Sunday, January 3, 2010

Q: Do I really need snow tires?

A: If we assume the questioner lives in, say, Hawai'i or Arizona, then the answer is no. But if you live in any of the Northern states then the answer becomes a hearty yes. Since contemporary autos are so much more reliable than their four-wheeled forebears, we've tended to develop a "set it and forget it" mentality. But cars are not crock pots, and even the pride of Nagoya or Wolfsburg still need regular scheduled maintenance to perform at their best.

Okay, so where was I? Oh yeah, snow tires. So what are snow tires (aka winter tires), exactly? Take it away, Wikipedia: "Winter tires are generally tires with a different rubber composition from all-weather tires. The rubber in winter tires is softer, which means that it will provide better traction at lower temperatures. Winter tires provide more small-tread areas, allowing for more traction on snow; and in wet conditions allowing water to escape from under the tire more easily. This reduces the risk of aquaplaning. Winter tires won't prevent skidding on ice and snow, but greatly reduce the risk. In the US. and Canada, a "snowflake on a mountain" symbol means that the tire has exceeded the industry requirement for a [standard all-weather] tire."

Got that? The other advantage is that things like anti-lock brakes, traction control, even four wheel drive will all work better when used in conjunction with snow tires. Look, no one's going to force you to put winter tires on your vehicle (well, unless you live in Quebec or the Czech Republic) but consider your safety and the safety of others. Ever watch the local news in Mid-West from December through March? It's pretty much chock-a-block with blood-soaked tales of death and destruction on snow and ice covered roadways. So will snow tires save your life? Not necessarily, but they will help you maintain control better than all-weather tires. And a little advice: you should replace all four tires, the two drive tires just won't cut it. If you want to make it easier to switch, buy a used set of rims on which to mount the snow tires.

On the subject of winterizing, what else should you do? Well, for starters, make sure all of your fluids are checked, most importantly your anti-freeze and your wiper fluid (and remember that water in the wiper fluid tank doesn't work - water will freeze, wiper fluid won't) Replace your wiper blades - this may seem trivial but in severe conditions visibility is everything. Keep an ice scraper, flashlight, blanket, even some emergency snacks handy. And if you live in a mountainous or little-plowed area, keeping a set of snow chains in the trunk isn't a bad idea either.

If all this seems like too much work, you can always put the car in the garage for the season and invest in a bus pass. We won't even miss you out there on the roads this winter.

Monday, December 21, 2009

How to keep your car running for an extra 100,000 miles

I was reading through online articles late into the night last week (which I often do) in order to provide my customers the best and most up to date expertise and I came across this little gem written by Click and Clack The Tappet Brothers on

I think we are all looking for ways to make our cars run longer, whether because we need to, or we just simply love driving them.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Air Bags

Q: If airbags are so safe, why do I have the option to turn mine off?

