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The Car Doctor

Senior citizen cars, old Fifth Avenue, premium gas

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May 22, 2008

Q. What cars are you recommending for senior citizens that are looking to buy a new car? I saw a piece on the Today Show that reported AAA is recommending certain vehicles. My parents are shopping for a new car. They are both in their eighties, and live in Florida.

A. There are certain characteristics of vehicles that better fit the senior population. Cars with thicker steering wheels are easier to grip. Larger rearview/sideview mirrors allow better visibility. Doors that open wide and seats with an upright seating position allow easier entry and exit. Some sedans to look at are the Ford Fusion, Chevrolet Malibu and the Toyota Avalon. If they are looking for a small SUV the Honda Element is a fun, economical and practical vehicle.

Q. Do I have to use premium gas in a 2005 BMW 325i?

A. According to BMW, your 325i is required to use 91 or higher octane fuel. The computer in your car will allow you to use lower octane fuel. The problem with that, however, is that your fuel mileage and overall performance won't be quite as good. In addition, using lower octane fuel could lead to carbon build-up in the combustion chamber that could also cause a drivability problem.

Q. We bought our son a 1985 Chrysler Fifth Avenue with 50,000 miles on it. The only other owner was an elderly lady, and receipts show the mileage is correct. It runs well. The body is fair to worse, with a few dents, and the vinyl roof is torn. The A/C does not work, but all the power windows work. The leather interior and carpet are very good with no damage. My question is this; he needs to drive up to his summer camp job - about 500 miles one way. Once he gets there the car will not be used much before he drives home again. If we first take it to a garage to have it looked over, do you think this is a terrible idea to drive a car that old on a long trip? We've had the car about six months, and my son mainly drives within 20 miles of home.

A. There is no reason why a 23-year-old car that is well maintained can't make a 500 mile trip. But your first instinct is correct: the car should be checked over by a qualified technician. Once the technician checks the car and performs any necessary repairs, that is really all you can do to try to prevent any possible breakdown.

Q. I have a 2002 VW Passat 1.8 liter turbo with a five-speed manual and I am approaching the 60,000 mile service. I bought the car new, and I maintain it regularly. This level of service calls for an inspection of the timing belt, and I understand a lot of labor is required just to get to the inspection. Is it advisable to replace the belt, tensioner, and water pump even if the belt looks OK?

A. According to AllData, the technical database I use for reference, the timing belt in your Passat requires service at 105,000 miles. You could certainly replace it early, and many cars do have a timing belt replacement at 60,000 miles. But in this case, in my opinion, it is money wasted.

Q. I'm in the market for a new car sometime in the late summer or early fall. I keep my cars for a long time, and am looking for something practical, yet distinctive. My biggest concern is how the car will handle in bad weather, because I don't drive well under those conditions. My first car was a 1988 Honda Prelude. I currently drive a 1994 J30 Infiniti with close to 220,000 miles on it. Both cars handled poorly in snow and ice. What would you suggest?

A. All-wheel drive will offer the best traction in slippery weather. There are many all-wheel-drive cars available in just about every budget. These cars range from under $25,000 for a Subaru or a Ford Five Hundred, to over $100,000 for a Mercedes or a Bentley. Look at the Audi A6 - it offers a great combination of style, performance and all-weather handling.

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