviously uneven, that’s a telltale sign of panels not being aligned correctly. Schulenburg says owners should make sure the doors open and close properly with good alignment.

If there was extensive front-end damage to the car, it can be difficult for a body shop to repair perfectly, Mallette says. One way to spot a problem is to look at the distance between the tire and fender. If it is wide on one side and narrow on the other, something wasn’t fixed properly. Another test is to turn on the headlights to ensure that the light beams are aligned.

When a car is hit in the front, the frame may have been bent and required straightening on what the body shop calls “the rack.” The shop workers use it to pull the frame rails until the frame is straight. Mallette says he can look under a car and see “butcher marks” from poor repair jobs.

But visual inspections might be difficult for the average consumer, Schulenburg explains. He says owners should take a look at the automated printout of the frame specifications. A good body shop will measure the damaged area of the car and then measure the frame again after it does the repair. The frame specs should be the same post-repair as they were before the accident. The frame spec printout is a good reference document to make sure the job has been done right.

If you are concerned that a major repair wasn’t done correctly and want someone other than the original body shop to size it up, you can get a second opinion. O’Connell tells us that many people bring cars to him for just this kind of assessment, and he can immediately spot problems that the ordinary consumer can’t.

Paint Jobs: Matching Colors and Consistency
One of the most challenging jobs in a body shop is paint matching. “Punching in the factory paint codes gets you 95 percent of the way to matching the color,” O’Connell says. But the remaining 5 percent has to be done by people who really know what they’re doing. “If we didn’t do this extra step there would always be a little variance,” he explains. “That’s why you see cars on the road that look like they are three different colors.”

Most factory paint jobs have an “orange peel” texture to the finish to a greater or lesser degree. Whether you like that effect or not, most factory paint jobs have this texture, and it can be tricky for body shops to duplicate. Mallette advises that you arrange to pick up a car from the body shop during the day. If possible, look at the car in the sunlight to make sure that the new paint matches the car’s original shade and finish. Also, if the shop repainted several panels, sight along the side of the car to look for color consistency. And finally, examine the paint for runs or imperfections such as hair or specks of dirt trapped in the finish.

When It Isn’t Fixed Right
In some cases, a problem with the repair develops months later. A common scenario is that you notice the car’s front tires are wearing unevenly. This could be a sign that the front suspension hasn’t been straightened and repaired correctly. Find your paperwork and receipt, bring the car back and show the manager the tire’s wear pattern. The shop should fix the problem under the warranty, Mallette says.

Schulenburg agrees that improper tire wear on a car is a bad sign. “Take it back to the body shop,” he says. “There are a whole lot of things that can lead to tire wear. Let them assess what is causing it.”

Many body shops are “fly-by-night,” O’Connell notes, and if you’re dealing with one of them, it can be tough to get satisfaction if the job wasn’t done right. A legitimate shop should stand by its work. He recommends that you make sure you are within the warranty period, which is usually one year or 12,000 miles. Then, with your paperwork in hand, ask to speak with an owner or manager.

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 buy inexpensive code readers that connect to this standardized onboard diagnostics (OBD) port and search for the code’s meaning on Web sites such as Engine Light Help. The Check Engine light can even be turned off by some code readers, even though this action alone does not actually repair the underlying problem. In many such cases the light will simply come back on later.

Experts say that many drivers confuse the “service required” light on the gauge cluster for the Check Engine light. These warning lights are unrelated. The service required light just means the car is due for an oil change or other routine maintenance. It is not the indicator of trouble that the Check Engine light is.

Check Engine lights come in orange, yellow or amber, depending on the manufacturer. If the light begins flashing, however, it indicates a more serious problem, such as a misfire that can quickly overheat the catalytic converter. These emissions devices operate at high temperatures to cut emissions, but can pose a fire hazard if faulty.

