Monthly Archives: April 2016

Foggy headlights for your auto

download-60Most headlight restoration kits include an abrasive compound and sandpaper (in grades of varying roughness) to remove the outer layer of yellowed, oxidized plastic and clear the lens. Some include a buffing wheel that can be attached to a power drill. One YouTube video even shows headlights being cleaned with toothpaste (which is slightly abrasive) and a clean cloth towel.

One difference between the two kits — and probably the reason for the price difference — is that the Sylvania kit includes a glove, tape and a liquid “UV Block Clear Coat” to protect the lens from refogging once it has been cleaned. I have one gripe with the Sylvania kit, because the clarifying compound comes in a little packet that can’t easily be stored. This means this kit will probably be a one-shot deal. The Turtle Wax kit doesn’t have the extra goodies, but the pads can be reused and the bottles contain a larger amount of the clarifying compounds.

To be clear (so to speak), what we’re actually tackling in this project is the plastic lens covering the headlight bulbs, as shown on this 2001 Acura TL. This plastic lens protects the headlight from dirt and debris blown around on the road. Over time, these lenses become scratched, pitted and clouded by exposure to the sun. Replacing the lenses is expensive, so many car owners opt just to clean them.

The following steps are an overview of the ones I took with these two kits. Whichever kit you use, make sure you follow the included directions carefully. Use the products in the correct order and keep in mind that the headlights won’t look clear until you are finished and the residue is washed off.

Smog Check fro Passing

Before you take your car in for a smog check, is there anything you can do to give it a better chance of passing? The obvious answer is to make sure your car is running well in the first place. A well-maintained car, with all its systems operating correctly, will probably pass the smog test.

If you think your car isn’t running at 100 percent but you want to avoid the expensive repairs that would be required if you fail, there are simple steps you can take to tilt the odds of passing a smog check in your favor.

We’ll get to the details in a minute, but first it’s important to understand that smog testing, introduced in the 1970s as part of the Clean Air Act, is an essential step to keeping health-threatening pollutants out of the air. Smog check programs are in effect in 33 states to verify that your car’s emissions system is functioning properly. For more information about your local smog check requirements, check with your state’s motor vehicle registry.

“I can remember crying during recess in elementary school because the smog levels were so high,” says Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California. He adds that in the 1960s, Los Angeles had 100 smog alerts each year. In the past 10 years there have been only two in the city. “That is almost entirely because of the improvements in emissions systems in cars,” he says.

Still, smog tests can be a bureaucratic hassle for car owners. Understanding the rules, and how to prepare for and take the test, was so confusing for the average motorist that smog check technician Eddy Asmerian created SmogTips.com with information about how to pass.

“Most people leave the smog test until the last minute,” Asmerian says. “They think, ‘If I don’t pass, I’ll worry about it then.'” But he says there is a lot they can do ahead of time to help make sure their car will get a clean bill of health.

Here are the top tips from our experts to prepare your car for a smog check:

1. Clear that “Check Engine” light.
If your car displays a “Check Engine” light, that’s an automatic smog check failure. You’ll need to get a diagnosis and fix before you test.

The most common reason for a Check Engine light is a faulty oxygen sensor, says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. Sometimes, even before an oxygen sensor fails, it becomes “lazy,” not properly regulating the gas/air mixture, and that will cause a smog check failure, Mazor says.

An oxygen sensor in an older car is a $168 part, according to CarMD data. Replacing it is a good idea. Ignoring it can lead to a more costly catalytic converter repair, which can cost more than $1,000.

2. Drive the car at highway speeds for the two weeks prior to the smog test. This gets the catalytic converter hot enough to burn out any oil and gas residues. The catalytic converter, mandated by federal law in 1974 for all U.S. cars and trucks, converts harmful pollutants into less harmful emissions before they leave the exhaust system. The worst thing for the proper operation of emissions systems is a series of short trips: The catalytic converter never gets hot enough to do its job, Mazor says.

