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The Car Doctor

Blind spot mirrors, hybrid trade-in values, synthetic oil

By John Paul, AAA Car Doctor
August 28, 2008

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Q. I believe my 1994 Toyota Corolla has the original timing belt. My question is that I'm told it's a timing chain as opposed to a belt, and therefore doesn't need to be changed. Is it a belt or a chain, and should I have it changed?

A. Your Toyota uses a timing belt.  However, the engine in this model is designed in such a way that if the belt breaks, the engine won't be damaged, but the car will stop running. To prevent a possible breakdown, I would have the timing belt replaced.

Q. I have a simple question I'm hoping you'll be able to answer. I fueled up my Mazda 626 and put in STP fuel additive. Unfortunately, the little piece of foil that seals the bottle came loose, and has gotten into the tank. Does this pose a serious problem? If not, can I clean it out, or will it block something in the future?

A. All fuel pumps have a pick-up with a filter "sock." This filter will keep the piece of foil from entering the fuel system. As a precaution, any time you add anything to your car, whether it's oil or a gas additive,  fully remove the seal under the cap first. Many years ago I did see an oil pump clogged by a careless technician who allowed the foil from oil containers into an engine.

Q. Do blind spot mirrors effectively eliminate blind spots? Are there any down sides to using them, and is there a particular kind you prefer? Why don't car companies install them if they work?

A. Spot mirrors can help eliminate some – but not all – blind spots in every vehicle. Nearly every car on the road has some blind spot. This is due to the fact the mirrors are a compromise since they have to work with drivers of all sizes. I prefer the blind spot mirrors that are wedge-shaped and adjustable. Currently the only car that I know of the uses a dual plane mirror on the driver's side of the car is a Saab.

Q. Do you know how the hybrid vehicles hold their value?  I'm thinking of purchasing a new vehicle, and considering the Toyota Highlander.  The hybrid costs an additional $7,000 more, but I was wondering how they hold their value later on for a trade-in. 

A. Hybrid vehicles make the most sense if the majority of your driving is in the city, or stop-and-go type driving. Keep in mind that even if you drive mostly in the city, it will take several years to see the difference in fuel savings versus the cost of comparative vehicles. Originally, there was a concern about the trade-in value of hybrids as the batteries started to get old. But the reality is that hybrid vehicles are actually holding their value better than their gasoline counterparts.

Q. Is synthetic oil worth the extra money and will I get better fuel mileage if I switch over? My car is a PT Cruiser and I would like it to last a long time and I would like to see the fuel economy improve a bit.

A. I will admit I was never a fan of expensive synthetic oils until I started to use them. In my own experience I find that cold weather start-up is much better than with conventional oils. Since much of the wear of an engine is during start-up, synthetic oil should help minimize wear and tear. Synthetic oil will improve fuel economy slightly, but don't expect a dramatic increase, perhaps one or two percent.