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The Car Doctor

Narrow width cars, mushy brake pedal, red hot Audi

By John Paul, AAA Car Doctor
June 12, 2008

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Q. I just moved to a new place that has an extremely narrow parking space. The space is very long and deep, so car length is no problem. But I need to find a narrow car, and I can't seem to find information on narrow cars. Do you know where I can find a list of narrow vehicles, or do you have any suggestions?

A. I'm not aware of any website that lists vehicle widths. The problem is that cars have been getting wider, and wider cars handle better and ride smoother. The narrowest car that I'm aware of is the Smart "fortwo" This tiny car is just 61.5 inches wide. The Honda Insight hybrid which you may find used is quite narrow at 66.7 inches. The Honda Civic is just under 70 inches wide. At this point, I think you need to find a large car lot and spend some time with a tape measure.

Q. My son Jason owns a 2003 Hyundai Elantra GT. It has four-wheel disc brakes, and the pads are still good, but the brake pedal is mushy. I tried to bleed them, starting with the passenger rear wheel, then the driver's rear wheel, then the passenger front and driver's front, but it didn't help. I have all new brake pads for the car. What would you recommend?

A. If there is no air in the system, the next step is to look at the brakes themselves. Look at the caliper slides, and if the calipers are hanging up, the pedal travel will be much longer than normal. The other possibility is that one of the flexible brake hoses could be failing. Any cracked or bulging hoses should be replaced immediately.

Q. I have a 2004 Audi A4 3.0. In February, I took the car in for its 120,000 mile service. Service included a new power steering pump, front brakes, and spark plug replacement. The key is the spark plug replacement. Within 24 hours after the service was completed, the "check oil" light came on and the car was running rough. I limped home, and the next morning, went to the closest service station. When the technician opened the hood, the catalytic converter was glowing bright red, and the car was almost in flames. After the fire department came, I decided to have the car towed to the dealer, and was told the ignition coils were bad, which caused the oil and the catalytic converter to overheat. I paid nothing for that service. The coils were replaced, and I was assured the catalytic converter tested okay. But within two weeks, the check engine light came on, and I noticed decreased power upon acceleration between 50 to 60 mph. I took the car to the dealer, who said the catalytic converter needs replacing at a cost of $1,500. Am I right in thinking that the bad/damaged coils caused the catalytic converter to fail?

A. I agree, I think, that the coil failure caused the catalytic converter to overheat and fail. This was a very common problem with 2001-2003 Audi vehicles. Since it sounds like the same problem, I think there should be some responsibility on the part of the manufacturer.

Q. I have owned several Miatas and love driving them, but my right side and hip are bothering me, and I think the location of the pedals in the Miata is to blame. My current Miata is a 6-speed 2002 SE. The pedals - especially the gas pedal - seem to be located a little too far to the left, placing my right leg and hip at an odd angle. Have you heard this complaint about Miatas or other cars? I remember an article by Jean Jennings in Automobile Magazine several years ago giving a great review of the current Miata, but she also mentioned that driving it seemed to aggravate the sciatic pain in her leg. Is this something the car manufacturers are watching for in their baby boomer customers?

A. As someone who suffers from bouts of sciatica, I can sympathize. As cars are developed, manufacturers consider the intended purchaser. And since boomers are the fastest growing segment of the population, manufacturers have to look at these issues. Better brakes, brighter lights and less distracting controls are all the result of input from customers and critics.