3. Change the oil, but only if it needs it. Dirty oil in the crankcase could release additional pollutants, which could cause the car to fail the smog test, says Asmerian. While the mechanic is changing the oil, ask him to do a visual inspection of the car’s engine to see if any hoses are cracked, broken or disconnected.

4. Do a tune-up two weeks before the smog test. Have any required maintenance performed well before the smog test, Mazor says. Most mechanics disconnect the battery while doing a tune-up and this resets the car’s onboard computer. The car then needs two weeks of driving to run all the diagnostic tests needed to pass the smog test.

Car Owners Manual Online

Owner’s manuals may not make exciting reading, but they are packed with valuable instructions, information and warnings. We have made it easy for you to find a car owner’s manual without any digging. And by having access to a manual online or by storing it on your computer, you have convenient answers when you’re not in the car.

Almost all automakers have made owner’s manuals available on their Web sites. All of the online owner’s manuals are free, while the paper versions cost anywhere from $25-$40. Below is a list of links to help you get an online manual from a car’s manufacturer. In most cases, you can just search for a car’s year, make and model, and then view the manual. In some cases however, you’ll need to register at the carmaker’s site. Occasionally you’ll need to provide a car’s vehicle identification number (VIN). You can find the VIN on the vehicle registration document, an insurance card or on the vehicle itself.

Other resources for car owner’s manuals are Web sites such as glovebox.net or “Just Give Me the Damn Manual.” They archive manuals and share them with other owners.

Many of the online car owner’s manuals also include maintenance schedules, but Edmunds makes caring for your car even easier with our Maintenance Guide, which shows the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule, recalls and technical service bulletins for your car in one convenient location.

The Paper Chase
If you need to order a paper copy of a manual, you can often do so from the same site link that you would use for a downloadable manual. You also can order a manual through a local car dealer. Helm publishes manufacturer-written paper manuals for Acura, Ford, all GM brands, Honda, Isuzu, Jaguar, Lincoln, Lexus, Mercury, Toyota and Scion — for a fee. You can purchase paper manuals for Audi and VW at the links above. And if a used owner’s manual is OK with you, or you’re after the manual for an obscure model, eBay is always worth a shot.

Manufacturers Oil for Your Car

Ten or 15 years ago, choosing the oil for your car was simple. All you needed to know was the viscosity — 5W-30, for example — and you could get a few bottles at the local auto parts store. But this simplicity is starting to go away.

General Motors’ transition to a new oil specification for all its 2011 and newer vehicles is bringing new attention to the issue of manufacturer oil specifications. GM isn’t the first to require such a specification, but its move signals a change in the car-maintenance landscape.

A manufacturer’s oil specification is a unique blend that an automaker creates and mandates for use in its vehicles. GM’s new oil product, Dexos, consolidates its five prior recommended oil specifications into two blends: Dexos1 for gasoline-powered vehicles and Dexos2 for diesels.

GM and other automakers warn that failure to use their factory-specified oils could void a car’s warranty. These new oil specifications can also create confusion and cost issues for consumers who change the oil themselves or take their cars to local mechanics who may not be aware of the changes.

Oil Has Changed
The oil inside a modern engine might look just like it did a decade ago, but it actually is far more advanced. The American Petroleum Institute (API) and the International Lubricants Standardization and Approval Committee (ILSAC) have set the standards for oil for the past 60 years and have changed the specifications roughly every five years. Oil needs to change to meet increasing emissions regulations, offer better protection against sludge and improve fuel economy.

“There has been a significant increase in lubricant quality in the past 20 years,” says Robert Sutherland, principal scientist for Pennzoil passenger-car engine lubricants. “But there has also been a significant increase in the stress that the engines put on the lubricant.”

Sutherland says it’s a game of leapfrog. As the hardware moves forward, the oil specifications must also change to handle the additional heat and properly lubricate the engine. He adds that the tolerances in a modern engine are closer and tighter, which means that the oil’s ability to keep critical engine parts clean is more important than it used to be.

