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Discussion Starter #121


Pump the brakes — this Subaru Outback needs work
Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
I have a 2004 Subaru Outback, V-6. It makes a high-pitched humming noise, like millions of crickets, after I drive at freeway speed, but only after about 10 minutes on the road. It stops when I brake, then resumes. Oh, the Outback does have 272,000 miles on it. — Joy
It sounds as if you have a brake pad that’s sticking, causing it to rub against the disc rotor. Normally, the brake pads sit right against the disc rotors, and even touch a little bit, but not enough to slow the car or make any noise. Then, when you press the brake pedal, the brake caliper causes the pads to squeeze the spinning disc rotor, which is what stops the car.
Based on your description, it sounds like one of the calipers is sticky. So when you first start driving the car, everything is OK. But after about 10 minutes (and, more importantly, several applications of the brakes), the caliper fails to retract all the way, and leaves a pad pushed up against the rotor.
That’s what’s making the sound of a million crickets — the pad continually rubbing against the disc rotor as the wheel turns. When you actually use the brakes, and the pads are pushed tightly against the rotors, the noise temporarily goes away.
You should get this fixed, because it will eventually get worse. The danger is that if your brakes are always lightly applied, you can overheat the brake fluid. And if your brake fluid overheats and boils, it can’t transmit hydraulic pressure, and the brakes won’t work.
Have your mechanic check the brakes for a sticking caliper. But on a car this age, especially if the brakes have been neglected, the repair could easily cost $1,000, if the system needs pads, rotors and a caliper rebuild.
But if that’s what it takes to make the car safe, do it, Joy.
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Discussion Starter #122


Warranty firm needs to step it up for sticking step

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
We have a 2013 Avalanche with automatic steps going in and out. The step on the passenger side sometimes stays in when we open the door, whether getting in or out. Getting out, if I’m not watching, I could fall out, being a small person. The warranty outfit will not fix it because when the guy looked at it, the step did come out, so he claims it worked. Do you know what could be the cause, and how to fix it? — JoAnn
You’re talking about the motorized running boards, JoAnn.
As you say, it pops out between the door sill and the ground when you open a door, making it possible for non-NBA players to get in and out of vehicles like the Avalanche. And when they fail, it’s either the switch or the step’s motor.
When you open the door, there’s a switch on the door jamb that signals a computer to turn on the dome lights, among other things. In your case, it’s also supposed to switch on the running board’s electric motor.
It could be the switch. More likely, though, it is the motor that is failing. Electric motors often fail intermittently. And that’s going to be pricey to replace.
You definitely want to push harder to get this fixed under what I assume is your extended warranty. The guy you saw is hoping you get discouraged and go away. Don’t. Reporting it to him was a good start. Make sure you save that repair order.
Next, start using your smartphone to take a little video every time you get in and out of the truck. Point the camera at the bottom of the door and start recording. Then open the door and film the running board.
If the running board operates normally, delete the video. If it fails to deploy, and you capture it on video failing, take that evidence to the repair shop and insist that they fix it. If you have several videos from several different days, all the better.
If they still give you the runaround, send that same video evidence, along with the repair orders, to the warranty company, and ask them to either fix the running board or refund the money you spent for a useless warranty. Good luck, JoAnn. And watch your step.
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Discussion Starter #123


