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The Car Doctor - February 14, 2008

Email|Print| Text size + By John Paul, AAA Car Doctor
February 14, 2008

Q. I have a 2001 Toyota Tundra SR5 Access Cab with 63,000 miles on it. We originally purchased the truck to tow a travel trailer; however, we have since gone seasonal at the campground. We also have a 14-foot aluminum boat with a 25-horsepower outboard and a 5x8 enclosed utility trailer. Of the two remaining trailers, they only get moved a couple times a year. With the price of gas at $3-plus, I am considering replacing the truck with something more fuel-efficient that would still be capable of towing small trailers. Does this make sense? If so, could you provide some vehicle recommendations? I would prefer to purchase a used vehicle no more than four years old.

A. Certainly, a fuel-efficient, small SUV or four-cylinder pickup truck could tow your trailers, but the math may prove this isn't the most economical decision. If you were to purchase a 2005 Honda CR-V (several listed on cars.com) for $20,000 and trade in your Tundra (typical trade-in price $12,000), you would have an out of pocket expense of $8,000. Even with a potential saving of eight to 10 miles per gallon, it would take six to eight years (depending on fuel costs) to see the savings. If your Tundra is in good condition, it may make the most sense to keep it.

Q. What would happen if someone poured windshield-washer solvent instead of antifreeze into the radiator? Could this cause the car to overheat?

A. The typical formula for windshield-washer fluid is water and alcohol. This mixture won't cause the car to overheat. More than likely, the car has a problem with the cooling system. This problem should be addressed before the engine sustains any permanent damage.

Q. My mother-in-law has a problem with her thumb. She has trouble pushing in the button on the floor-shift lever. Does anyone make a car (not an SUV) with the shift lever on the column?

A. Up until last year, the Toyota Avalon and some Buicks could be ordered with column shifters. In the last year, Toyota has gone to a floor shifter. The Buicks can still be ordered in a six-passenger model with a column shift.

Q. I distinctly recall that in the mid-1990s, the automotive press was hailing the advent of fuel cells as the automotive propulsion system of the near future. I believe BMW was forecasting a commercially available fuel-cell car in the first decade of the 21st century. All this press - and there was a lot of it - led me to believe my Mazda 626, purchased in 1999, would be the last gasoline-based internal combustion engine vehicle I would own. Now that we're well into the 21st century, there is almost nothing about fuel cells, only hybrids and bio-fuels. What happened?

A. Hydrogen vehicles are still in development. There are at least two problems. Studies have shown you spend more energy making hydrogen than you get in return. The secondary issue is that the energy needed to produce hydrogen comes, in most cases, from fossil fuels. The other issue is a bit of "chicken and the egg." Most vehicle manufacturers won't commit to a hydrogen fleet unless there is an infrastructure for refueling. Fuel suppliers won't commit to distribution unless there are consumers to buy the hydrogen. Oddly, the answer may come from nuclear power. Studies have shown nuclear plants may be the most cost-effective method to produce hydrogen as a fuel. In the interim, we will see more hybrids, clean diesels and advanced technology gasoline engines.

Q. I have seen some hype about the smart car. With its small size, is safety a concern?

A. The smart fortwo has been tested in crash tests with a mid-sized Mercedes-Benz (the video is on YouTube) and the occupant protection looked quite good. The smart fortwo has a full compliment of air bags and a solid space frame to protect its occupants. Considering its tiny size, the smart looks quite safe.

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