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THE CAR DOCTOR

Mazdaspeed 3 vs. VW GTI

Plus: Driving on E, sticky RAV4 steering

(Boston.com Photo Illustration)
By John Paul
Boston.com Columnist / December 30, 2009

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Q. I read your take on the Audi S4 versus the BMW M3. How about something more affordable? I’m looking at the Mazdaspeed 3 and the Volkswagen GTI. I’m leaning towards the Mazda because of the more powerful engine, but would like your take on both cars.

A. I can see why you like the Mazdaspeed 3 with its 260 horsepower and 280 foot-pounds of tire-smoking torque. The performance makes the Mazda a standout. The handling is great, the ride firm, and the torque steer sometimes is a little scary. Where the Mazda falls a little short is the interior. There is a little too much plastic and I found the seats not that supportive.

The Volkswagen, on the other hand, has a slightly better ride, a nicer interior (I even liked the retro-plaid seats on my test car), the clutch is very linear, and the transmission seems a perfect match to the dynamics of the engine. Since both cars are hatchbacks, they both have useful and practical interiors with the ability to carry bulky items. When all is said and done, my overall vote goes to the Volkswagen GTI. It may not be the fastest, but the overall package is close to perfect.

Q. I have a 2004 Toyota RAV4 and I get drag on the steering when I’m driving slowly or when the car is stopped. This is especially noticeable when parking, backing up, or making a three point turn. When the car is moving above 10 miles per hour it seems okay. What do you think is wrong?

A. There are a couple of things to look at. The first would be a universal-joint in the intermediate steering shaft. Over time this joint can stick and cause the steering to bind up. At higher speeds the power steering assist overcomes the binding part. The other possibility is one or both of the front strut bearings could be binding up. Both of these items can be checked by a competent technician.

Q. I have a 1998 Oldsmobile Intrigue with an engine and transmission from a 2005 Pontiac Grand Prix. It runs and drives just fine on the first drive of the day. After being off, for 15 minutes to four hours, when driving again it wont shift past second gear. That problem, I believe, is bubbles or foam in the fluid. I've checked for loose cooler lines, leaks, fluid level, and I checked the vent cap and all was OK. What else could be the cause of bubbles in the fluid?

A. I don’t believe the problem is related to the bubbles in the fluid. The symptom is a characteristic of a faulty or sticking 2-3 shift solenoid valve. The other possibility is there is dirt or debris in the transmission valve body.  Prior to any repairs, a technician will also check the transmission for fault codes. The fault codes could help pinpoint the problem.

Q. I have what may be an odd question. Once my low gas/fuel light comes on, how long can I drive before I run out of gas?

A. In general, once the low fuel light is on you can drive about 50 miles, although you shouldn’t make a habit of driving with the low fuel light on. The fuel pump is cooled by the gasoline in the tank so driving very low on fuel can cause the fuel pump to overheat and shorten its life. In addition to the inconvenience of a breakdown, some fuel pumps can easily cost $500 or more.

Q. I love my Prius, but it has over 80,000 miles now and I've just moved to a house with a super-steep driveway. The problem is that my Prius can’t seem to manage in snow or ice.  Ideally I want a small, hybrid, four-wheel drive, but I don't think such a car exists. I hate to think of averaging under 30 MPG, but if I have to choose between a Subaru Forester or Outback, and a Honda CR-V, what would you recommend?  Or do you have other ideas for what I should consider?

A. My first thought is to consider four dedicated snow tires for your Prius. Adding tires that can provide better traction may be all you need to navigate your driveway. If that doesn’t appeal to you, a car that may fit your criteria is the Ford Escape Hybrid. The Escape will give you the low emissions you are looking for plus the best fuel economy of a small SUV. If the Escape doesn’t suit your tastes you can’t go wrong with either the Subaru or the Honda.

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