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The Car Doctor - March 13, 2008

Road tripping to Arizona, steering wheel shimmies, oil lights

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By John Paul, AAA Car Doctor
March 13, 2008

Q. I am a college student in Massachusetts and will soon to graduate and move to Arizona. I am planning to buy my first car soon, as I will need one when I get to Arizona. I am very inexperienced regarding cars and don't quite know where to begin. I'm looking for a used car with a good safety rating and decent gas mileage. I don't know exactly what to look for in a used car to make sure it is in good shape. Should I buy the car here and drive it across the country? Is this a bad idea because cars in New England are more subject than cars in the Southwest to the wear and tear of winter weather?

A. The first thing you need to do is establish a budget. Once you know your budget, start shopping for a car that will fit your new lifestyle. Websites such as Cars.com can provide you with pricing information and the website safercar.gov will give you safety ratings. One of my favorite small, practical vehicles is the Toyota Matrix. It is a stylish wagon that gets good gas mileage and has a very good safety rating. The wear and tear factor between Arizona and Massachusetts will be minimal. More importantly, when buying a late model car, you are also building a relationship with the local dealership. On the other hand driving cross country could be a fun adventure.

Q. I have a 2001 Mazda Tribute. I just recently have begun hearing a "squeaking" noise that seems to be coming from the rear or middle of the vehicle when I step on the brakes. Do you think it's my brakes, or would a transmission problem cause this noise?

A. The problem is more than likely related to the brakes. Still, the best thing to do would be go on a road-test with the technician that will be servicing the vehicle. This way, both you and they will be hearing the same noise.

Q. Could you please tell what causes a shimmy in the steering wheel? When I drive my Ford F-150 over 40 to 50 miles per hour, it starts to shimmy.

A. The most common cause of this type of vibration is a wheel balance issue. As the wheel balance is being checked, the technician can check the condition of the tires, wheels steering and suspension system.

Q. I have a 1999 Ford Explorer with 125,000 miles on it. Lately, when it sits overnight, the oil light will stay on for a couple of minutes. I have listened to the engine when the oil light is on, and the engine is quiet. Do you think it is a problem with the engine or just the oil light? sGenerally, I do my own repairs; where should I start?

A. The problem is most likely a faulty oil sending unit. In a repair shop, they would normally install a temporary oil pressure gauge and take an actual reading. If you don't have a gauge, then it may make sense to replace the sender. The replacement part is only about $10.

Q. I have a 1999 Toyota Camry. When I shut the windshield wipers off, they do not return to the bottom of the windshield; they just stop wherever they are. I am wondering if the problem is with the switch or the motor. The switch is on the steering column. Do you have to take the steering wheel off to replace the switch?

A. Although it is possible the problem is the switch or a wiring problem, more than likely it's the wiper motor. In most vehicles, the "park" function is part of the wiper motor. Although these don't fail very often, it is usually a result of the wipers trying to operate when they are frozen in ice and snow.

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