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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. I'm 79 years old and have an '83 Buick with 61,000 miles. I've kept it up it very well with new shocks, water pump, tires, brakes, etc. I recently won a new Chevrolet Cavalier and would like your opinion on whether to sell my Buick and keep the Chevrolet or visa versa.
B.H. Sacramento, CA

A. I can tell you what I'd do in the same situation. I'd sell the Chevy, invest the money, use the interest to maintain the Buick, sell the Buick at age 90, cash out the investment and tour the world with the proceeds.

Q. We have a paper route that requires the use of a car. The route is 11 miles long, includes a lot hills and naturally involves a lot of stop-and-go driving. Last year, it cost us $2300 to operate our route car which is a 1987 Honda with an automatic transmission. It seems that the route is particularly hard on automatic transmissions. We bought it with 117,000 miles on it and the used transmission went out at 135,000 miles. The next transmission we had put in lasted just four months. Can you recommend the most durable and low maintenance vehicle that would likely result in the lowest cost per mile to operate given the driving conditions I described?
G.C. Eugene, OR

A. I never recommend any particular make and/or model vehicle because Murphy's Law dictates that whatever I recommend will break down immediately and give my reader headaches for years. Consumer Reports dedicates its April issue to auto buying and maintenance and you can use it as a guideline for finding older vehicles that have good track records. Buying a high-mileage passenger car for commercial use is always risky since they weren't designed for that kind of service. A small pickup would probably be a better choice. If you replaced a failed automatic transmission with one from a dismantler's yard, you asked for trouble again. A quality rebuild that included an auxiliary transmission fluid cooler would be the best bet followed by frequent changing of the fluid. Using your car to get to work is one thing since you can usually catch a ride with a co-worker or take public transportation if it breaks down. It's another story if you have to use your vehicle on the job since a breakdown necessitates a backup or borrowed unit. Don't cut corners on your delivery unit or you might be out of a job.

Q. I have a very serious problem with my 1990 Volvo 760 Turbo Intercooler station wagon. It gives off a very strong odor of gasoline. This odor occurs frequently and as I've studied the problem, I find that it surfaces first when the gas tank is three-quarters full and the smell is much worse when the gauge reads one quarter. The garage I patronize has not been able to locate the problem but agrees that the odor exists. I asked a Volvo dealer's mechanic about it and he looked under the car and said that he saw no gasoline leak. To be fair, he did not have the car for any length of time.
P.D. Virginia Beach, VA

A. You're very brave driving around in a car that contains gasoline fumes. Not only can they explode but breathing them can do damage to your lungs and brain. Whatever it takes, get the problem fixed before you drive your Volvo any more. Since the smell is more prevalent as the level of fuel in the tank goes down, my guess is that there's a problem with the fuel evaporation recovery (FER) system. As the liquid is used up, fumes take its place in the tank. There are a couple of different types of FER used and their function is to hold the fumes (but not liquid gasoline) until they can be pulled into the engine and burned. The most common system uses a charcoal-filled canister to collect the fumes. Have your mechanic check the FER system and if necessary he or she can use an infrared analyzer "sniffer" to pinpoint the problem.

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