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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. The owner's manual for my '90 Toyota Camry V6 recommends timing belt replacement if the car is driven under certain severe conditions. Otherwise, it doesn't specify timing belt replacement. My dealer, most mechanics and some friends say I should have the belt replaced even though I don't drive the car under severe conditions. Based on the information in the manual, I say it's not necessary. Who is right?
H.K Sacramento, CA

A. Unfortunately, cars don't read those manuals, nor do they follow the rules you'll find there. I've also found that manufacturers sometimes rethink those instructions and change them in the manuals for later models. Fortunately, your Toyota engine has "open" combustion chambers with recesses in the tops of the pistons so that the valves won't hit them if the belt breaks. Nonetheless, the car will come to an instant halt if the belt fails. I've seen too many belts break (in some cases with expensive and disastrous results, as on some Ford products) to be cavalier about changing them. The fabric and "soft" parts of a timing belt are subject to deterioration from atmospheric contamination under the hood and the sprocket teeth get frayed. It's a crap-shoot, but I'd suggest you bite the bullet and get it done.

Q. Last month I bought a new 2000 Ford Explorer. The wheel alignment and steering wheel was off by a few degrees to the left. They took care of the wheel alignment but the steering wheel is still not centered. Maybe I'm just being picky about a few degrees, but it still bothers me. I talked to one of the dealership's service managers and he said that he talked to someone at Ford corporate who bought the same model and the steering wheel was off-center too. The service manager told me that the Ford representative said that they have the steering wheels that way because research shows that it helps drivers stay away from the center line and kind of forces the driver to stay more to the right to avoid oncoming traffic. This seems to be the case with American cars since I've rented a Mercury Sable and my dad has a Pontiac Grand Am and they both have the same "problem." Is this true.
V.C. Bothell, WA

A. The rule of thumb when aligning the front suspension on any vehicle is to adjust a very slight "pull" to the right by means of setting the caster angle differently on one side. The rationale is that if the driver goes to sleep at the wheel or passes out for some reason, the vehicle will drift towards the shoulder of the road rather than into oncoming traffic. Unfortunately, most modern passenger cars utilize a MacPherson strut system that doesn't allow for caster and camber adjustments in most cases. The only aspect that can be adjusted in these cars is the toe-in or the toe-out. But trucks like your Explorer are fully adjustable. We are currently testing a 2001 Ford F150 4X4 pickup and we find that when we hold the steering wheel in a straight ahead position, the truck goes straight. If we let go of the wheel on a straight road with no "crown," it will pull gently to the right side of the road. If your truck does the same thing, it's adjusted correctly.

Q. I would like to know if a 1999 car with 280 miles on it would depreciate in value if it was in a wreck, even if the damage was fixed. If so, why and how would you determine the monetary amount.
C.J. Virginia Beach, VA

A. A used car is only worth whatever a buyer is willing to pay for it. In the case of a very low mileage car that's been wrecked, most people shy away from it since it's too easy to find one that has zero miles and a serious wreck can affect the factory warranty. If the car is being financed, the buyer has a big problem since the payoff on the note is usually more than the car is worth, even if it hasn't been damaged.

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