Click and Clack Talk Cars

Tom & Ray Magliozzi
Saturday November 24, 2001

Get this car some coffee! 


Dear Tom and Ray: 


I have a 1992 Buick Century with more than 60,000 miles that is very difficult to start, but just in the morning. It must be cranked several times before the car will finally start. Once it has been started, no problems are encountered for the rest of the day. I have replaced sensors, spark plugs, batteries, a starter and a fuel filter, but with no success. A Buick dealer hooked the car up to his computer and found no problems. Thinking I might be at fault, I've had other people start my car in the morning, with the same result. What could possibly be causing this car so much trouble waking up in the morning? – Margaret 


RAY: Good question, Margaret. Maybe it's the same thing that gives my brother so much trouble getting up in the morning: work. 

TOM: I'm going to suggest a few possibilities, Margaret. One is a weak fuel pump. If the fuel pump is weak, it would take awhile for enough fuel to get from the gas tank to the engine, especially when the car's been sitting for a while. 

RAY: The car could still start fine for the rest of the day because once the car is started, the fuel pump maintains "rest pressure" in the fuel line. That keeps enough gasoline in the line for quick subsequent starts. 

TOM: So you can ask your mechanic to test your fuel-pump pressure and your rest pressure. And if either are lower than they're supposed to be, go ahead and replace the pump. 

RAY: Another possibility is a faulty fuel-pump relay that is acting "lazy" when the car is cold. That would keep the fuel pump from being activated until the relay kicked in. 

TOM: So that's something else your mechanic can investigate. 

RAY: And one other possibility is the oft-overlooked coolant-temperature sensor, assuming you haven't replaced that yet. The "coolant temp sensor" reads the temperature of the coolant to determine whether the engine is hot or cold. 

TOM: And if the sensor is malfunctioning, it could be telling the computer that the engine is hot when it's really ice-cold. And that would lead the computer to set the fuel mixture incorrectly for a cold start, also leading to slow starting. 

RAY: If none of those suggestions help you solve the problem, Margaret, you can always try the approach I use on my brother to get him going in the morning: a swift kick. Good luck.  



How to limit  

allergens inside your car 




Dear Tom and Ray: 


Do car interior-air-filtration systems actually succeed at cleaning interior air? I've been searching all over the Web for credible info on this, but I can't zero in on any. Clearly, I'm desperate at this point. I have a 1987 Honda Accord LXI with 320,000 miles on it. It's in great shape and is a lot of fun to drive. I don't really want to give it up, but I am having problems with allergies. If interior-air-filtration systems work, I might actually break down and get a new car. Thanks. – Eric 


RAY: Some do work, Eric. It depends on the car. And it's not easy information to get. 

TOM: The key is knowing what you're allergic to and the size of its particles. For instance, I'm allergic to my brother. And even a heap like yours has a filter that will keep him out. It's called “door locks.” 

RAY: Actually, we did some research. We called a couple of allergists, and for 150 bucks an hour, they told us that the most problematic particles for people who suffer from allergies are around 5 microns in size. Some are bigger. Ragweed, for instance, is about 17 microns. 

TOM: For those without a scientific background, a micron is “very, very, very small.” The current Honda Accord's filtration system will only stop stuff bigger than 8 microns. So that might not help you if you're allergic to 5-micron particles. 

RAY: On the other hand, the Ford Focus' system gets stuff bigger than 3 microns. So that probably would do the trick. 

TOM: But what if you're allergic to something like dust-mite debris, which can be as small as 0.5 micron in size? Then the Focus is out, and you have to either launch yourself into space or save up for a 2002 Saab 9-5. Saab says its filters can catch some particles as small as 0.25 microns. 

RAY: So start by calling your allergist and getting as much information as you can. Then when you narrow down the list of cars that interest you, your best bet is probably to call the company's toll-free customer-service number. This is not something that dealers typically keep on the tips of their tongues. And besides, they might tell you anything to get you to buy their car. 

TOM: And before anybody writes to ask, anthrax is about 1 micron in size, and viruses, like small pox, are a fraction of a micron. So living in your car for the next 40 years is not a practical solution to bioterrorism. 

RAY: But it could ease the housing crunch!  



Is he being taken for a ride? 



