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Car Doctor: Don't carry cement blocks for traction

Posted by John Paul  February 25, 2011 06:03 PM

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Q. I'd appreciate your comment on the value, if any, of providing extra winter stability for a front-wheel-drive car by placing weight in the trunk over the rear wheels. My wife likes to have concrete blocks at each side of the trunk of her 2007 Honda Civic because she says the extra weight makes the car feel safer in slippery conditions. A neighbor recently told her that because the car has front-wheel drive the blocks don't help. What's your opinion on this?

A. Adding weight to the rear of a front wheel drive car only diminishes traction to the front drive wheels. In addition the cement block could be a safety hazard in a crash. The best way to improve traction with any car in the winter is to use four winter tires.

Q. I have a 1993 Dodge and the power steering is very stiff. This was my mother's car and it spent its life in Florida. The problem came on within the past couple of months. It seems to be worse with this winter's cold weather. The other issue is the steering wheel does not return when I turn a corner. Does the car need a new steering gear system?

A. The steering wheel not returning may be the clue. It is possible that one of the strut bearings has started to seize up and that is what is causing the hard steering and poor wheel return. The hard steering could be a result of a worn power steering pump or incorrect power steering fluid. With the car's front wheels off the ground it should be easy enough to check for a binding strut bearing.

Q. I have a 2001 Toyota 4Runner with only 67,000 miles on it. Over the course of the last four years, both the front and rear bumpers have rusted and rotted resulting in a gaping hole in the front bumper &mdash; and the rear soon to follow! I contacted the Toyota Corporation on many occasions and told them about this defect (which I have noticed on many 2001 4 Runners).  The only action they took was taking my information and filing it away. I would really appreciate your advice and help in getting Toyota to rectify a serious safety issue as it relates to the integrity of the SUV.                                                                       

A. I have also seen many Toyota trucks that have rusted out bumpers, as well as the much publicized frame issue with the pick-up trucks. Rust is a fact of life living in New England, with the combination of salt on the roads and salt air, some degree of rust is inevitable. In addition to the vehicle's age, the reason that Toyota has not done more with rusted bumpers is that bumpers are not required safety equipment on trucks, according to the Federal Motor Vehicles safety standard 49 CFR Part 581.  That said, if this was my truck I would replace the bumpers.                                                                 

Q. Over the years you have talked many times about synthetic oil and its advantages. I agree 100 percent with you on the advantages, but what about the disadvantages (if there are any)? When in your opinion is it a waste of money to change from mineral oil to this synthetic oil?  I have a family member that thinks you can switch at anytime, even when the car has well over 100,000 miles on it.

A. The biggest disadvantage to using synthetic oil is it tends to have high detergent qualities and may cause an engine with a minor oil leak to get worse. Synthetic oil will not cause a leak but if the engine has a fair amount of sludge, the detergent will wash away that sludge and make a minor leak more apparent. If your car's engine burns oil, using pricey synthetic oil may not be money well spent. 

Q. The owner's manual has a maintenance schedule which lists "change brake fluid" every three years. What exactly does "change brake fluid" mean? Is this simply a "drain and fill" of the brake fluid reservoir, or a full "flush" of the brake lines and reservoir? How important is this? I don't think I ever changed the brake fluid on my previous vehicles some of which I owned for 15 years. 

A. Brake fluid tends to attract moisture, and moisture is the enemy of a properly functioning brake system. This has never been more true than with anti-lock brakes and their complicated valve systems. The most efficient method of changing the brake fluid is to use the standard brake bleeding procedure. This method replaces 100 percent of the fluid.

John Paul is the public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England. He can be reached at jpaul@aaasne.com or on Twitter @johnfpaul.

This blog is not written or edited by Boston.com or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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Clifford Atiyeh is an automotive writer and car enthusiast . He has spent his entire life driving cars he doesn't own.
In the garage: 1995 21-speed Iron Horse, 2002 Jeep Wrangler X (by association)
Bill Griffith is a veteran Boston Globe reporter, having reviewed cars for more than 10 years and serving as assistant sports editor for 25 years. He was also the paper's sports media columnist.
In the garage: 2006 Subaru Baja
AAA's Car Doctor, John Paul John Paul is public affairs manager for AAA Southern New England, a certified mechanic, and a Globe columnist. He hosts a weekly radio show on WROL.
In the garage: Hyundai Sante Fe, Chrysler PT Cruiser convertible
Craig Fitzgerald has been writing about cars, motorcycles, and the automotive industry since 1999. He is the former editor of Hemmings Sports & Exotic Car.
In the garage: 1968 Buick Riviera, 1996 Buick Roadmaster, 1974 Honda CB450
Keith Griffin is president of the New England Motor Press Association and edits the used car section on About.com. He also writes for the Hartford Business Journal and various weekly newspapers in Connecticut.
In the garage: Mazda 5, Dodge Neon
George Kennedy is a senior writer for WheelsTV in Acton, which produces video reviews for Yahoo, MSN, and other auto websites.
In the garage: Lifted 1999 Jeep Cherokee
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