Don’t Ignore That Light
So if the Check Engine light comes on and it’s steady rather than flashing, what do you do? The most obvious answer, of course, is to get the engine checked. But many people do nothing, perhaps fearing an expensive repair bill. Some drivers with older cars want to squeeze out as many remaining miles as possible without visiting a service garage. But before they can pass their state’s vehicle inspection, they have to get the light turned off. And a state inspection is a good motivator for dealing with the problem. If the light is lit, there’s a good chance the car is releasing excess pollutants or consuming too much gas.

Ten percent of all cars on the road have a Check Engine light on, and the drivers of half of these cars have ignored the light for more than three months, says Kristin Brocoff, a spokesperson forCarMD.com. The company sells a $119 device that reads engine codes and provides access to a Web site database that identifies the problem (according to the code) and estimates the cost of repair.

CarMD isn’t alone in the code-reader market. An Internet search will bring up countless devices, some costing as little as $40. Most come with a booklet listing the codes, but it is also easy to do a Google search to locate the codes. Aamco will check the Check Engine light for free and provides a fact sheet.

As Dan Edmunds, director of vehicle testing for Edmunds.com, points out, the system is primarily designed to continuously monitor a car’s emissions system over the life of the car. However, he notes, “The engine and the emission control system are so interlinked that the health of the emission control system is a good indication of the general health of the car’s engine.”

Steve Mazor, the Auto Club of Southern California’s chief automotive engineer, says that while some people freak out when they see the Check Engine light, “others just put a piece of black tape over it and keep driving.” Mazor says it’s important to promptly address problems indicated by the light. Ignoring them could lead to larger, more costly problems later.

If the light comes on, Mazor says the driver should first see if the gas cap is loose: That’s a common cause. A loose cap sends an error message to the car’s computer, reporting a leak in the vapor recovery system, which is one aspect of a car’s emissions system. If the gas cap is loose, tighten it and continue driving. Even so, it will take some time for the light to go off, he says.

Mazor says that even an inexpensive code reader could be useful for car owners, even if they aren’t mechanically inclined.

“If the mechanic gives you the same information, at least you know they are going down the right road,” he notes. Edmunds agrees, adding that a code reader provides car owners with one more data point to help them talk with their mechanic and avoid costly or unnecessary auto repairs.

Mixed Signals
But even with the code and its meaning in hand, do-it-yourself interpretation can be a little tricky — even if you are mechanically inclined, as Dan Edmunds explains.

“My wife’s car started running poorly and there was a Check Engine light. My code reader detected a code for the Cam Angle Sensor. I thought about buying the sensor and installing it myself, but if I had, I would have wasted time and money because it turned out that the sensor was fine. Instead, mice had gotten under the hood and had chewed some of the wires leading to it.”

Occasionally, the Check Engine light comes on when nothing is wrong with the car, Mazor says. It could be a temporary problem caused by a change in humidity or other factors. In such cases, the light should go off by itself after a short time.

CarMD published a list of the five most common Check Engine light codes in 2010 and estimated cost of repair. In order of frequency, they are:

  • O2 sensor (part of the emissions system, monitoring and helping adjust the air-fuel mixture)
  • Loose gas cap
  • Catalytic converter
  • Mass air flow sensor (monitoring the amount of air mixed in the fuel injection system)
  • Spark plug wires

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 a reasonable price, consider putting the car in a public storage facility.

If you have to leave the car outdoors, consider getting a weatherproof car cover. This will help keep the car clean and dry.

Clean It Up
It may seem counterintuitive to get the car washed when you’re putting it away for months, but it is an easy step and one that shouldn’t be overlooked. Water stains or bird droppings left on the car can damage the paint. Make sure to clean the wheels and undersides of the fenders to get rid of mud, grease or tar. For added protection, give the car a coat of wax.

Change the Oil
Skip this step if you’re only storing the car for a week or two. Consider getting the oil changed if you will be storing the vehicle for longer than 30 days. Ford recommends this in its owner’s manuals, saying that used engine oil has contaminants that could damage the engine.

