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Category Archives: automotive

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 ones that have lost just a few 32nds of tread depth will spin faster than the new one, and the difference could cause an all-wheel-drive system to engage on dry pavement and possibly damage the system.

On an all-wheel-drive vehicle or one with a conventional four-wheel-drive system, all four tires would ideally be replaced at the same time so they all have the same amount of traction as well as the same diameter.

On a front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicle, similar guidelines apply. If half or more of the tread on all four tires is gone, replacing just one tire will result in one wheel spinning at a slower rate than the others, possibly sending false signals to the traction control and antilock braking systems. It also will result in one tire having more or less raction for acceleration, braking and cornering grip than the others, which can affect a vehicle’s behavior. On a two-wheel-drive vehicle, a better approach would be to replace both tires on the same axle. The best approach, though, is to replace all four if the tread on the old tires is significantly worn.

One way to avoid buying more than one tire is to have the tread on the new one “shaved” so it matches the depth of the others. Some tire dealers will shave off some tread depth on a special machine for a fee.

If you decide to replace only one tire, it should be the same model, size and tread pattern as the others. A different brand or model tire will have even greater differences in traction and number of revolutions per mile, and it’s likely to wear at a different rate. That means it could conceivably wear out faster than the others, even if it starts out with more tread depth.

Whether you decide to replace just one tire or more, tire experts advise that the new rubber should be mounted on the rear. If new tires are mounted on the front, the worn tires in the rear would be more susceptible to hydroplaning — riding on top of water on the road — and possibly causing the vehicle to spin in a turn.

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 from a corroded heat exchanger (aka heater core), which is usually behind the dashboard. The leak could be in the form of steam that enters the cabin, producing the smell and potentially fogging the windows. Have this problem addressed, because breathing antifreeze isn’t good for you.

Burning: Oil could be oozing onto a hot part of the engine or exhaust system. It also could come from overheated brake pads and/or rotors — due either to aggressive braking, pads that don’t retract when you release the brake pedal or the emergency brake being left on while driving. On a vehicle with a manual transmission, the clutch plate could be worn or overheating from riding the clutch pedal. Leaves or other material in the engine compartment — sometimes imported by nesting rodents — also can burn on hot surfaces.

Rotten eggs: If you can smell rotten eggs or sulfur, your catalytic converter may have gone bad. The root cause could be an engine or emissions-system problem that made the converter overheat.

Rubber: The smell of burning rubber could be an accessory drive belt that’s slipping or getting chewed up by a broken pulley or hose rubbing against a moving part. An overheated clutch plate also can smell like burning rubber.

Electrical: Smell burnt toast? That could be a short circuit in an electrical component or overheated insulation. Take electrical odors seriously, because short circuits and overheated components are common sources of fire.

Gas: It’s normal to smell a little gas when a cold engine is first started because of incomplete combustion. If you smell gas after the engine is warm, though, the gas cap could be loose or the evaporative emissions control system — which is supposed to contain fuel vapors and recycle them through the engine — could be leaking or clogged. Even worse, gas could be leaking from the tank or another part of the fuel system. Always investigate gas smells you discover when your car is parked before starting the car and potentially igniting the fuel.

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 specific type of fluid instead of a generic type found at parts stores.

Losing sleep worrying about the power-steering fluid in your vehicle because of its appearance or age? You could refresh it without draining all the fluid and flushing the system, but that may be more complicated than you’re comfortable doing yourself (or paying for). Instead, find a turkey baster that will fit inside the reservoir and drain as much old fluid as you can. Then, you can refill it with fresh fluid to the proper level. You won’t get all the old fluid, but do this a few times and you should be able to replace most of it.

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 heat setting to hot and hold the hair dryer just a few inches above the sticker. Do not place the hair dryer directly on top of the sticker and the car’s paint.

3. Keep the hair dryer over the center area for a few seconds, making sure the air coming out is hot and then slowly begin to move it around the rest of the sticker. You want to heat the edges of the sticker last so you can prep for the next step.

4. After you’ve let the sticker heat up, use the plastic card at an angle to gently scrape up under the sticker. You can also try using your fingertips. If the surface area is hot enough, you will be able to slide the card under the sticker’s edge and begin to peel it away.

Repeating steps 2-3 a few more times may make a cumbersome presidential campaign sticker that’s been on your bumper since the last time your party won easier to remove. You can also try moving the plastic card or razor blade back and forth while you slide it under the sticker’s surface.

If you’re removing a sticker from your car’s glass, use the box cutter or razor blade at a slight angle. Do not use a box cutter or razor blade on your car’s paint; it will cause damage. On glass you will be able to apply a bit heavier pressure, if needed, to remove the sticker.

5. Continue to push the plastic card — or razor blade — underneath the sticker until it completely breaks away from the car’s surface. It is completely normal for the sticker to break apart during this removal process.

6. Once the sticker is removed, you can repeat steps 1-4 to remove any sticky residue or remnants. Tree sap remover also works great. Just apply a few drops onto a clean rag or detailing cloth and scrub away. If there’s sticky residue on your car’s glass, use the razor blade to gently scrape it away.

7. When that part of the car is completely clear of any sticker and its residue, polish it off with some glass cleaner or quick detailing spray

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 may also acquire a burned odor that could indicate it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical problems. Another indication it needs changing is dirt or other debris in the fluid. When you take your vehicle in for an oil change or other routine service, the repair facility may urge you to pay for a transmission-fluid change or flush. Even if they can show you that the fluid is darker than original, that might not mean you need fresh fluid right now. Step back, check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual and see what the manufacturer recommends before you decide. This also will give you time to price shop.

