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THE CAR DOCTOR

Accident report used to reduce trade-in value

Plus: Synthetic not reason to ignore oil changes, brighter headlights

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / April 13, 2009

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Q. Does the accident report on a CarFax really hurt trade-in value when a car is 11 years old? I'm buying a new car, and trading in a 1998 Honda CR-V EX. The CarFax report is great overall, and shows all regular maintenance, but it also reveals the car was in two accidents. It does not say what kind, but the one I was in was extremely minor (I bought the car used). My salesperson said I had a bad CarFax and that no one would buy my car, so he could only offer half the trade-in value. Is this true? Or are accidents on a CarFax to be expected with a vehicle of that age?

A. I can't imagine that a CarFax report showing previous body damage would have much, if any, effect on the value of an 11-year-old car. If the CarFax showed the car was a total loss and put back together, that would be a different story. In these days of very little profit in new car sales, this may be just another method of reducing the value of your trade-in just to mark it up later.

Q. I have a 2007 Toyota Solara with very bright headlights, and a 2004 Toyota Sienna with headlights that don't come close to the 2007. Can I buy brighter bulbs for the 2004?

A. The two cars use a different style of light, but you can upgrade to a brighter bulb. Sylvania, one of the largest lighting manufacturers, sells a bulb called the Silver Star Plus. This bulb is much brighter, without causing glare. The only down side is bulb life. I have heard that the typical life of these bulbs is two to three years, rather than the five or more years of a typical bulb.

Q. I'm wondering how often do I need to change the oil in my car if I use Castrol Edge full synthetic oil? Do I have to change it every 3,000 miles, or can I prolong it since the oil is fully synthetic?

A. Synthetic oil has several advantages over conventional oil. It tends to lubricate better in cold weather, allow for easier starting, and may even increase fuel economy slightly. But despite these advantages, you still don't want to exceed the vehicle manufacturer's recommendation for oil change interval. Although many people change the oil in their cars every 3,000 miles, most vehicle manufacturers recommend oil changes closer to 7,500 miles, or in some cases, even longer. Consult your owner's manual. And, even given the superior quality of synthetic oil, don't exceed the manufacturer's recommendation, and check the oil level every 1,000 miles.

Q. I have a problem with the instrument cluster on a 2000 Altima GXE with 104,000 miles. The problem is all the gauges (gas, speedometer, tach, temp) go out intermittently while driving. This has happened once every six months ever since I bought the car, but now it's happening with much more frequency – at least once a week. The digital odometer always goes off slowly, segment by segment, starting at the top of the readout and descending until all the digits are gone. This happens at random times.

At first I thought rainy weather was the problem but this proved false. Then I thought going over bumps was the problem, but this was also not true. I have researched this problem on the Internet and it seems to be a very common problem with 2000-2001 Altima models. There are many solutions, ranging from changing interior light fuses, replacing a speed sensor, ignition relay, checking solder joints or replacing the whole instrument cluster. It seems most of these solutions do not work at all, or work only for a short period of time. I have tried some of them, but to no avail. Any ideas would be appreciated.

A. The common fix is to replace the instrument cluster or circuit board behind the cluster. There were many problems with these clusters in the 2000 and 2001 model years. To replace the circuit board with an updated version will take about two hours of labor, and the part costs $150.

Q. My 2002 Subaru Outback has required changing the serpentine belt four times. The belt tensioner was replaced last month. Now, just one month later, the serpentine belt is wearing again. This time I'm told the problem is the power steering pump, and replacement will cost about $800. Does this seem right?

A. The biggest problem with belt wear is when the pulleys are not in alignment with each other. This causes stress and wear on the serpentine belt and results in shorter than normal life. Now, it is possible the power steering pump is worn, allowing the pulley to "walk" in and out. The factory cost on a replacement pump is just about $500 plus labor. Before I spent $500 for a pump I would take a straight-edge ruler, and make sure all the pulleys are lined up properly. If they are not, I would add shims as necessary to line up the pulleys.

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