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You’ve got car questions?

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Bill’s got car answers.

As a travel site that recommends drive-to-destinations, it only makes sense that we help y’all out in the automobile department as well. So if you have questions about your car—or a new car you’re thinking of buying—write it down below and send it to Bill The Car Guru. He’s got an answer for you.

William Freed Jr. was born the son of a Top Fuel dragster crew chief, and has spent a lifetime developing an encyclopedic amount of automotive knowledge and car repair tips. He’s been a licensed amateur race driver, auto parts seller, pit crew monkey, and has busted his knuckles on a multitude of vehicles, foreign and domestic.

In fact, this dude has so much car wisdom in his noggin that he even knows what car his daddy was driving when they brought him home from the hospital on his birthday: a bitchin’ four-speed Pontiac GTO.

Right then. Let’s get those car questions answered for you. And be sure to include the year, make, and model of your car.

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Frequently Asked Car Questions

AIR CONDITIONING

 
You could be low on refrigerant – and that is probably due to age and time. A/C systems are essentially refrigerators. How else can I keep myself at 64 degrees while rolling through Sacramento in August?

And without getting into a painful degree of detail, there are lots of rubber seals and places where said refrigerant can seep out over time. By the time five or ten years of constant service rolls around, you’re probably a tad bit low. Or, you have a leak somewhere in the system. The same basic principles that mean the beer isn’t super-cold at your local bodega, apply when you’re sweating through your dress shields on the 101.

As an overall caveat – working on A/C systems is nothing less than A TOTAL PAIN IN THE ASS. This is a job best left to the professionals, because you (and me) really don’t possess the specialized tools and knowledge to truly fix this stuff. Just being honest. Even the new environmentally friendly refrigerants (R134a, for example) are pretty nasty stuff, and need to be properly handled and recycled. The old-school stuff (Freon) can’t really be bought or used legally, and at this point professionals are the only ones who have the tools to safely remove and recycle this crap. Frankly you shouldn’t bother – UNLESS YOU LIKE POKING A GIANT HOLE IN THE OZONE, AND BEING COMPLICIT IN KILLING POLAR BEARS AND BABY SEALS AND DOLPHINS AND UNICORNS, BECAUSE YOU ARE A SELFISH JERK. Just saying.

Still with me? If you are low on refrigerant, there are several kits that can be used to recharge your system. They’re in the “Hey, Sucker!” aisle at the auto parts store or at your local low-wage megamart. Some even have gauges and helpful YouTube tutorials as to refilling your system without overdoing it.

But…if you screw up and overfill it, as I did on my Mercedes a few years ago, you’re headed to the shop anyway. So go ahead and kiss that initial 40 bucks goodbye, and get ready to really bend over.

Because chances are you probably have a leak – common failure points are the compressor, evaporator and the lines that carry the refrigerant. And, the only way to truly test and determine the source of the leak is to add a special dye to the pressurized system. Then, once that little task is complete, you have to replace the parts, refill the system and test again. Not easy, and not cheap.

Are you getting what I am saying? Working on your own A/C system is a fool’s errand. Sorry. Even if the recharge kit does work out, your problem will likely return. See above, re: leaks.  ~ Bill

BATTERY

 
Get your battery load tested by a reputable shop. Auto parts stores can also do this for free, or nearly nothing. Then, assuming you have no other electrical system faults, such as something that is slowly draining the battery, or a dying starter, you might be wise to go ahead and replace the battery.

Remember that heat, cold and time are the enemies of automotive batteries. If you wait until your battery dies, decide what the trade-offs in convenience and cost are. If you’re OK with having it fail at an unpredictable time, then go ahead – roll the dice. ~ Bill

BRAKES

 
Squealing disc brakes are not always indicative of a need for replacement. If you’ve just washed your car, and/or there is rust on the brake rotors from lack of use, a little squeal for your first few stops is probably OK. But it should go away after several minutes of driving and brake applications.

Beyond that, a constant squeal or squeak might mean that you need to get those brakes checked out. Mechanical wear indicators (a little metal doohickey on the brake pad) make noise to remind drivers that their pads need checking, and many cars these days have electrical wear indicators that cause a dash light to come on when the pads need replacing. In either case, it is a good idea to stop by the garage and have your mechanic look it over, and see if the pads (or brake shoes) are at their “wear limit” or minimum thickness.

If you want to do a visual inspection, you should see about ¼” of pad material. This can be done be peering between the spokes of your wheels (use a flashlight) and/or removing the wheel to look and take real measurements (best way). Brake rotors also wear down, and your mechanic can check their thickness, and help you decide whether they should be resurfaced or replaced. This last bit is important – and you’re not being scammed if your mechanic suggests this – because new brake pads need a clean, uniform surface on the rotor (or drum) to clamp against.  ~Bill

ENGINE

 
The timing belt is the critical link between key engine components — the crankshaft and the camshaft. Basically, the timing belt ensures that the valves and pistons/crank operate in time, and in the correct sequence. This is NOT a timing CHAIN, which is a similar but different beast. They ARE a wear item, prone to stretching, fraying and occasionally total failure – especially if you run them much past the recommended mileage limits. And if they do fail, valves hit pistons and it gets uglier than Sunday dinner at Chris Brown’s place. So heed the guidelines in your owner’s manual.

