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THE CAR DOCTOR

Best car for baby daughter — and 100-pound dog

Plus: Brake wear suspicions, battery change without losing electronics settings

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / February 17, 2009

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Editor's note: The Car Doctor needs your help with the first question. Have a say in the comments section of this article.

Q. My family has recently expanded to include a daughter and 100-pound dog. We are currently in the market for a car that can handle our new additions plus a future child. Since we are in a recession and times are tough, I was wondering if you could recommend a particular car that meets our needs for reliability, comfort, and gas stinginess. So far, I've looked at the Nissan Murano, Volvo XC90, Toyota Highlander, Honda Pilot and CR-V, and the Subaru Outback. Any recommendations?

A. Of the cars you have looked at, the Subaru offers a good combination of fuel economy, reliability and comfort, followed by the CR-V. The Highlander hybrid and Pilot are also good picks, although fuel economy is certainly not as good. If you are concerned about making car payments, Hyundai is offering a program that if you lose your job, they will cover up to $7,500 of negative equity.

Although not on your list, take a look at the Toyota Venza. This new model is based on the Camry, has plenty of room, and is available with front or all-wheel-drive. Since I don't have a dog or kids, let's see if the readers with dogs and kids will make some recommendations.

Q. I have an Acura that I brought in for a 60,000 mile check yesterday. At 39,000, I was told that brakes were 36 and 46 percent worn respectively. At 48,000, the brakes were 49 and 51 percent worn. At 59,000, I was told the rear brakes were more than 95 percent worn and I needed new pads and rotors!

How can they get so worn in such a short time? I've never had a car that I could just replace brake pads; it always ends up being a major repair even though I'm religious about bringing my vehicles in for regular service. Is this a scam on the part of the dealerships? Is it even worth having regular service, or should I just wait until things fall apart?

A. I certainly believe in regular and preventative maintenance; it is my opinion that it pays off in the long run. Regarding the brake wear issue, certainly a good technician can look and give a "guesstimate" of remaining brake life. I personally find it a little hard to believe that any repair shop could be this precise in determining brake wear. Whenever in doubt, get a second opinion.

Q. My 2002 Mercury Sable seems to idle very high. My mechanic put it on the computer and said nothing is wrong. It seems likes it accelerates some on its own while driving and the needle will go up and down- especially when the car is in park.

A. The idle speed is controlled by the idle air control motor. If the IAC is sticking, it can cause the idle speed to be out of specification. Prior to looking at this part, I would want to check the basics. Something as simple as a vacuum leak could be the cause of the problem.

Q. I have a 2001 Toyota Corolla and I'm thinking of replacing the timing belt. I've done some research and I am a bit confused. On various websites I have read some owners replace timing belts at 100,000 miles, others at 150,000. My car has 90,000 miles on it now. Can you please advise me on this matter?

A. My first bit of advice is don't believe everything you read on the Internet. The 1.8 liter engine in your Toyota Corolla uses a timing chain and not a timing belt. The timing chain requires no regular maintenance and should last the life of the car.

Q. I was going to change the battery on my 6-year-old car. The car starts fine but the battery is just old. My problem is that I know the radio has an anti-theft feature and I don't have the code. In my other car I plugged an adapter into the cigarette lighter, and changed the battery without any problems. With this car, the lighter socket only receives power with the key on and I know a little 9-volt battery would not work when the key is on. What do I do?

A. I had a similar problem with the electrical system in my wife's Volkswagen. Over time we somehow misplaced the radio code card and when it was time to replace the battery I was faced with the same problem. To keep the computer and radio memory alive I used a portable jumpstart pack, grounding the negative cable and attaching the positive cable to the battery side of the alternator.

In other cases I have used a double-ended cigarette lighter plug and a jumpstart box. Plug one end into the lighter socket and the other end into the jumpstart box, then turn on the key. This will keep all the circuits "alive." In all cases you always need to remember that with the circuits powered, you have to be very careful to not short-circuit anything. In professional shops, the 9-volt battery adapter is being replaced with a dedicated "memory" saver tool that plugs into the under-dash diagnostic connector to keep all the memory circuits "alive."

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