Go ahead, make your truck’s bed a sandbox
Dear Tom and Ray:
I own a 1998 Ford Ranger regular-cab truck. My folks, who own an earlier-model Ranger, tell me that my truck will drive better if I put a sandbag or two in the bed to add weight. They say it helps prevent rear-wheel spin and makes the truck handle better. They live in the snow belt, and I live in Texas, where snow and ice are rare. But my folks still insist that the sandbag trick will improve my handling on both rainy days and sunny days. My roommate, who owns a 1996 Ranger, says my folks and I are a bunch of idiots, and if we put sand in the back, we might as well bury our silly heads in it. What's the deal? – Stephen
TOM: I think your roommate is just ticked off about the jackhammering-as-cathartic-therapy you practice while he's trying to sleep, Stephen.
RAY: Your folks are right. Pickup trucks are very weird vehicles. Think about it. Most of the time, they have absolutely no weight in the back. Everything -- you, your passengers, the engine -- is up front. That in itself makes for very weird handling.
TOM: But then add to that extremely stiff, heavy-duty springs in the back. They have to be stiff enough to support hundreds of pounds of stuff if you decide to load up the bed.
RAY: So what's the result? When the bed is empty, the rear end of your pickup truck tends to bounce all over the road and spin its wheels at the slightest provocation.
TOM: And there's not much the manufacturer can do about it. If the manufacturer adds weight to the back, that eats into the payload you're able to carry. The weight would also reduce your gas mileage and would eat into performance.
RAY: Of course, if your bed is empty anyway, you probably don't care about payload. And the tiny penalty you pay in mileage and performance might be well worth the improvement you get in handling and traction.
TOM: And you will feel an improvement. With three or four bags of sand all the way in the back, the truck will be balanced better when cornering, and you'll get less bouncing around and improved traction in the rain.
RAY: So tell your roommate that, despite his advice, you WILL be looking for a few hundred pounds of dead weight to put in the back of your pickup. Then ask him if he’s available.
More on Ray’s
TOM: Last week we unveiled the results of a survey we did about the cost of car repairs.
RAY: We picked two fairly average cars, a '96 Honda Civic and a '96 Dodge Intrepid, and picked four common repairs. The repairs we chose are ones you’re likely to need done on a 3-to-4-year-old car.
TOM: Then we called 158 different shops – both dealerships and independent shops – and got estimates for these repairs.
RAY: We then compared the repair costs at the dealers with the repair costs at the independents. And we found that dealer prices were higher, on average – by 15 percent for the Honda and by 10 percent for the Dodge.
TOM: But we also discovered some interesting regional differences. For instance, we looked at the data by time zone. And guess which dealers charged the highest prices? The ones on the coasts. The dealer prices all tended to be higher in the Eastern and Pacific time zones than they were in the Central and Mountain zones.
RAY: We also learned that in every case, the Mountain time zone had the smallest price spread between the dealers and the independent shops -- they charged almost the same amounts there. So in the Mountain time zone, it almost doesn't matter if you go to the dealer or an independent. Almost! Remember, these are averages.
TOM: So what's the moral of our survey? Well, if you live on the East or West Coast, you can often save real money by going to an independent (some of which you should deposit directly into our secret bank account in the Cayman Islands).
RAY: And you'll save even more money if you drive your car across the Continental Divide before getting that brake job!
TOM: But does all this mean that you should never go to a dealer? Absolutely not. After all, money isn't everything. Would you want your open-heart surgery to be done by the guy who had the lowest prices?
RAY: We think it means that for the normal, everyday stuff that needs to be done to your car (timing belt, brakes, shocks; like the repairs we researched), you can probably save a few bucks -- hundreds of bucks, in some cases -- by going to a good independent shop.
TOM: But dealerships do offer some advantages. For one thing, they will know more about your car than the average independent shop. That could mean that they might not have to spend a lot of time diagnosing a problem that's unique to your car. So, if you've got a weird problem, the dealer is still probably your best bet.
RAY: If you want to see all of the results of our survey, complete with very pretty bar graphs and charts, go to our Web site, the Car Talk section of www.cars.com.