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White smoke means water leak

Plus: What's so great about ragtop Mini, worn Hyundai exhaust

By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / April 20, 2009

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Q. Last week, I noticed all of the backlights on my Delco radio were out. They all went out at once, not one by one. The clock is still lit, though. I don't know exactly what model it is, but it's the best of the three that came in the 1998 Malibu, with a built-in CD player. Any ideas?

A. In just about every application the radio uses at least two power supplies – one for the lights and another for the clock and memory for the radio presets. Check the fuse as well as the switch for the dash lights. If all this looks OK then it is most likely a faulty circuit board in the radio. If it is a circuit board it may be cheaper to replace the radio with an aftermarket unit.

Q. I have been borrowing a 1999 Hyundai Elantra. A couple days back I was driving on the highway, and then suddenly the car developed a loud sound. It was coming from the back of the car, making noise like a sports car. I am not sure if that is a problem with the exhaust, but the owner told me the muffler had been changed a year back. Could the muffler have worn out again or did I do something?

A. The muffler is only part of the complete exhaust system. Your car uses several exhaust pipes as well as the catalytic converter. It is not unusual that the muffler was replaced and that a year ago the exhaust pipes looked OK. A year later, combined with salt on the roads, age and potholes this could have caused any one of the other pipes to rust out. Unless you remember driving over something, I don't think it is you fault. Although considering you are borrowing the car, it might be a nice gesture to pay for the repair.

Q. I read all the car magazines and although I would love to own a BMW convertible it isn't in my price range. Recently I have been reading about the Mini convertible. What is your take on this car and why did Mini do the introduction at the Arctic Circle?

A. Mini is an interesting car company and to be different, rather than introduce a new model convertible in Florida, California, or Dubai, why not some place that shows convertibles can be year-round fun? I recently drove the new Mini and it handles like a go-kart, gets great gas mileage and has comfortable and supportive seats. The trunk is small, the rear seat almost useless, and although improved, the car still has a little cowl shake over bumps.

One novel feature is a meter to keep track of the amount of time you drive with the top down. The Mini convertible is a fun car in the city and on twisty two lane roads, although its diminutive size might leave some drivers feeling intimidated rolling with tractor-trailers out on the highway. If you are serious about buying a Mini, see if you can rent one for the weekend.

Q. I changed the spark plugs on my 2002 Dodge Durango with a V-8 engine. The plugs were original and I wanted to try the new E3 plugs, which offer longer life and smoother running. Since I changed the plugs, my "check engine" light is on. I didn't torque the plugs with a torque wrench but I have done this type of work before and double-checked for any vacuum leaks. I disconnected the battery, and the "check engine" light went out, but about 10 miles later it came back on. Should I have someone erase the code and hope it goes out? Or is it something more serious? Maybe it is something with the heat range of the plug? Any help would be greatly appreciated.

A. I am not familiar with the E3 spark plugs but if they were listed for your truck, the heat range should be compatible. By disconnecting the battery you did in fact erase the code. What you should do is scan the computer and find out what the code actually is. Once this is determined then you should be able to find out what the problem is. I don't believe it is the spark plugs, but something you did during the replacement of the spark plugs.

Q. My 1993 Ford Explorer with a six-cylinder engine just started running rough, and the next day it started blowing white smoke. I checked the water; so far no oil. So this morning I started it and I looked at the passenger-side exhaust manifold, and oil is being blown through the exhaust, from the cylinder head. Where could it be coming from and what would cause that?

A. The white smoke indicates that coolant (water) is being burned during combustion. The oil could be an external leak of the cylinder head gasket. At this point your best bet would be to have the cooling system checked for the presence of hydrocarbons, confirming a possible head gasket leak. Replacing the cylinder head gaskets should stop the white smoke and the oil leak.

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