Automakers’ Own Recipes
The API and ILSAC standards are the baseline, says Timothy Miranda, senior engineer for race oil and field testing for Castrol Lubricants, which manufactures oil for automakers such as Audi, BMW and Volkswagen. Automakers are free to improve upon the standards as long as they meet the minimum requirements.

“They may choose to have their own specifications because of a unique aspect of their engine design,” Miranda says. For example, if a car is turbocharged, it might require synthetic oil rather than conventional oil.

This manufacturer standard is more common among the German automakers, thanks to more stringent European oil specifications, Miranda says. Rather than have numerous blends for different regions, each automaker created one specification for its vehicles. They have brought those standards to the U.S., as Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and Volkswagen all have their own oil formulations.

According to Miranda, most American and Japanese automakers have tended to stick with the API guidelines. This means that they recommend any oil with the API “starburst” or “donut” symbol on its label.

GM distanced itself from the API guidelines with the introduction of Dexos. According to GM, the Dexos oil specification will decrease harmful piston deposits by up to 28 percent and improve fuel efficiency by up to 0.3 percent compared to the older ILSAC GF-4 specifications.

GM licenses the Dexos certification to motor oil manufacturers that can then choose to offer a full-synthetic variation, as long as it meets the requirements. Since Dexos-certified oil is compatible with older cars, the specification will also affect owners of pre-2011 GM vehicles who get their cars serviced at dealerships. Though Dexos isn’t being mandated retroactively, chances are dealers will fill their bulk tanks with it to consolidate their oil inventory.

What This Means for the Consumer
More expensive maintenance: “The OEMs are looking for protection and the customer wants longevity,” Miranda says. This protection comes at a cost. As manufacturer oil specifications become more common, the auto industry moves farther away from conventional oil and toward synthetic blends or fully synthetic oil. While these newer oils offer better protection and longer intervals between oil changes, they also have a higher price tag.

This price bump can be offset by the automakers who offer free maintenance programs. But when the coverage runs out, a customer who is not used to paying for a synthetic oil change could experience some sticker shock when faced with a $90 oil change.

Potential warranty problems: The language in some owner’s manuals suggests that using an oil other than the one specified by the manufacturer will void the car’s warranty. This is not the case, says Thom Smith, Valvoline’s vice president of branded lubricant technology.

According to the Magnusson-Moss Warranty Act, the onus would be on GM or another automaker to prove that a non-manufacturer oil damaged the engine. If dealers deny the warranty claim without first investigating it, they are in violation of the act, Smith says.

Consumers just need to make sure that any alternate oil they use is comparable in quality to the automaker’s specified oil. Many oil manufacturers, including Valvoline, are so confident of their product that they offer their own warranty against engine damage that their products might be alleged to have caused.

If talk of voided warranties and engine damage makes you nervous, just use the manufacturer’s specified oil for the duration of the warranty. Keep in mind that a vehicle’s engine falls under the drivetrain warranty (also known as the powertrain warranty). In most cases, this is longer than the traditional bumper-to-bumper warranty.

Your local mechanic or quick-lube facility may not be aware of your car’s specific oil requirements. You can still go to these places, but be sure to ask ahead of time what kind of oil they will use. Or bring your own oil to avoid any confusion.

Required manual reading: Not all cars require a manufacturer-specified oil. They do have a recommended viscosity, such as 0W-20, however. Check the owner’s manual for any mention of a required brand or specification. If the manual doesn’t name one, you can save money by buying oil at an auto parts store. Make sure it’s the correct viscosity.

There are money-saving opportunities to be had even if your vehicle does call for a manufacturer-specified oil. For example, GM has a Web site that lists the approved Dexos oil manufacturers. Most of their products are available online or at auto parts stores and may cost less than at the dealership.

In some situations, the manufacturer-specified oil may not be in stores or it might cost more than you want to spend. Your vehicle’s owner’s manual will usually list the specifications for an equivalent oil that meets the automaker’s standard. Does that mean it’s just as good as a manufacturer-specified oil such as Dexos? There’s controversy on this point.