Ask The Expert: Oh boy. This is a topic that falls somewhere on the endless controversy spectrum between the safety of vaccinations and "9/11 Was An Inside Job". But The Expert has never been one to cower in the face of controversy, so here we go.
There was a time when automobile safety meant that one would stop after two martinis before getting behind the wheel of a Studebaker. But thanks to a few decades of rabble-rousing activists, outraged moms and genuinely innovative engineering and research, modern passenger vehicles are about as safe as any machine ever built. And yet they remain incredibly deadly machines at the same time. We may no longer be impaled on steering wheel columns or lacerated by shattered windshield glass, but automobiles are still thousands of pounds of steel and aluminum propelled at high speeds through populated areas. Unless we find a way to bend the laws of physics (and believe me, The Expert is always trying) there is no such thing as a perfectly safe automobile. But there are certainly ways to improve the odds.
The single greatest auto safety innovation of all time is still probably the seatbelt. (Trivia time: the modern standard three-point seatbelt was actually the invention of those meatball-lovin', blonde-bikini-team havin', allen-wrench-furniture-assemblin' socialists over at Volvo.) And yet the seatbelt, after it became more widely available in the 1960's, was nearly as controversial as airbags are today. Many were concerned about being strangled by a seatbelt, or trapped in a wrecked vehicle rather than being "thrown clear". But the truth is that even today, according to the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration, nearly half of all auto fatalities could be prevented by just the use of a seatbelt alone.
Airbags did not become widely available until the 1980's and weren't federally mandated safety equipment until the late 1990's. The first generation of airbags were extremely powerful, often to a fault. Reports of people being seriously injured or killed by airbag deployment made the rounds of the news media in the 1990's. Most times the victims were either seated too close to the airbag or they were children or small-statured adults whose heads were directly in the line of fire, so to speak.
The second generation of airbags were the so-called "depowered" airbags which deployed with far less force. It wasn't until the most recent "advanced" third generation of airbags, which use a sophisticated sensor array to deploy in the right way for the particular type of collision they are involved in, that the number of injuries and fatalities attributed to airbags has dropped significantly.
So the on/off switch for your airbag usually dates from the period before the advent of airbags that know when to deploy or not and with how much force. Even with advances in airbag technology, however, children are still safest in the rear seats of a vehicle.
It shoud be understood, as well, that frontal airbags are designed to work in concert with, not instead of, seatbelts, and that together they can save many lives a year. In fact, since the NHTSA began keeping records a few decades ago, only 234 deaths have been directly attributed to airbags, while the agency estimates in that same time well over 20,000 lives have been saved. So despite what the critics say, you're better off with them than without them.
For further information on the safe use of airbags and other useful auto safety information, visit
And remember, the easiest way to impress a Swedish bikini model is to buckle your seatbelt.

Monday, November 30, 2009

To repair or Not to repair...

Q: I'm pretty handy, how hard is it to fix my own car?

Ask The Expert: This one is really all about tolerance. Your tolerance for risk and frustration foremost, as well as your spouse's/boyfriend's/girlfriend's/child's/boss's tolerance for you to be spending your spare time working on your car rather than cleaning the basement/making out on the couch/preparing a great Thai dinner/going to the zoo/filling out expense reports. You get the idea.
There was a time -- a golden age really -- a few decades ago, when automobiles were designed by dashing characters with outsized personalities and engineered by serious men with crewcuts and slide rules. A time when a person with a sixth grade education and a basic grasp of mechanics could take apart and reassemble any of the fruits of Detroit over the course of a weekend, with only a small amount of pieces left over. But, like pull tabs on Pabst cans, those days are long gone.
Today, by contrast, it seems as though you need a degree from Caltech just to tune the radio. So what's the answer?
Well, it all depends on you. If you truly are handy, and enjoy a challenge, then doing basic repairs and maintenance yourself is a no-brainer, and can save you a lot of money over the life of your car. Of course The Expert believes that every car owner should be able to check and replace the oil and other fluids, know how to check tire pressure, replace a flat or an air filter, etc. When it comes to cosmetic stuff, anything from replacing a sun visor to a broken antenna, spend five minutes or so looking at how it's attached and what tools you might need to do the job. If it seems like something you can tackle on a Saturday morning, then do it. This is where (blatant self-promotion ahead) a place like H&H Auto Parts really comes in handy. For the diy-er, there's nothing like a well-organized and properly maintained salvage yard. They may carry engines and transmissions, yes, but they also carry door panels and bumper covers and washer fluid pumps and many other odds and ends that can be an inexpensive boon to the driveway repairman. And don't forget, with projects like these, the internet really is your friend. Do-it-yourself websites like,, and many others are filled with great advice and step-by-step instructions that often include images and video. Heck, even Youtube has a great collections of DIY auto repair videos, in addtion to those that feature piano playing cats.
If you find yourself really loving the work, the sky's the limit. You can download full repair manuals for almost any vehicle online for a fraction of the cost of an old fashioned paper manual. You can also purchase professional quality diagnostic software so you can hook up your laptop to your car's central computer to find out once and for all why that "check engine" light keeps flashing.
But of course, this is where things get more expensive and vastly more time consuming. Again, it's all about your tolerance. But just know that if you have the time and the motivation, and if you know the right places to find parts and advice, you can do just about anything. Except, of course, get that check engine light to go off.