Top Off the Tank
This is another long-term car storage tip. Fill the tank with gas if you expect the car to be in storage for more than 30 days. This will prevent moisture from accumulating inside the fuel tank and keep the seals from drying out. You should also purchase a fuel stabilizer such as Sta-bil, to prevent ethanol buildup and protect the engine from gum, varnish and rust. The fuel stabilizer will prevent the gas from deteriorating for up to 12 months.

Keep It Charged
An unattended battery will eventually lose its charge. Get someone to start the car every two weeks and drive it for about 15 minutes, if possible. Driving the car periodically has several benefits. It will maintain the battery’s charge, help the car “stretch its legs” and keep the engine and other components properly lubricated. It is also a good idea to run the air-conditioner to keep the parts in working order and the air quality fresh.

If you cannot arrange for someone to start the car, there are two other options. The low-tech solution is to disconnect the negative battery cable. You’ll likely lose the stereo presets, time and other settings. If you want to keep those settings and ensure that your battery starts the moment you return, purchase a battery tender, also known as a trickle charger. This device hooks up to your car battery on one end and plugs into a wall outlet on the other. It delivers just enough electrical power to prevent the battery from discharging.

Don’t Use the Parking Brake
It’s usually a good idea to use the parking brake, but don’t do it when you leave a car in storage. If the brake pads make contact with the rotors for too long, there is a chance that they might fuse. Instead, purchase a tire stopper, also called a chock, to prevent the car from moving.

Prevent Flat Spots
Make sure your tires are inflated to the recommended tire pressure. If a vehicle is left stationary for too long, the tires could develop flat spots as the weight of the vehicle presses down on the tires’ footprints. This process occurs at a faster rate in colder temperatures and with vehicles equipped with performance tires or low-profile tires.

In some cases, simply having someone drive the car for a while will bring the tires up to their normal operating temperature and get rid of any flat spots. In more severe cases, a flat spot can become a permanent part of the tire and it will need to be replaced.

If your car will be in storage for more than 30 days, consider taking the wheels off and placing the car on jack stands at all four corners. This step requires more work, but it can save you from needing a new set of tires. Your tires will be in much better shape when you return if they haven’t had the weight of the vehicle resting on them for a month or more.

Keep Critters Out
A garage will keep your car dry and relatively warm. Unfortunately, those are also two things that make a garaged car attractive to rodents. There are plenty of places in your car for critters to hide, and plenty of things for them to chew on. Try to cover any gaps where a mouse could enter, such as the exhaust pipe or an air intake. Steel wool works well for this. Next, spread mothballs or cotton swabs dipped in peppermint oil along the perimeter of the vehicle. The smell is said to drive mice away.

If you want to take a more proactive approach, lay down a few mousetraps and some rat poison. Just make sure someone can check the garage periodically, in case there are some casualties. Otherwise, you’ll have to deal with a smell much worse than mothballs when you take the car out of storage.

Maintain Insurance
You might be tempted to cancel your auto insurance when your vehicle is in storage. Although that might initially save money, there is a chance that the insurance company will raise your rates due to the gap in coverage, which could cost you more in the long run. This can vary based on where you live and who your provider is, so contact your insurance company to see what options are available to you.

Get Back in Action
Here’s a checklist of what to do when you’re ready to bring your vehicle out of storage:

  • Check under the hood for any evidence of rodents. Look for chewed belts, hoses, wires or nests. If you covered the muffler or air intake, remove that material before you start the car.
  • Check the windshield wipers to see if the rubber is cracked or brittle.
  • Check tire pressure and inflate the tires to the recommended specs.
  • Check the brakes. Rust may have accumulated on the rotors. In most cases, this should go away after you drive the vehicle for a short time.
  • Check fluids to make sure there have been no leaks and that they are at the recommended levels.
  • If the battery cable has been disconnected, make sure that you reconnect it and that the battery terminals are clean.
  • Wash your vehicle to remove any dirt that may have accumulated.

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 it as long as possible. People with older cars might not be as concerned about their engine’s longevity. They can buy the less expensive gas and still be OK.

Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California, summed it up this way: “Buy the cheapest gas that is closest to you.”

Recipes for Performance — at a Price
But this doesn’t mean that all gas is the same, even though it starts out that way. The fuel from different filling stations comes from a common source: the “base gas” from a refinery. Workers there mix additives mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency into the base gas in order to clean a car’s engine and reduce emissions. Then, the different gas companies — both off-brand and major brands — put their own additive packages in the gas to further boost both cleaning and performance.

A key difference is that the major brands put more additives in their gas and claim to have some secret ingredients. This extra shot of additives provides an additional level of cleaning and protection for your engine.

But is this extra helping of additives, which jacks up the price, really necessary? And, if you don’t use more expensive, extra-additive gas, how soon will your engine’s performance suffer?

“It’s not like any of the fuels are totally junk,” says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the AAA. “If you buy gas from Bob’s Bargain Basement gas station because that’s all that’s available, it won’t hurt your car,” he says.

The real difference is the amount of additives that are in the gas, Nielsen says. More additives essentially afford more protection — but they also cost more.

Some automakers and oil companies believe that the amount of government-required additives isn’t enough to protect engines. They have created a Top Tier gasoline designation. It means that those gasoline brands sell fuels that provide more and better additives.

Nielsen recommends that drivers look in their car’s owner’s manual to see what the carmaker recommends and, when possible, follow that guideline. People who are still concerned about gasoline quality can ask a specific oil company if it has performed independent testing to substantiate its claims.

Selling the Secret Sauce in Gasoline
The major oil companies spend millions of dollars convincing buyers that their gas is superior by creating ads that feature smiling cartoon cars, lab-coated nerds and sooty engine valves. Buy Shell’s nitrogen-enriched gas, for instance, and you won’t get a buildup of “gunk” in your engine, company advertising promises.

Is all this just a marketing gimmick?

“I am a Ph.D. chemist, a nerdy guy who wears a white coat,” says Jim Macias, Shell Oil Company’s fuels marketing manager. “We really believe there are differences in fuels. We can see it, feel it and measure it.”

Macias says the gunk caused by fuels with insufficient additives can foul fuel injectors and even trigger “Check Engine” lights in as few as 10,000 miles.

But not everyone is keen to talk about gasoline quality and whether additives really make the difference.

Edmunds sought comment from one well-known seller of low-price gas: Arco. Arco also often finds itself targeted as being a lower-quality product. BP, Arco’s parent company, did not respond to Edmunds’ interview request.

The American Petroleum Institute provided background comments about fuel additives and promised to provide an expert for an interview. The API spokesman never called back.

Finally, Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, an independent, nonprofit testing facility, also declined to comment on the question of gasoline quality.

The Skeptics and Their Tests
The Auto Club’s Mazor was more forthcoming, and has some interesting results from a blind test he did on three samples of gasoline from both major and independent gas stations.

“We tested emissions, fuel economy and performance and we could not tell the difference,” he says.

Mazor believes that the driving public has outdated notions about gas. Twenty years ago, onlypremium fuel had detergents in it. Back then, it was beneficial to occasionally buy a tank of high-test gas to clean the engine. Then, he says, “regulations were very lax and there was little enforcement. But all that has changed.”

Likewise, Randy Stephens, chief engineer for Toyota’s Avalon, isn’t wholly convinced by the claims of engine protection afforded by higher-priced gas. He says fuel experts at his company study the effects of different brands of gas on the Toyota engines. Automotive engineers disassemble engines after 10,000 miles of running them on different brands of gas to see if there is a difference.

“Honestly, in the 10 years I’ve been in charge of Avalon, I’ve never seen one come back with any sort of deposit issue,” Stephens says.

Nevertheless, Stephens admits to being “swayed” by ads that tout cleaning agents. Twice a year he adds a bottle of Chevron U.S.A. Inc.’s Techron — the same additive that’s in Chevron gasoline — to the fuel tank of his personal car.