Cars

My 23-year-old car needs new quarter panels, but I can’t find any

John Paul, AAA Northeast's Car Doctor, answers a question from a reader struggling to find quality parts for a car repair.

AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar, File

Q. I have a 1998 Subaru Impreza 2.5RS coupe that is rusting in the rear quarter panels. Subaru only has the front panels available, and my autobody guy says he can’t find high quality aftermarket rear panels. Would you be able to tell me where we could look?

A. The autobody shop has most likely tried all or the best sources for parts, which leaves you with two options. The first option is removing all of the rusted metal and fabricating patch panels. This takes time and talent to get a solid repair. The second option is to use a replacement panel and rustproof it prior to assembly. The aftermarket panel fit may not be exact and may also require some extra finessing to make it look good. 

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Q. My Dodge Caravan has been giving off white smoke and almost — but not quite — overheating. I had it looked at and the diagnosis was that the engine needs one or possibly both head gaskets replaced. I only want the van to last through the fall. In years past, I solved radiator leaks with some additive that looked like aluminum powder. Is there any magic product that I can add to the engine that will stop the head gasket leak?

A. A neighbor of mine had a very similar situation and also didn’t want to spend the money on a vehicle that was nearing the end of its life. Some shops had told me about a pour-in product called Blue Devil. The instructions are simple — you remove the engine thermostat and allow the engine to cool overnight, drain some coolant, and add the product. You then let the engine run for 45 minutes. Then let the engine sit overnight before restarting it. In that case, this Blue Devil product seemed to work — no smoke and the coolant level stayed full. Shops tell me they have had about a 75 percent success rate. For less than $50, it is worth a try. 

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Q. I am planning to put a turbo or supercharger onto the engine in my project Chevy Blazer. I want to add horsepower and torque, but don’t want to destroy the rest of the vehicle. I also have plans to upgrade the brakes and add a larger exhaust. What else should I do? 

A. It really depends on the vehicle you are starting with. Adding a supercharger to a tired engine will give you more power but will also shorten its life. Before I spent any money, I would join a forum and talk with members who did similar upgrades. One of the more active that I have read is www.gm-trucks.com. You may want to improve the cooling system and even upgrade the transmission and change gearing. It really depends on how far your imagination and budget can take you.

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Q. I recently read your answer about octane rating and possible damage to a Mercedes from using the wrong gas. My Acura states in the owner’s manual and on the gas door that 91 octane fuel is recommended. It states “recommended,” not “required” (I take things very literally). Also, there is no such thing (at least in my area) as 91 octane, so we have to use 93 octane, which is more expensive. 

A. AAA engineers completed a study that concluded that in cars that recommend premium fuel; there may be a slight horsepower/fuel economy benefit of one to three percent, although in most cases there was no difference. Unless you are towing a heavy trailer on hilly terrain or you’re a competitive racer, I’ve found no difference in performance and fuel economy in day-to-day driving using 87 octane fuel when premium fuel is recommended. Years ago, when premium fuel only cost 10 cents more than regular fuel, it made some financial sense. Today, with premium fuel costing 20-60 cents more than regular, any mileage gains are lost to the extra cost of the fuel. One note of caution, for any vehicle owner, if your vehicle owner’s manual “requires” premium fuel, use it. If premium is only “recommended,” our studies show that for most drivers it is just money wasted. 

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John Paul is AAA Northeast’s Car Doctor. He has over 40 years of experience in the automotive business and is an ASE-certified master technician. E-mail your car question to [email protected] Listen to Car Doctor on the radio at 10 a.m. every Saturday on 104.9 FM or online at northshore1049.com.

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