Many repair shops use flush systems that force out the old fluid and pump in new fluid. Though that sounds good, some manufacturers say you shouldn’t do that (Honda is one; there are others), so you need to know this before you agree to a flush. Look in your owner’s manual. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, also call for their own type of transmission fluid and warn that using other types could cause damage. Moreover, some automatic transmissions have filters that should be cleaned or replaced when the fluid is changed. Make sure the repair facility is using the correct fluid and procedures for your vehicle.

If you have never changed the transmission fluid in your vehicle and have more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, should you change it now? We have seen mixed opinions on this, with some mechanics suggesting you should just leave well alone if you aren’t having shifting problems. Adding fuel to this theory are stories about older transmissions failing shortly after they finally received fresh fluid. We have a hard time accepting that fresh fluid causes transmission failure, so our inclination would be to have it done if you’re planning on keeping the vehicle a few years or longer. However, fresh fluid is not a cure for gears slipping, rough shifting or othermechanical problems, so don’t expect a fluid change to be a magic elixir.

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 driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

Some car companies, Ford and General Motors among them, equip most vehicles with oil life monitors that tell you when it’s time to change the oil based on vehicle speed, engine temperature, climate conditions, number of cold starts and other factors. They can all cite examples from owners who say the oil-life monitors indicated they could go even longer than the recommended change intervals.

If you’re nervous about going 10,000 miles or more between oil changes, then do it every six months, when you probably should also have your tires rotated (also explained in your owner’s manual). GM says to change your oil at least once a year even if the service indicator warning light doesn’t come on. With longer recommended intervals between oil changes, it’s more important to check the oil level at least once a month to make sure you have enough.

But to change oil every 3,000 miles is probably wasting money. Environmentalists say it also adds to the glut of used oil that must be recycled or disposed, and the state of California is trying to discourage the practice.

If the guy at the quick-lube shop says he’s only trying to help you when he recommends frequent oil changes, consider this: It is not in the interest of an auto manufacturer for you to suffer premature engine failure caused by worn-out oil. If that happens, they might have to pay for repairs under warranty and probably will lose you as a customer. Yet, they’re the ones advising you to follow longer oil-change intervals.

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 may be able to do that yourself.

Many cabin air filters are located behind the glove box and are easily accessible by freeing the glove box from its fasteners (instructions should be in the owner’s manual). Others are located under the dashboard and may not be easy to reach, or under the hood where fresh air enters the climate control system. Some of these filters are expensive, as in $50 or more at dealerships, so you could save money by buying a replacement at a parts store and doing it yourself.

If a dealership service department or repair shop recommends you get a new cabin air filter, ask to see the current one. Depending on how long the filter has been in service, you might be shocked at what you see: leaves, twigs, insects, soot and grime that literally cover the entire surface that comes in contact with incoming air. You’ll know it’s time for a new cabin air filter.

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 needs to be replaced, the pulleys and tensioners that guide the belt should be inspected to determine if they caused damage other than normal wear.

A belt that isn’t cracked or frayed may look like it’s in good shape, but grooves on the hidden side may be worn enough that the belt slips on the pulleys that drive the accessories. That will cause problems in systems that rely on the belt to keep things humming. For example, a slipping drive belt may cause the alternator to work intermittently or at reduced power, and the battery won’t get fully recharged as a result, perhaps triggering a warning light.

Another sign of a worn belt is a squealing noise under acceleration. That could indicate that the belt is slipping because of wear, a belt tensioner is loose or a pulley is out of alignment.

Most modern vehicles use belts made from ethylene propylene diene monomer, a synthetic rubber that lasts longer than older types of engine belts. Most belt manufacturers estimate the typical lifespan of an EPDM belt to be 50,000 to 60,000 miles, and some say it’s more than 100,000 miles. However, it can be hard to tell how worn one is with just a visual check because EPDM belts are less likely to crack or lose chunks of rubber than other types. They should be inspected by a professional.

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 should ask about before buying). Tire rotation is when the vehicle’s tires are removed and reattached at a different position to ensure they wear evenly, which should be done every 5,000 to 7,500 miles on most vehicles, or according to the automaker’s recommendation.

Many consumers neglect the balancing part and have their tires rotated only periodically. If balancing was included with the tires, it would be wise to remind the shop to check the balance at the same time. Even if balancing costs extra, it’s a good idea to have it checked at least every two years, or more often in areas where roads are not well-maintained.

Vibrations can also be caused by a bent wheel, a damaged tire (which won’t be fixed by balancing), worn suspension parts or worn wheel bearings, so balancing the wheels and tires may not eliminate all vibrations.

Tires and wheels are balanced before being attached to the vehicle by spinning them on a balancing machine that identifies heavier or stiffer spots that cause vibrations. Some tire dealers and repair shops use “road force” balancing machines that simulate the weight and forces applied to tires and wheels during driving conditions. They say this method provides more accurate and detailed readings that allow more precise balancing.

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 and seepage by rejuvenating seals to their original size and shape. If an engine isn’t burning or leaking oil, or if it uses, say, less than a quart over 6,000 miles or so, switching to high-mileage oil may not be worth the extra cost for you. It’s really a judgment call if you should pay more for high-performance oil when your car has 100,000 miles on it but is using little or no oil. It doesn’t hurt and it could prevent leaks from starting. Most vehicle manufacturers would say it’s normal for an engine to consume some oil between oil changes.

In addition to having seal conditioners, high-mileage oils usually boast more detergents designed to clean out sludge inside the engine, plus other additives meant to reduce wear on moving parts. Every oil, though, makes similar claims that it does great things inside an engine.

Some mechanics recommend switching to a thicker (higher viscosity) oil — such as 10W30 instead of 5W20 — or using oil additives to stop oil leaks. Thicker oil makes an engine harder to start in cold weather, reduces oil circulation around the engine and increases oil pressure, which means there will be more pressure trying to push the oil past seals and gaskets.