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THE CAR DOCTOR

Torque converter may be draining overnight

Plus: Best small SUV, used BMW

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / March 2, 2009

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Q. My 1999 Dodge Caravan (with an automatic transmission) will not go into gear when the engine is first started. Once the engine reaches 3,000 r.p.m. on the tachometer and the engine warms up, the problem goes away. What's the problem? What should I do?

A. The torque converter may be draining overnight. A quick way to check for this would be to look at the transmission fluid as soon as the engine starts. If the fluid is dramatically above the full mark on the dipstick, then the torque converter is draining out. The repair would be replacement of the torque converter. If the fluid level is normal, then the transmission pump seals may be failing and not able to maintain proper pressure. A transmission technician will use a pressure gauge to determine if fluid pressure is low. If this is the case, then the transmission will need to be rebuilt.

Q. I have a 1997 Camry (130,000 miles) which runs well. A recent "check engine" light indicates "catalytic converter efficiency below threshold." I replaced the catalytic converter three years ago with an aftermarket part. On a recent trip to the repair shop I was told that I should have used a genuine Toyota part.

The Toyota part and labor will run around $1,400. Given the age of the car, do you think it is worth spending big money for a genuine Toyota catalytic converter? Do you think the price quote is reasonable? What's your opinion on an aftermarket catalytic converter in general?

A. On some vehicles aftermarket catalytic converters work just fine; on others they just don't seem to do the job. Most aftermarket catalytic converters have a specific warranty. According to the EPA website, aftermarket converters must have a five year or 50,000 mile warranty on the shell and pipes and a 25,000 mile performance warranty – perhaps there is still a portion of the warranty left. The $1,400 repair bill to replace the converter with a factory part is typical. Without knowing specifics about your car, there is no reason to think that your Camry still doesn't have many more years left.

Q. I'm considering replacing my 10-year-old Jeep Cherokee with a smaller vehicle. I'm thinking a small SUV or even a Subaru sedan. I like the room of the SUV and the stability in winter. Do you have any suggestions?

A. A small SUV such as the Toyota RAV4 or Honda CR-V may make sense. I prefer the CR-V over the RAV4. The Subaru is a fine choice, but I think you may miss the room of the SUV. You might also take a look at the Ford Escape Hybrid for a "greener" choice. If you think front-wheel-drive will be sufficient in the winter, there are other options. The Honda Fit is a great car; economical with plenty of room. One of my favorite cars is the Mazda 3 five-door. This car handles great, gets good gas mileage, and has plenty of room.

Q. I want to buy a used BMW in a few months and need to stay between $15,000 to $20,000. Preferably I'd get into something from 2004-2006 but am wondering which model? Obviously a 5 Series over a 3 Series would be great, but not required. I'd like a manual transmission and all-wheel-drive would be nice. Any suggestions for models to avoid or ones that you'd recommend over others?

A. A quick check on www.cars.com comparing your budget with what you want to buy limits your choice to a 325xi. Considering you live in New England, I would strongly suggest all-wheel-drive. Rear wheel drive BMWs (even with traction control) and snow tires suffer in slippery weather. Before you buy any car have it thoroughly checked over by a good repair shop.

Q. I have a 2000 Volkswagen Jetta and the computer light constantly comes on. I recently I replaced the oxygen sensor then filled up with gas and the light went out. The next day it came back on. What can I do? It can't pass inspection and every time I put it in the shop it costs more money. The car has 107,000 miles so I don't consider it worn out. What can I do?

A. At this point I would return to the shop that performed the original repair. Since they seemed to have misdiagnosed the problem, at a minimum they owe it to you to look at the car again. As they get older, Volkswagens suffer from simple items such as cracked and leaking vacuum hoses to faulty mass-air-flow sensors.

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