My recommendation – have a specialist do it, not the corner garage. Look on the Interwebz and in your local weekly newspaper (that one that has all of the medical marijuana ads) for timing belt replacement, You’ll probably find some deals, and if you go with a guy or girl who has done your same car a million times, it is less likely that they’ll screw it up. Savings achieved.  ~ Bill

 
Unless you drive your car in round-the-clock Burning Man playa dust conditions, tow a giant trailer, OR work in a bauxite mine, the 3,000 mile oil change interval is a thing of the past. Modern oils, especially synthetics, are typically designed to go for 7,500 miles or more. Modern cars have oil life indicators on the dash – follow them and do as instructed, you’re not being bamboozled.

The most important thing is to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for oil change interval AND the type of oil. The type of oil is described by API rating and it is easily found on the label. DO NOT buy discount store oil that does not meet your manufacturer’s API guidelines. Change the filter, every time. If you’re pinching pennies, watch the sale flyers from auto parts and big-box retailers.

Trust me, the car makers and oil companies have done more research on this than you or I ever could, and they aren’t in the business of paying out unnecessary warranty claims due to oil-related failures.

If you have a tow rig, a fancy sports or collector car, or take pride in being really anal (I understand!), then tighten up that oil-change interval as you see fit.   ~ Bill

HEADLIGHTS

 
Xenon lights are awesome. However, their clean and clear illumination comes at a lofty price. That’s because they’re filled with exotic gases from planets that only Elon Musk knows about (kidding). As such, there is a price for glory, and they aren’t cheap when your car is new or even when it is headed to the automotive old folks’ home.

Bulbs, power supplies and ballasts are costly to replace, it is just a fact of life. If you don’t want to pay dealer prices, jump on the Internet. Online forums will have good suggestions, and shop around for good deals – this includes looking for wrecking yards that specialize in your particular brand (BMW) and following retailer websites that specialize in your sled. Talk to a few different mechanics and get their best recommendations, and then choose your poison – the faster you swallow the bitter pill of cost, the faster you will see the light!  ~ Bill

INTERIOR

 
It doesn’t surprise me that replacement leather for your Acura isn’t available, because your TL is more of a mass-market vehicle, and as such the aftermarket for things like replacement interior and trim pieces simply isn’t there. They’re not really restoration candidates, and at nearly 10 years old, I ordering new parts from the dealer might be impossible and/or prohibitively expensive. An upholstery shop might be able to help you, but what I would suggest is a visit to your local salvage yard or specialty Acura dismantler.

You can pick up a complete interior (or the pieces you need) from a wrecked version of your car. I would recommend using sites and apps like Row 52 to search for likely donor vehicles, particularly so you aren’t chasing down the wrong color combination or sub-model. Also look at online auctions for salvage vehicles that you can pick up on the cheap. If you’re mechanically inclined and enterprising, you might even be able to get a wreck, pull the pieces you need and sell the remaining parts (or the entire vehicle hulk) for a profit.

If you don’t feel like doing the dirty work yourself, you can usually find people to pull parts for you. Also, before you make any moves, research Acura-specific Internet forums and/or talk to a specialist mechanic in your area too, because surely others have faced this issue. ~ Bill

SMOG

 
This is news to me, but given that your vehicle is more than 20 years old, it is entirely possible that it has been the subject of an emissions recall, or some other issue has caused the DMV to flag it. Assuming that you’re in California, I would first check out the specific requirements of your city/county with the state DMV’s website, and then potentially contact the Bureau of Automotive Repair’s Referee Program – this is probably what your smog station meant when they said “call the DMV.” And a note on smog certificates – they’re usually transmitted electronically to the DMV, in addition to the hard copy that you’re given.  ~ Bill

 
Catalytic converters essentially “burn” much of the bad stuff that comes out of the hindquarters of your car’s engine. For a full explanation, this is a good start. But as a practical matter, what you need to know is that the stuff INSIDE the convertor is mostly pricey metals — including platinum, palladium, rhodium and gold – so they aren’t cheap to make, and they’re even stolen! That’s why they’re expensive, and that’s why you should shop around. Prices vary widely, and once again, compare to lessen the sting.  ~ Bill