Chevy Bel Air is all original — even the smelly exhaust
Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
I am the second owner of a pristine 1960 Chevrolet Bel Air, with 95,000 miles on its 348-cubic-inch V-8 motor with a Powerglide transmission. It’s all original with no hot-rod modifications.
The car runs smooth as silk. I drive it two or three times a month to keep it exercised. But my daughter complains that if she follows me in her car when we go to car shows, the exhaust smells really bad. I have always used premium fuel in this car and I drive it often enough that the gas is not particularly “old.” I know this car was built well before pollution controls were introduced, but I don’t remember car exhaust smelling remarkably bad as a kid. I have also noticed some of my car-show buddies have this issue with their 1950s-1960s cars. Why do the vintage cars have pungent exhaust? — Joe
I didn’t remember old car exhaust smelling bad when I was a kid, either, Joe. But a few years ago, we were lucky enough to take a trip to Cuba to check out the old American cars there.
And most of them stunk, too. I think, as the air has slowly gotten cleaner, we’ve all forgotten how bad it used to be.
Since 1960, we’ve added fuel injection, computerized engine controls, oxygen sensors, catalytic converters and more, to the point where you could put your nose next to the tail pipe of a new car and not smell anything— but please don’t.
The carburetor on your car, in contrast, is the technological equivalent of pouring gasoline into the cylinders from a paint can. It’s sloppy, imprecise and dirty.
The problem most likely to make your exhaust stinkier than usual is a fuel mixture that’s too rich. So, if the carburetor jets, for example, are worn out after only 60 years, they could be pouring way too much gasoline into the cylinders. The engine wouldn’t be able to burn that extra fuel and — without any emissions equipment — it would all come right out the tailpipe. And it would stink.
There are other things that can cause incomplete combustion and a rich mixture: low compression, incorrect timing, low engine operating temperature or a weak spark. It’s probably worth checking all of them.
But my first guess would be the carburetor — and it’s probably not too early in this car’s life to replace it. If that still doesn’t improve the smell to your daughter’s satisfaction, you should start following her to the car shows.
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Discussion Starter #124


Getting grilled on the latest technologies and integration in car safety features

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
I see that new cars have a small rectangle on the grill. Some are clear and some are solid. To my eye, it seems to ruin the appearance and pattern of the grill. I was wondering what purpose they serve. — John
Those are sensors for the safety systems that are being used on more and more new cars. The newer ones are lidar sensors that use laser-based radar to detect other objects in the road, whether they are cars, pedestrians or bicycles.
The lidar system sends out pulses of light, and by measuring how quickly they bounce back, it can tell when there’s an object in front of the car and how quickly your car is closing in on it.
For example, let’s say you’re traveling along the highway at 65 mph in traffic. The lidar system will know that the car in front of you is also going 65 mph because your distance from that car will remain the same. Everything is fine.
But when the car in front of you suddenly slows or stops, the system will immediately detect that you’re getting closer and closer to that car, and it will go on alert. If it determines that your foot is still on the gas, not the brake, it will conclude that you haven’t noticed the stopped car in front of you, and that’s when things get interesting.
Normally, the first thing the system will do is warn you with a light in the gauge array or in the windshield if there is a head-up display. If you ignore that, it will add an audible alarm. And if you still don’t respond, and the system calculates that you’re going to crash into the object in front of you, it will actually apply the brakes to slow the car and either avoid the crash or lessen its severity.
These systems vary from carmaker to carmaker and come under the generic names “forward collision warning” and “automatic emergency braking.” Some work at slow speeds only; others work at high speeds, too. And some can detect non-car objects, such as pedestrians and bikes.
Although they’re not perfect, they are, generally, technological advances that will soon be in all new cars. Plus, they’re already saving lives — and sheet metal.
At some point, someone will invent a sensor that can be better camouflaged into the front of the car. But until then, I’ll take an ugly rectangle on my car’s grill if it means saving that grill from getting mangled — with my own grill right behind it.
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Discussion Starter #125


