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THE CAR DOCTOR

Do-it-yourselfers still can

Plus: Drop in gas mileage, help for a UK Rover

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / December 31, 2008

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Q. With cars getting so complicated and diagnostic scan tools getting so expensive, is there anything a do-it-yourselfer can still do? I enjoy maintaining and repairing my car and have basic tools, but it seems as if all these expensive specialized tools will be my downfall.

A. There are still plenty of repairs a competent DIY'er can perform. The first, and in my opinion the most important, is a good repair guide. Whether it is a book or a system I use such as AllData (they have a DIY version), you need accurate specifications.

Regarding tools, it is surprising what you can do with some very simple items. A length of rubber hose makes a great homemade stethoscope for finding vacuum leaks and "mystery noises." A spray bottle with water is a great way to find worn ignition wires and noisy belts. There are also relatively inexpensive tools. An ignition spark tester (under $10), my favorite as of late, has become an infrared no-contact thermometer. Years ago these tools were hundreds of dollars; recently I have been using one from Actron that retails for under $70. By measuring temperature it is easy to find sticking brake calipers, faulty catalytic converters, clogged radiators, and even engine misfire.

Next would be a code reader, or if your budget can afford it, a code scanner. I have been using a scanner from AutoXray for years and found it to be easy to use and update. Finally, a good quality digital volt-ohm meter to test individual circuits and sensors is essential.

Q. Hello, I'm writing from the UK and hoping you can help me. I have a little Rover 200 with the 1.4 liter engine, but it won't start. The battery has been charged, the alternator has been replaced, and it has had new spark plugs but still wont "tick" over. It's parked outside my house so I can't take it to a garage. Do you have any advice or an idea of something that may have been missed?

A. No matter what kind of car—even one I haven't seen before—you need to start with the basics. Since it is a new battery, you'll need to check all the electrical connections from the battery to the starter motor. You also need to rule out the possibility of an issue with the ignition (key) system. In most cases, using a remote starter button will enable you to try to crank the engine. If you can crank the engine with the starter button, then the problem lies between the key and the starter.

Q. I just hit 140,000 miles on my 2000 Dodge 1500 van. Last week the check engine light came on. What do I do now, and will it be expensive?

A. A check engine light can come on for any reason from a loose gas cap to an engine misfire, faulty sensor or malfunctioning catalytic converter. Start with checking the gas cap. If it is loose, drive about 100 miles and see if the light goes out. If the gas cap is tight, then you need to have the computer system "scanned." You can expect to pay an average of one hour of labor to get a basic diagnostic check. Once the check is performed, the shop should be able to estimate the cost of the actual repair.

Q. I have an '07 Ford Ranger four-cylinder base model with a manual transmission. Recently the Ford dealer replaced a clutch slave unit and drive shaft.  Since then my gas mileage has gone from about 27.5 miles per gallon on the highway to about 17 miles per gallon. No one seems to have any ideas of what's causing this change. My driving habits haven't changed. I thought you may come up with possible solutions to this problem. By the way, I love your radio program, I listen every Saturday morning.

A. Two possibilities. Replacing the clutch slave-cylinder requires the complete removal of the transmission. During this time it is possible the output shaft vehicle speed sensor could have been damaged. It is also possible that the clutch is slipping slightly and causing the drop in mileage.  

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