 
At 15 years old, your Montero probably isn’t worth paying dealer service rates. Find a good independent mechanic (remember that Google-fu) and be sure to balance the cost of repairs versus the value of the vehicle versus your desire to keep it or scrap it. (Remembering those Chinese washing machines). The Smog check place is probably the LAST place I would have do the repairs, because they’re either going to charge a premium for convenience, or not have the vehicle-specific knowledge to properly carry out the repairs. Key to savings here is planning ahead, such that you’re not rushing and paying through the nose to make the smog deadline. Buyer beware.  ~ Bill

TIRES & WHEELS

 
This is a pretty common scenario, and the first thing to do is go through the ENTIRE car and look for the lug nut key. I’ll give 70-30 odds that it is buried somewhere deep in the spare tire well, glove box, or someplace that your kid forgot to look – and if it isn’t, this process still provides a great excuse to get junior to clean up his new sled and become more familiar with his car.

Next steps: try to determine what brand of lug nut lock is being used, and then go online or to a local tire store and see if you can order a replacement. McGard, one of the biggest names in the industry has a helpful online guide.

Failing that, you’re looking at a variety of brute-force removal methods that might involve cutting off the offending lug nut, or hammering a socket over the entire assembly and getting it off that way. Go to YouTube for examples, but be sure to use common sense and best safety practices, to avoid damaging your wheels or wheel studs. If you’re unsure, take it to a professional. ~ Bill

 
Unless it is a pickup truck or an ’88 Mustang, most cars will need a four-wheel alignment. Front-wheel drive cars with “beam” axles can get away with a front-end only alignment, but prevailing wisdom says go for the all-around job; it usually isn’t that much more spend-y.  ~ Bill

 
Unless it is REALLY bent, alloy wheels can usually be repaired. Consult the internet for a local resource, and/or contact your dealer or a high-end body shop in your area for recommendations on a vendor. If it is really, really bent and needs replacement – those same experts are the ones who can tell you.  ~ Bill

 
You have entered the arcane (not really) world of TPMS – Tire Pressure Monitoring System(s). These little battery-powered gizmos are really useful in keeping you informed of the state of your tires. Not only for regular maintenance, but for driving situations where a sudden loss of tire pressure can put you in the ditch.

Three possible scenarios here:

  • You have a leaky tire, which means that you have hit a nail, piece of glass, whale bone, etc., lodged in there somewhere and have a resulting slow leak in the tire or valve stem. Do a visual inspection, and/or take it to the shop. Keep a close eye on things and drive with caution.
  • Your TPMS system may need to be re-set. Maybe you had a tire replaced/changed, or added air to a leaky or low tire. The solution for this is to visit your owner’s manual, manufacturer’s website, and/or YouTube to learn the reset procedure, and do it. Some cars do it automatically, but many do not, and learning the procedure will be really helpful, though you may have to do it more than once to get it to take. Also, you can visit your tire store or the dealership. And don’t hesitate to ask for a quick carwash at the dealer while you’re at it!
  • Your TPMS batteries are dead or dying. This has happened to me, and once any battery gets to be more than three (or so) years old, they can start slowly going bad. Especially in hot or cold climates. Replacing TPMS batteries is not a trivial matter – because tires must be dismounted and then re-mounted and balanced – for the tech to replace a relatively inexpensive battery. So, if you have a car you’re planning on keeping for a number of years, it makes sense to service the sensors when you replace tires. Otherwise, the labor bill could be painful.

~ Bill

 
I have seen run-flat tires replaced with non run-flats, and it seems to work out OK. However, let’s look at the pros and cons:

PROS:

  • You’ll save money on the tires
  • You have a wider choice of tires in a given size

CONS:

  • If you break down, you don’t have the ‘mobility’ that run flats deliver
  • If you want to change your tire, you’ll have to carry a jack, tools and a spare, or at least some fix-a-flat, and/or call roadside assistance for help
  • Could cause problems at lease-end, if you turn it in with different tires

I would carefully add up the costs, evaluate your driving style and take a careful decision on this one. One expensive tow could eliminate the cost savings between run-flats and regular tires. If you go this route, I would make certain that you have roadside assistance or an auto club membership.

And, quite importantly – I will add that the storefront, ambulance-chaser attorneys at LocalGetaways.com would jump out of their 100% felt Men’s Wearhouse suits and Chinese-made Donald Trump neckties, if I advised you to replace run-flats with regular tires, and something bad were to happen. Which is to say, we ain’t responsible. Caveat emptor. Res ipsa loquitur. Et cetera. ~ Bill

 

When a tire’s sidewall is damaged, replacement time is nigh. While sidewall repair is theoretically possible, it simply isn’t worth the time, expense or risk to your safety to do so. If somebody tells you they can fix a tire with a punctured or torn sidewall, or a damaged bead, RUN AWAY.

If you are in the situation of having to choose between replacing one or two tires on a given axle, the best thing to do is to check the wear (that is, overall circumference) of each tire and decide whether to replace one or both. With only 5K miles, the difference should be pretty minimal.

