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THE CAR DOCTOR

Safe driving for short people

Plus: Saturn warranty service, long-term car storage

By John Paul
September 8, 2010

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Q. My wife's a petite person: four feet, 11 inches "tall." There's less than six inches between her and the steering wheel when she adjusts the seat to reach the pedals to drive. I understand that's not a safe distance should the airbag deploy. What auto manufacturers have adjustable pedals and steering wheels to improve this potentially hazardous situation? Is there anything else you can suggest, like an on and off switch?

A. I haven’t seen a list of cars with adjustable pedals but many cars have them. I have driven many Ford products with adjustable pedals. But it’s not just the pedals; some shorter drivers are able to find a comfortable and safe seating position by adjusting the steering wheel and tilting the seat back. One other solution may be to add pedal extensions. Personally I would try anything before I considered an on and off switch for the airbag.

Q. The airbag light on the dashboard of my daughter's 2001 Honda Civic has come on and stays on when the engine is running.  I checked some obvious things like blown fuses or loose connectors but the light remains on.  I've seen an airbag light reset procedure on YouTube which looks rather simple and in fact was shown on the exact model of my daughter's car.  However, with the sensitive nature of the airbag system, I'm a little reluctant to try it. Can you confirm the procedure used in the YouTube video or do you have a procedure to reset the light?

A. According to the websites I use, Honda requires the use of a factory tool to reset the light. The procedure used in the video may in fact work, but I can’t recommend it since it is not approved by Honda. A bigger issue is why the light is on. The light is illuminated because the computer has seen a problem with the airbag system. My suggestion would be to have the airbag system diagnosed and repaired if necessary. In addition, it looks like there is at least one recall to the airbag system in this model.

Q. I have a second home in Florida and I'm planning on buying a Ford Fusion to leave in the enclosed garage for five to six months while I'm not there. The car will just sit there without being started. What is the best thing to do to prevent battery or computer problems when I return?

A. The best thing to do would be have someone drive the car every three weeks or so. If that can’t be done, have the car serviced before you put it away. When doing this let the shop know the car will not be driven for six months. In addition, fill the gas tank and add a fuel stabilizer (Stabil is one product) to prevent the gas from getting stale. A device such as a Battery Tender (a type of battery charger) will keep the battery fully charged and is designed for long term storage

Q. My 2003 Audi has the 3.0-liter engine and currently 82,000 miles on the speedometer. I keep getting conflicting reports as to when to have the timing belt changed. The dealer recommends I change the belt immediately even though the manual states 105,000 miles. A local foreign auto repair shop states that as long as there are no oil leaks under the engine I can wait another year before changing the timing belt. I would appreciate any clarification you could give to this issue.

A. Under normal service conditions, Audi recommends replacing the timing belt at 105,000 miles and it doesn’t list a time interval. The average driver drives their car about 13,000 miles per year. Based on those numbers I would agree with your local shop and should replace the timing belt in the next year.

Q. My husband has a 2002 Buick Regal with over 90,000 miles on it. We were told by one service garage that the transmission fluid should be replaced. At another garage we were told by someone who worked for GM that we were asking for trouble if we replaced the fluid. Years ago it was very common practice to change this fluid periodically, but we don't know if the situation has changed. What would you do?

A. If the fluid in your car is full and clean I would leave it alone. If the fluid is discolored and burnt I would change the fluid and the filter. General Motors doesn’t have an interval for changing the transmission fluid.

Q. I have a 1998 Honda Civic with standard transmission.  Recently, it has started requiring a longer cranking time, approximately 15 to 20 seconds.  The car can be warm or cold when this occurs.  Since the engine cranks but doesn't start, this doesn't appear to be a simple electrical problem.  The battery is less than two years old and cranking is good but just won't start.  Do you have any suggestions?

A. I would look at basic maintenance first, if the spark plugs are old, the coil weak or igniter failing this could all lead to hard starting. If all these items look good, I would suspect a faulty main relay.

Q. I have a 2003 Chevy Malibu. When I take a tight turn the car rattles from the front end. What do you think this could be?

A. The first thing you should do is have a complete inspection of the steering and suspension. The noise you describe could be a worn tie rod end, ball joint, or stabilizer link. Continuing to drive with worn parts is potentially dangerous.

Q. Is it true now that Saturn has gone out of business that there will be no one to take over their warranties?

A. I emailed the "live" attendant at www.saturn.com and they gave me the following response: "General Motors will honor all warranties on Saturn vehicles throughout the warranty term. If there is a Saturn dealership that is close enough that the customer can drive there without inconvenience, the dealership may be contacted to arrange for an appointment. If there is not a dealership close by, all cross line warranty procedures apply. If the customer feels that the dealership is too far away and that the issue is an inconvenience, any GM brand may be contacted to set up an appointment to have the warranty work completed." Based on this information, warranty coverage still exists although depending where you live it may not be quite as convenient.

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