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Automania/Repair & Maintenance


by Bob Hagin

Q. I've been on government duty out of the country for some years and have just returned prior to retirement. I haven't had to own a car for a long time and actually was never very interested in them. Now I find that it's necessary for me to buy a vehicle of some kind since we plan to reacquaint ourselves with the U.S. Do you have any suggestions on what we should buy, if it should be new or used and what we should spend?
A.B. Alexandria, VA

A. I never give advice on what to buy or how much to spend but I will recommend that you get a copy of the April issue of Consumer Reports (it's the auto issue) and study it carefully. Don't be in a hurry and don't be talked into a car that has a bad reliability record.

Q. We have a 1994 Plymouth Neon with a four-cylinder engine and an automatic transmission. We bought it new and it now has 88,000 miles on it. Since we first got it, we've had nothing but trouble. Our dealer's shop had to change the cylinder head gasket twice and the entire cylinder head once before it would stop overheating and quit running. We also had some trouble with the automatic transmission but that was fixed on the first try. Recently I was transferred to Anchorage and we took the car with us since my company paid for the freight. It may have been a poor move on our part. Now I notice that there is a noise coming from the steering wheel area when I first start it up in the morning. After about a minute or so the noise starts to diminish and it finally goes away altogether. I'm afraid that it's going to turn into another big problem and the car is out of its warrenty period, of course. Is the noise going to get worse as the car gets older?
K.T. Anchorage, AK

A. Fortunately, your Neon isn't getting ready for another major catastrophe. Its age isn't a factor in the noise you're hearing but the outside temperature will affect it. I came across a factory service bulletin on the subject and the problem is that the factory-installed power steering fluid is too "something" to do its job quietly when the engine is started in low temperatures. Chrysler dealers have the information and access to the new low-temp fluid and the routine needed to completely purge the system of the original stuff. I live in the San Francisco Bay Area and having to operate in freezing weather isn't a problem here.

Q. Recently I've had a very unnerving experience with my 1995 Oldsmobile Ciera. It has a V6 engine and an automatic transmission and the mileage has just turned over 70,000 miles. It's been a fine car but recently while taking trips on the freeway, the transmission will suddenly shift into neutral without me touching the shift lever. The first time it happened I was pulling up a slight grade at around 60 and the engine immediately started racing so fast I though it was going to explode. I pulled over immediately and stopped the engine. After a few minutes, I restarted it and carefully drove home. I took it to our mechanic but he couldn't find anything wrong although he changed the transmission oil and filter. It worked fine for several months but then it happened again under almost identical circumstances. I took it back to my mechanic and he found nothing wrong this time either.
O.F. Carmichael, CA

A. Again, I was able to find the answer in a factory bulletin. Along with several other General Motors makes and models of the same era, your Olds apparently suffers from a faulty transmission valve body. This is the device that routes the automatic transmission fluid to various circuits to make the transmission shift. At worst, your car will need an updated valve body that has been produced with smoother passages so the moving parts won't "hang up" and stick.


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