Front and all-wheel drive cars will be more sensitive to tires with a different overall diameter, and be aware that the manufacturers of some all-wheel drive cars insist that tires be replaced four at a time, due to wear on their fancy (and expensive) differentials and transfer cases. Be aware of this when it comes to potentially voiding your warranty – and in this case, it is really helpful to have a brand-specific mechanic to talk with, versus the dealer guy. Just like medicine, it doesn’t hurt to get a second opinion.  ~ Bill

TRANSMISSION

 
Hopefully, you’ve had your transmission serviced during the life of the car. If not, changing the fluid and transmission filter could help, but then so might a witch doctor! High-mileage automatic transmissions, especially those with limited or no maintenance, are the proverbial “pig in a poke.” You never know what you’re gonna get, short of an overhaul.

Some mechanical types argue that changing the fluid in high-mileage automatic gearboxes is a quick route to destruction – because the particles in ‘suspension’ in the transmission fluid are actually what is holding the whole shaky enterprise together. While others insist that clean, fresh fluid is the equivalent of giving Lance Armstrong a few gallons of fresh blood, making him ready to conquer the highest peaks.

Your personal situation, and appetite for risk play heavily in the decision to leave it alone, change the fluid and see what happens, or sell. I’d take the last option, because at that age and mileage, the next guy will have to deal with the problem, and sooner or later, that old Explorer is going to be crushed, melted down and made into Chinese washing machines. Maybe don’t let that happen on your watch.  ~ Bill

USED CAR ADVICE

 
Sue, I think we can boil this down to two questions!

First, is your Fiat worth fixing up? Unless there is incredible sentimental value associated with this car, I would say no. While nothing is impossible, old Fiats simply do not appreciate in the way that other collector car marques like Alfa Romeo, Jaguar and Porsche do, for example. So you’re probably looking at losing money, unless your desire is to drive the car forever – in which case the investment might be worth it, but that is an emotional choice not a financial decision.

Second, should I turn it into an electric vehicle? No. No. No. Absolutely not, unless your nickname name is Doc Brown and you’ve already got your start working on DeLoreans in your backyard lab. Too much time and expense, and you’ll end up with a weird, electric-powered Fiat that is actually LESS desirable than if you kept it stock. And you’ll be THAT weird lady who drives an old electric Fiat. Not advisable, unless that’s really your thing.

That said – there IS a very enthusiastic community of Fiat people who would be happy to give your car a new home at the right price. Look online and post an ad. But if the thing isn’t smoggable, you may be able to sell it to the state under Cash for Clunkers, or better yet sell it to an enterprising 24 Hours of Lemons team, who can turn your old Fiat into a funky racetrack warrior!

 
toyota_hilux-600xToyotas are really bulletproof and will essentially last forever with regular maintenance, as you are seeing firsthand. Even if the body and interior are thrashed, and cosmetically unappealing, someone out there will want to buy it.

As you are seeing with the used prices that you’ve found in your own research, Toyotas hold their value and whatever you can get for your old truck will be a useful chunk of cash to apply to the new vehicle you purchase.

While Ford and Chevy trucks can be quite good, I don’t see how replacing your super-reliable Toyota with a cheapo used model, of unknown origin gets you anything. You could clean up the existing Toyota for a few thousand bucks, leverage up into a newer used truck, or even look at leasing or buying a new pickup – which given all of the incentives that manufacturers are offering these days, might make sense.

For example, you could lease a new truck for about the same monthly outlay as buying a used one, and be able to sell it at a profit, or at least break even, assuming the residual is low enough. This means negotiate hard on the cap cost for the lease. Since this is a business truck, I would ask your accountant about what you can reasonably write of as a business expense, and leasing versus buying and the value of depreciation.

I’d say keep driving that beat-up Toyota; even jihadists know they’re indestructible.  ~ Bill

WINDSHIELD

 
Sounds like a busted window regulator. Google will help you here – search should be something along the lines of “2004 Toyota 4-Runner window not working” and you’ll get a starting point. Dive deep into the enthusiast websites and there will surely be a fix out there, or you can find a path to someone who can help.  ~ Bill

 
This is the realm of mobile windshield repair. IF the crack is not in your line of sight, you can probably get it fixed – the only way to truly know this is to have a professional look at it as soon as possible, or even DIY it with a kit.

Why ASAP? Because waiting can give that little star crack time to expand and take out your entire windshield. Heat, cold and the flexing of your car’s body will stress the window, and can cause that crack to run. And whatever you do, DON’T PRESS ON THE CRACK, unless you really want a new “windscreen” as the Brits call it.

Use your Google-fu and find a local vendor – start with “windshield rock chip repair” and go from there. Also check with the local dealers and body shops to see who they recommend. If you must use a kit, know that your results will not be pro-level.  ~ Bill

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