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THE CAR DOCTOR

Cleaning up aftermarket radio static

Plus: Wheel bearings, Class 3 trailer hitches

By John Paul
Boston.com Correspondent / November 6, 2008

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Q. I drive a 2003 VW GTI with an aftermarket Alpine head unit. I have a very poor radio signal and have not been able to fix the problem. I read in your column that the problem could be caused by rear windshield defroster lines, but mine seem to be fine. Are there any products in the market that would improve the signal? I have already changed my antenna, but reception has not improved.

A. Although you mentioned that you replaced the antenna, did you replace the complete cable assembly? The other possibility is corrosion where the antenna mounts to the car. If you do find some corrosion, clean it up and use a bit of anti-seize compound to prevent additional rust. The other possibility is that the car itself is causing the problem. One easy test is to use a portable radio and drive the car in the same areas you get poor reception. If the portable radio is clear, then it is a problem with the Alpine unit.

Q. I own a 2003 Chevy Impala and was told my car needs new front wheel bearings (both sides). I was hoping for a good estimate on how much this could cost. Is there such thing as a standard estimate guide?

A. Most garages will price out work from a menu for small items such as oil changes and tire rotations and will use a "flat rate" guide for larger jobs. According to "All Data," the technical database I use, it lists 1.8 hours labor to replace both front wheel bearings. The cost of the wheel bearing and hub assembly is $297 each. It is unusual that both front wheel bearings would fail at the same time. Considering the cost of the parts, I would certainly consider a second opinion.

Q. I have a 2000 Nissan Pathfinder with 72,000 miles, purchased used. Lately I notice a slight vibration coming from the front of the vehicle when I reach a speed of about 40 m.p.h. The vibration goes away at 60 m.p.h. I have replaced the tires but still experience the same problem. The ride does not feel like there is an issue with unbalanced tires. Any ideas? The mechanic says to live with it until it gets worse.

A. Although time is the ultimate diagnostic tool, for the sake of safety, I recommend you have a complete inspection performed on the steering and suspension system. Additionally, I would want to inspect the driveshaft and universal joints. I would also look for a tire store or repair shop that uses a tire-balancing machine that puts stress on the tire when it is being balanced. Hunter Equipment has a wheel balancer called "Road Force" which seems to get the best reviews by technicians.

Q. I have a 2001 Hyundai Sonata and have been told the evaporative emissions system is leaking. How much should this cost to fix?

A. Since you don't actually know what is wrong, there is no way to come up with an estimate for this type of repair. You can expect to be charged about an hour or so labor to "scan" the computer system for fault codes and check for system leaks. Once the leak or failed part has been found then you should be able to get a complete estimate for the actual repair.

Q. I have a small SUV and from time to time I carry firewood and other messy products in the back of the vehicle. I'm considering buying one of those racks that fits into a trailer hitch. What do you think of these types of devices?

A. Many people have Class 3 trailer hitches on their vehicles and never tow a trailer. They use the hitch receiver for mounting everything from bike racks to storage boxes. The only problem I can see is that most hitches have between a 300-500 pound tongue weight and you would want to exceed that rating. Additionally you need to be cautious both in your driving and of the possibility that you may be obscuring the license plate and some of your vehicle lights.

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