Auto Q&A: Replacing struts not a job for inexperienced home mechanic

If a strut shows signs of fluid leakage, that's a fail at any mileage.

Reader is advised to get a second opinion on whether her car needs its struts replaced.
–Michael O'Keene/Dreamstime/TNS

Q: I just had my car serviced and was told I need new struts. It’s a 2014 Honda Accord with 47,000 miles. The man pushed me very strongly saying it’s a “safety concern” and I should have them done right away. I figured I’d get a second opinion. What do these parts do? Is this something my husband could replace?

–Sarah

A: Oh, boy. It may be time for your struts to be renewed, but that place doesn’t sound like they deserve your business.

MacPherson struts are a combined shock absorber/suspension arm, and are widely used because of their lightweight and space saving qualities. Some vehicles employ them in the front only and others have them at all four corners (as does your Accord). Shock absorbers dampen the up and down movement of the vehicle, minimizing bouncing (improves vehicle stability) and help maintain continuous tire/ground contact. Unusual tire wear, such as cupping/scuffing, can result from inconsistent road contact.

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The companies that make replacement struts recommend replacing them every 50,000 miles, while many in the service industry say somewhere between 50,000 and 100,000 miles is reasonable.

If a strut shows signs of fluid leakage, that’s a fail at any mileage. Worn struts become mushy in function gradually due to internal seal leakage, and bumpy roads will certainly accelerate wear. A road test over a washboard surface might best indicate actual condition.

I used to be complacent about shock/strut condition until one day driving down a curving hill with irregular pavement. I found the car failed to turn as requested (to an alarming but correctable point) due to the tires losing consistent ground contact. That was an eye-opening moment.

I’d consider a second opinion, preferably not at a chain retailer. If you drive frequently on bumpy or winding highways or at higher speeds where stability is paramount, it’s worth considering new struts during the coming year. If you drive mostly in the city, or on straight roads and at lower speeds, and there aren’t any wear/failure symptoms, perhaps you can stretch this out for a few more years. Struts typically cost about $100-$200 each, plus about an hour and a half or more per strut for labor, not an inexpensive job.

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Wheel alignment (front, and rear as applicable) is recommended also, as the new struts may differ slightly from the originals in dimensions, which can affect wheel alignment. Toe, the exactly parallel tracking of the left/right tires/wheels, is the most critical alignment angle for optimum tire life, and in many cases it’s the only alignment angle that’s readily adjustable.

Strut replacement is typically not a home mechanic job, as disassembling the strut (harvesting the coil spring and upper mount for reuse) cannot be done without the very careful use of a spring compressing tool.

Removing the struts, taking them someplace to have this done, and reinstalling the new ones may be feasible, but only for the experienced. And then there’s alignment….

Paintless dent repair might be the ticket for hail-damaged car

By Bob Weber, Chicago Tribune

Q: After a recent storm, an owner of a new BMW 540 told me his car was heavily damaged by hail. He was at work during the storm, and his car was in the parking lot. The worst part, according to him, was that not all the cars in the lot suffered hail damage and that his did not fare any better than a KIA. His theory is that BMW is either trying to take cost out of the car or make it lighter for better fuel economy.

Because I will be in the market for a new car this year, and with climate change bringing more and more severe storms, has there ever been a study done of which new vehicles have the strongest sheet metal?

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— C.G., Chicago

A: There has probably been a study done. Everything gets studied nowadays, but I don’t know where to look. It is true that body panels are thin to keep weight down. But not all panels are made of the same stuff. Some are aluminum, some are low-strength steel while others are high-strength steel, and some are plastic. And, yes, there are differences in thickness among all. In many cases, the dents can be removed without painting. It is called paintless dent repair and involves massaging the dent to work it out.

If you have ever squeezed a beer can and then popped back into shape, you have the idea. PDR works best if you have it done as soon as possible.

Q: I have a 2015 Mini and was told I must use premium, not regular gas. What problem, if any, would result if I switched to regular? I’d like to save the difference in cost, but I don’t want to create a problem. Please advise. Thank you so much!

— D.T., Chicago

A: Your car has a high compression engine, and using a lower octane fuel will likely cause pinging. When the knock sensor hears pinging, the engine control module will back off the ignition timing until the knock stops. This reduces performance. We suggest using premium unless you will be cruising on the highway at steady speed.

Q: I took my wife’s 2006 Toyota Highlander with 107,000 miles to our regular local shop for an oil change and tire rotation. During the inspection they discovered fluid on the power steering pump and offered to replace it for $750. I thought that was high, but they said it was the location of the pump that required extra removal operations.

The next day there was a very irritating whine from the (re-manufactured) pump. I was told that air bubbles were causing the noise and that they would bleed out over time and the noise would go away. I took it back a second time, they put in some additive and the manager told me, “This is just the way it is,” and they could do nothing more. It’s now been about four weeks and still the whine. What say you?

— P.K., Saint Charles Illinois

A: It is not uncommon for air in the power steering system to make a noise. It does usually go away, but it doesn’t take a month. The pump may be defective and should be replaced. Most auto parts suppliers cover the products they sell and often the labor if the problem is with the new part.