News and Reviews

My car only starts in ‘Neutral’

John Paul, aka “the Car Doctor,’’ answers readers’ car-related questions.

Q. My 12 year old 2003 Kia Spectra will not start sometimes in park. When this happens if I force the shifter into neutral I can get the car to start. The repair shop replaced the range switch for $240.00 and it was okay for a week. Now the car is acting up again. A new mechanic checked the car and couldn’t find anything wrong, now what?

A. I would have the garage that did the initial repair look at the neutral safety switch. The neutral safety switch will not allow the car to start unless the car is in park or neutral. This switch is located on top of the transmission.


Q. I just purchased a five year old Toyota Tacoma form a used car dealer on the other side of town. When it first starts it revs up to 1800 rpm, stays there for 30 seconds, goes to 1500 rpm for another 15 seconds. The thing is practically un-drivable and probably shouldn’t have been sold in this condition, when I returned to the used car lot the manager said “they all do it’’. Is this a well-known problem?

A. I have driven several models of the Toyota pick-ups and don’t remember the high idle issue you are experiencing with your vehicle. There is something wrong with this truck that needs repairing. Inconsistent idle can be caused by any number of reasons. The technician should take a look at the air intake system, air conditioning signal, electronic control module and possible vacuum leaks.

Q. My son will be taking a car to college in Amherst this year is there something you can recommend in case of an emergency?

A. It is always a good idea to keep an emergency kit in the car with extra oil, coolant, washer fluid, jumper cable or “jump-box’’ and of course a AAA membership. The other thing you should consider is helping your son with driving emergencies. There is a great crash-prevention school called InControl ( I recently took this 4 and a half hour course with my wife and found both the classroom and behind the wheel drills very beneficial and potentially life-saving.


Q. When buying a new car where can I find out important information such as how much oil does the engine hold, if it has a timing belt, when that belt needs changing and other important information? Over the years I have found both the dealer and the owner’s manuals to be wrong. In my last car the oil refill information was off by a full quart.

A. The owner’s manual is usually a good place to start, but like you, I have seen wrong information (miss-prints). Today many vehicle manufacturers are putting the important information owners need online. Many professionals use AllData, as a technical database. What I like about this system as opposed to print material is it is internet based and if there is wrong information it can be corrected almost immediately. AllData ( does have a consumer version which can be purchased for one make of car and is quite inexpensive. By the way when it comes to oil changes, I always find the dipstick.

Q. I have a 2003 Buick that the power steering is very stiff. This was my mother’s car and it spent its life in Pembroke Pines Florida. The problem started to show up as the weather has gotten warm. It seems to me it would be worse when the weather cools down not when it warmed up. The other issue is the steering wheel does not return when I turn a corner. Does the car need a new steering gear system?


A. The steering wheel not returning may be the clue. It is possible that one of the strut bearings or even a ball joint or tie rod has started to seize up. This could be both causing the hard steering and poor wheel return. In addition the hard steering could be a result of a worn power steering pump, loose belt or badly contaminated power steering fluid. As a start, with the car’s front wheels off the ground it should be easy enough to check for a binding bearing or ball joint by moving the wheels left to right with the engine off.


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