Don’t expect great gas mileage from a pickup truck
Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
I bought a used 2008 Ford F-150 about three years ago. It’s an excellent vehicle and very trouble-free, except for regular maintenance, of course. The only irritating issue is low fuel economy. I bought a cover for the bed and that improved the mileage, but it still gives me only 16-18 mpg. Any suggestions for better miles per gallon? — Frank
If you bought a zebra, you’d expect it to have stripes, right, Frank? Well, you bought a pickup truck, and you should expect it to get mediocre gas mileage. That’s baked in.
In fact, 16-18 mpg sounds pretty good to me. The EPA rating for this truck back in 2008 was 14 mpg city and 19 highway, with an average of 16 mpg. So you’re already exceeding expectations.
If you had come to our shop and said that your truck used to get better fuel economy, but it had dropped recently, there are some things we would check.
We might start by checking your vehicle’s tire pressure. Low tire pressure is not only dangerous, but because it creates a bigger patch of rubber on the road, it creates more friction and can also result in lower mileage.
We’d also check the thermostat. If it were stuck halfway open or opening too early, your engine might not be getting all the way up to operating temperature. And an engine running cool will run inefficiently, with lower mileage.
We might check for an obstructed exhaust, too. If the engine wasn’t breathing properly, that could lead to wasted fuel.
Finally, if it’s an old vehicle, we might check the compression, because an engine that’s not fully compressing its fuel-air mixture is obviously not getting the most out of each drop of gas.
If you really want to see if you can improve your mileage any further, you might want to try overinflating your tires by a few pounds more than the recommended pressure. Just be sure to stay below the tire manufacturer’s maximum pressure.
Also, you can make sure the truckbed is empty when you’re not actively hauling anything. Extra weight will decrease mileage. And you can drive slower. The difference in fuel economy between going 75-80 mph versus 55-60 mph is enormous. If it matters that much to you, slow down.
But don’t expect any miracles, Frank. You’re already at the winning end of the F-150 fuel-economy bell curve.
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Discussion Starter #126


Covering the nuts and bolts of stubborn lug nuts

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
The lug nuts on my car have some kind of cover on them. And the covers are turning instead of the lug nuts themselves. How do I get the lug nuts off?
— Sidney

Ah, the scourge of decorative nuts, Sidney.
Lots of cars and trucks use chrome covers over their lug nuts. It gives the lug nuts a nice, shiny finish, because who among us wants dull-looking lug nuts?
But the downside is that they can corrode. Water and salt eventually get in between the chrome cover and the nut itself, and the nut swells up and you can’t get a socket on it. Or if you can get a socket on it, the chrome has separated from the nut, and the chrome moves but the nut doesn’t.
In that situation, we chisel off the thin chrome cover and what’s left is just the lug nut. You’ll then need a smaller socket. So, if the lug wrench that comes with your car is a 21-millimeter, you might need a 19-millimeter wrench now to remove the lug nuts.
Then you have to decide if you want to drive around with your lug nuts exposed, or do you want to spend the money to replace them with new, chrome-covered lug nuts?
The downside of leaving them exposed is that eventually they’ll rust and corrode and be hard to remove. The other downside is that your lug wrench will no longer work, so you’ll have to buy a new one that fits your pared-down lug nuts and toss it in the trunk.
But if the car is 15 years old, and you’re not sure how long it’s going to last, leaving the lug nuts exposed might be a reasonable choice.
You might be unpleasantly surprised to learn that a new set of chromed lug nuts from the dealership will cost between $5 and $25 a nut, depending on the car. And you need 20 of them.
You might find some at parts shops or online for about half that. Even so, it’s still a lot to pay for something that really should last the life of the car — but doesn’t.
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Discussion Starter #127


Whether automatic or stick, the answer will cost you

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
I have an ’87 4Runner that I bought new. Yes, that makes me older than dirt, but my love is still true. When I put the truck into reverse, the backup light doesn’t come on. I had a mechanic fixing something else who said he could fix it for about $400. I think he said it had something to do with the mechanism in the shifter. It has been a while since then and he’s not around now. Any ideas how I can figure this out myself? — Paul
Lucky for you, Paul, I’m old enough to be dirt’s father, so I’ve worked on plenty of 1987 4Runners. But whether it’s going to cost you $40 or $400 depends on what type of transmission’s in your 4Runner.
If it has a stick shift, there’s a $40 switch that controls the backup lights. You can find one online and it’s a piece of cake to replace. It just screws into the outside of the transmission.
If it’s an automatic transmission, the switch is also easy to replace because it bolts to the outside of the transmission — but it’s a lot more expensive. On automatics, the backup light switch is built into the neutral safety switch — which prevents you from starting the truck unless the transmission is in park or neutral.
Before you replace the neutral safety switch, however, it’s a good idea to check the wiring. You’d hate to replace the whole switch only to find out you had a broken wire somewhere.
But if the wiring is good, it’s almost certainly the switch. Don’t even bother shopping for a new one. The price will give you heart palpitations. It gave me heart palpitations, and I don’t even own a 4Runner.
So, my advice would be to spend some time looking for a used one. Try your local automotive recycling centers (junkyards), and look online, at places like eBay. If you’re lucky, you can find one for a few hundred bucks.
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Discussion Starter #128


