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THE CAR DOCTOR

Drive less, change oil more

Plus: Skeptical on old Volvos, Subaru 'downshift shock'

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / March 9, 2009

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Q. I have a 2004 F-150. Could you please advise how often the oil should be changed? I only put 3,500 to 4,000 miles on the truck per year, and some people say to change the oil every 5,000 to 7,500 miles. This would bring it into over a year on the same oil. Please advise.

A. Considering how little you drive, I would want to change the oil in your truck twice per year. Over time the oil in the engine picks up condensation, fuel, as well as other contaminates. All of these contaminates combine to contaminate the oil.

Q. I am looking for a mid-sized car or SUV that can go the maximum miles per gallon. Some of the hybrids get good mileage, but have thimble-sized tanks. I heard the Nissan Altima Hybrid can go about 700 miles on a tank. Are there any other cars or SUVs you'd suggest? I prefer gas to diesel.

A. Although not quite out yet, the Ford Fusion hybrid promises up to 700 miles per tank when driven in city. Although you prefer gas to diesel, diesel is typically the mileage winner on the highway. The Volkswagen Jetta diesel can average 45 or more miles per gallon on the highway.

Q. I own a 2005 Subaru Forester. Every morning when I drive away from my house, for about the first three times I apply the brakes at three different stops along a quarter of a mile run, it feels as though the transmission is downshifting and causing a bit of a jolt as the car is braking. It's not a strong jolt, but severe enough for me to feel. From then on, for the rest of the day, there is no jolt at all. What are your thoughts? Thanks!

A. Check with the Subaru dealer, I believe the dealer should have the ability to re-program the car's computer to eliminate what Subaru calls "downshift shock."

Q. I'm considering a used Volvo wagon and have seen some reasonably priced ones (2001 and 2002 XC70s mostly) with 100,000-plus miles. Usually I'd say that I don't want more than 50,000 to 60,000 miles on a used car, but in "Volvo" terms, is 100,000 just getting broken-in, or is that just a used car salesperson line?

A. I have seen Volvo products need major repairs, burn oil, and have transmission problems with as little as 80,000 miles on them. Then there is Irv Gordon's 1966 P1800 Volvo with over 2,500,000 miles (http://www.vcoa.org/irv-o-meter/) on it and still running great! It really depends on how well the car was treated and maintained by the previous owner(s). Prior to buying any used car, it is a good idea to have it checked over by a technician familiar with the vehicle.

Q. I have been looking at a brand-new leftover Buick LaCrosse Super. I believe it's a great deal as the dealer needs cash. Would you buy this vehicle? Everything is standard and it has a moon roof and chrome wheels. The MSRP is $34,285, but I can buy it and have it delivered for $26,500.

A. Sounds like a pretty good deal, the car rides well, and is very quiet and with 300 horsepower on tap, it has plenty of power. That said, the LaCrosse will never be confused with a European performance sedan, although it is still a very nice car.

Q. I have a 1999 Nissan Maxima with 121,000 miles and recently had a "check engine" light and the car began running very badly. The mechanic did a complete tune-up and replaced all the coils and some sensors. The check engine light came on again and says it has a code 1320. He replaced the plugs and coils again but it didn't help; the car is running great but the "check engine" light is still on. He thinks it is a wiring harness problem but the code 1320 didn't come on until he replaced the coils. Do you have any thoughts that may help?

A. The ignition coils have certainly been a problem on this model Nissan. Along with replacing the coils, it is very important to check the wiring harness that runs to each coil. Start looking at the harness where it exits the passenger compartment. With the testing equipment hooked up, give the harness a solid shake and wiggle. Any change would indicate a problem with the harness.

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