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The Car Doctor

No-name gas, hybrid Camry, staying in low gear

By John Paul, AAA Car Doctor
August 14, 2008

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Q. Given the high price of gas, and the gap in price between no-name gas and the big brand names in some areas, can you clarify facts about the downside of buying no-name gas? Will it hurt performance? And, more importantly, will it harm my engine?

A. The federal government requires all gasoline to meet a minimum standard for both octane and quality. Does that mean that brand name gas is the same as no-name gas? Not necessarily. Brand-name gas may have more of the detergent additives that help keep the fuel system clean. So will you harm your car by using generic gasoline? In my opinion, no, although I'm sure I'll get e-mails to the contrary.

Q. I have been having this problem with my 1991 Toyota Corolla since last fall when I moved from Framingham to Virginia.In order to start the car, I must first pump the brake several times and then step on the upper right corner of the gas pedal a couple of times when I turn the ignition key. This procedure works most of the time, and I discovered it only accidentally.I don't understand how the brake is related to the overall picture of the car not starting, but it seems to be. Today our local AAA place installed a new battery in place of the old one, which was getting weak. The interesting thing is that even with a new battery installed,my car still requires me to go through the same ritual before it starts. I would like to understand the problem better before I take the car to a repair shop.

A. For an engine to start it needs fuel, spark for ignition, and engine compression. The best way to diagnose the problem with your car is to leave it with the repair shop so they can see which part of the equation is missing. Although I will admit I am puzzled by how stepping on the brake causes the car to start. My only thought is that by pushing on the brake pedal you are moving a faulty wiring connection at the fuse box, or from the wires that go from the inside of the car to under the hood. That said, the typical problem with this model Toyota is a faulty ignition coil or igniter.

Q. Can you give me your opinion of the Camry Hybrid? Is it worth the extra money?

A. The Camry Hybrid, like the conventional Camry, is a fine car. The hybrid option makes the most sense if most of your driving is local. If your driving tends to be mostly on the highway, there is little mileage gain with the hybrid verses the conventional four-cylinder Camry. The EPA rates the hybrid Camry at 33 miles per gallon, and the conventional Camry at 31 miles per gallon. Considering the $4,000-$5,000 premium for the hybrid, it could take five or more years to see a benefit. The other advantage of the hybrid is that it has a slightly smaller carbon footprint.

Q. Although I have driven new cars for the past few years, I really enjoy reading your column. My question may seem trivial, but I would like to know if I'm doing any damage to my 2007 Ford Five Hundred with a six speed transmission. I really enjoy feeling the torque generated from 25-60 mph that I sense when the car's transmission is in L instead of D. Aside from obviously consuming more fuel, is there any reason for me to stop doing this upon occasion?

A. I can understand how you enjoy the feeling of power and torque when driving in low gear, but that isn't what low gear was designed for. You said that you like the feeling of the torque generated, and that is, I believe, where the problem may be. Transmissions are designed to shift at a certain engine RPM. The potential problem lies in holding the transmission in low gear at a higher than designed RPM. It's just that feeling of power and that additional torque that could damage the components in the transmission. You may not see a problem immediately, but over time you could be in for an expensive transmission repair.