Tire specifications show the mashup of globalization

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
Why are tire sizes designated as they are? If I understand correctly, we have metric, English and a ratio. Like, a “235-75R15” tire is 235 millimeters wide, has a 15-inch hole in the middle for the wheel and the sidewall height is 75 percent of the tire’s width. What’s the rationale behind all the different measurement systems?
It seems like a Brit, an American and a statistician walked into a bar ...

— John

Great question, John, but not simple to answer definitively.
The general answer is that the U.S. has held onto its beloved feet and inches while the rest of the world has been trying to nudge us into meters and millimeters. And because that nudging has been only partly successful, we’ve ended up with a mishmash of terms.
The U.S. has traditionally been a dominant world market for tires. So, the U.S. Department of Transportation got to set the original nomenclature for tires. That’s why, until the 1960s, the wheel size was in inches, the tread width was in inches and there was no sidewall height information (the percentage known as the “aspect ratio”). Back then all tires had the same aspect ratio, which was 90.
But then, technologically superior radial tires were invented in Europe, and the Europeans wanted to sell their tires in the huge U.S. market. And because the only legal requirement for selling tires in the U.S. was that the wheel size be stated in inches (because consumers didn’t care back then how wide a tire was), the Europeans just had to change that one number on their tires, and then they had access to the world’s largest tire market at the time.
Eventually, radial tires were manufactured here, too, and then U.S. tire makers wanted to sell U.S. tires in Europe, so they also adopted the millimeter rating for tread width.
Radial technology also allowed for wider tires and shorter sidewalls. That’s when you started seeing aspect ratios on tires.
I’m guessing that at some point, the U.S. and the U.K. were such dominant car markets that the European manufacturers just started using inches for wheel size in Europe, too. Because if you check out tires sold in Europe, the vast majority have the same nomenclature that we use here.
So it’s really a story of the mashup of globalization.
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Discussion Starter #129


Is not fixing my aging Altima bad for the environment?

Click & Clack Ray Magliozzi
Dear Car Talk:
My mechanic says my 1999 Altima needs a new charcoal canister at a cost of $512. Most of that cost is for the part, not the labor, he says. He also says it won’t hurt to drive the car without having this part replaced. I’ll just continue to experience two irritating reminders of the problem:
1. The “Service Engine Soon” light never goes off.
2. When I refuel, the gas pump shuts off early and I can never fill it up all the way, even with multiple squeezes of the nozzle.
Neither of these problems is enough to make me drop $512 on a car with almost 200,000 miles. So, I just want to know: What are the potential problems in the next 50,000 miles if I leave things the way they are? And how bad of a person, environmentally speaking, am I for driving the car in this condition? — Bill
Well, one problem you’ll have in the next 50,000 miles is you won’t know when your “Service Engine Soon” light is trying to tell you something new. If it’s always on, you won’t know when you have a second, or third, problem.
As far as how bad a person you are, I think I’d defer to your poker buddies on that. But I wouldn’t want to live next door to you, Bill.
The charcoal canister captures raw gasoline vapors so they don’t escape into the air. Gasoline vapors are the source of smog, which damages people’s lungs, and is particularly hard on kids and people with breathing difficulties.
So, you’re saving $500 at the expense of everyone else’s health.
Your mechanic is right that it won’t harm the car if you drive with a nonfunctioning charcoal canister. But because it will harm your family and friends, why not consider looking for a used one?
If your mechanic is willing, have him call some local junkyards and see if he can find you a charcoal canister from an Altima of the same era.
Maybe you’ll find a working one with 100,000 miles on it. Then you’ll certainly be good for another 50,000 miles (although if that’s your goal, you might want to have him pick up a used engine and transmission while he’s there, too).
Because the bulk of the repair cost is the part, buying a used part might cut the cost by more than half.
And then with all the money you save, you can fly across the country on vacation and pollute the upper atmosphere.
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