Dear Tom and Ray: 

How can you tell if your tie rods are loose and need to be replaced? I got a lifetime alignment, and when I went back to get the car realigned, the mechanic said I needed to replace my tie rods before I did an alignment. Of course, he didn't "show" me anything. He just expects me to believe him. How can I tell for sure, so I know that I'm not being taken for a ride? – Basir 


TOM: Well, he's GOT to take you for a ride, Basir. He's going out of business on all those stupid lifetime alignments he sold. 

RAY: Unfortunately, a second opinion is your only real option here, Basir. 

TOM: There's no way to tell from how the car rides or handles that the tie rods are bad, because they wear out so slowly and gradually. It's like my brother's face. He doesn't notice how bad it's getting, because he sees it in the mirror every day. But whenever a long-lost relative sees him, she screams. 

RAY: The mechanic can tell if your tie rods are bad by jacking up the car and getting an assistant to shake the wheel from side to side. While the wheel is being shaken, he'll watch the tie rod's ball-and-socket joint. If he sees vertical movement in addition to the expected horizontal movement, he knows that the tie rod is worn out. And that's not something you can determine, since you don't know what a good one or a bad one should look like. 

TOM: So if you're suspicious of this guy, tell him that you don't have time today and you'll come back in a week or two. Then have another mechanic check the tie rods. And if they're bad, you should replace them right away, because if they break, your heirs could be reading this explanation. 

RAY: And, by the way, what he said makes sense. Bad tie rods could prevent him from aligning the car.  




Explaining markups; how to stop mildew 



Dear Tom and Ray: 


I discovered recently that the parts used by my local repair shop are marked up by 33 percent. I take this to mean that if I went to the dealer and bought the same part, it would have been a lot cheaper. My garage says this is a standard practice. Are they giving me a song and dance? -- John 

TOM: Yes, they are, John. Most repair shops don't mark up parts by 33 percent. Most mark them up by between 50 percent and 100 percent. 

RAY: But your assumption about the dealer price is wrong. The dealer sells parts to your garage at a special discount -- a discount the garage won't give you. So when your garage marks a part up by 33 percent, that probably brings it back up to the retail price, or thereabouts. 

TOM: In other words, if YOU went to the dealership's parts window and bought the part (or if you had the car serviced at the dealership), you would be charged the "list price," or about what your local garage charged you. Probably. 

RAY: Right. Some garages might make exorbitant markups, because there are unscrupulous people in every business. I mean, look at my brother. 

TOM: If you're curious, take your repair slip, pick a part and call your local dealership. Ask the mechanic how much the part would cost you if you walked in off the street. My guess is that it'll be close to what your garage is charging. 

RAY: And there's nothing underhanded about the practice of marking up the cost of your individual components, John. It's how business works. You charge for a combination of your expertise and the parts you know are required. Your plumber, electrician and local pizza shop do exactly the same thing.  





Dear Tom and Ray: 


I live in Florida and own a car with a vinyl top. How do I keep the top from mildewing? The car is parked outside all the time. – Arthur 


TOM: Mildew is not a topic we're overly familiar with, Arthur, living in the great frozen North as we do. Up here, those people with vinyl tops tend to be concerned about things like ice dams. 

RAY: But we have a few ideas for you. I would stay away from bleach, even diluted in water. Aside from discoloration, bleach can, apparently, cause vinyl to dry and crack by removing its natural oils. 

TOM: If the mildew is still mild (i.e., still basically two-dimensional), you might start by trying a common all-purpose cleaner such as Fantastik or 409. If that doesn't work, there are some vinyl-specific cleaners on the market, but you might not find them very easily. 

RAY: One we know of is called Meguiar's #39 Heavy Duty Vinyl Cleaner. It's a specialty product available at auto-body supply houses. If you call Meguiar's at (800) 347-5700, they can tell you where to find it in your area, or they can sell it to you mail-order. 

TOM: Whatever you use, it should be done a couple of times a year to keep the mildew under control. And it makes sense to follow it up with a vinyl conditioner of some sort. Meguiar's makes one called #40, or you should be able to find any number of them in your local auto-parts store or the auto-parts section of your favorite discount megastore. Good luck, Arthur.  


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