Replacing Your Headlights

Advance Auto PartsThere are basically two reasons why you’d want to replace your headlights, right? First, maybe one of your headlight bulbs burned out–a safety hazard that can get you an unwelcome ticket from the local authorities. Second, maybe you’re tired of the pale yellow glow from your stock headlights, and you’re ready to upgrade to better bulbs or something like xenon headlights with an HID conversion kit. Either way, you’re probably here because you’re looking for some advice on how to proceed. So let’s dive right in and talk about the best replacement headlights for your needs.

1. Replacing a Burned-Out Headlight Bulb

Here’s a rule of thumb that I always tell people when they’ve got a burned-out headlight bulb: if one bulb’s gone, the other won’t be far behind. It just makes sense to replace both bulbs at the same time.

But now let me give you a tip that’ll save you a few bucks: Don’t go to your dealership to get the replacement headlights. Sure, those dealer lights might have the manufacturer logo stamped on the metal somewhere, but the truth is, manufacturers tend to use the same suppliers as auto parts stores. They just charge you more. And if you get your replacement headlights at a place such as Advance Auto Parts, chances are you’ll end up with brighter, longer-lasting bulbs than what came with your car.

The only problem with buying headlight bulbs on your own is that they don’t install themselves, so you’ll have to figure that part out as well. Fortunately, it’s not too difficult. Many independent mechanics will install the bulbs for you at little or no cost, and if you’re feeling adventurous, you can look in your owner’s manual for headlight replacement instructions.

2. Upgrading Your Headlights

Unless you’re lucky enough to have a car that came from the factory with xenon headlights (a.k.a. HIDs or high-intensity discharge lights), you could probably use a little more light on dark roads. One option is to pick up a couple non-xenon replacement headlights, because as I said above, they do tend to be more powerful than your factory units. It’s a simple and cost-effective solution that might be all you’ll ever need.

Another option is to check your headlight lenses to make sure they’re not cloudy or yellow with age. If your lenses are dirty, it doesn’t matter how nice your bulbs are–you’re still going to have illumination issues. Especially if your car is on the older side, it wouldn’t hurt to pick up a reasonably priced headlight restoration kit and clean up those lenses.

But if you really want the latest and greatest in headlight technology, xenons are the only way to go. They’re the ones with the distinctive white or bluish-white glow, and they’re increasingly prevalent on new cars nowadays, even non-luxury models. You’ll need a xenon conversion kit to do it right, and installing it yourself could take a couple hours–not to mention the fact that these xenon conversion kits can run into the hundreds of dollars for the parts alone. But the difference in illumination can be dramatic, and the kids seem to think they look cool, too.

How about you folks, have you replaced your headlight bulbs recently? Any tips for those who are starting down that road? Tell us about it in the comments, and maybe we can all learn a thing or two from your experience.

Editor’s note: Can you see clearly? If not, visit Advance Auto Parts for the best in headlights, wipers and more.

Storing Your Car for the Winter

Advance Auto PartsAre the winters warm where you live? If so, you’re among the lucky few, because most of us have to deal with freezing temperatures, snowstorms, salted roads and the rest of it. That’s why it makes sense for snow-belt residents to store nonessential vehicles for the winter. You’ll still need your daily driver to get around, of course, but it’s best not to tackle winter roads in your weekend cruiser, whether it’s a classic convertible or a contemporary sports car.

So when you’re ready to put your pride and joy away till spring, check out my five essential tips for winter car storage. As long as you follow these five steps, your ride should fire right up when you’re reunited in the spring. Did I forget anything? Go ahead and tell me in a comment if you think I left out an important step.

1. Fill the gas tank and add fuel stabilizer

This may seem counterintuitive, since the car won’t be going anywhere for months. But if you store a car for the winter with a partially or mostly empty gas tank, condensation can form inside the tank, and you also run the risk of drying out the seals. So fill up that tank before you park it, and here’s another winter car care tip: don’t forget to add a fuel stabilizer like Sta-Bil so that the gas will stay fresh.

2. Connect your battery to a trickle charger

Your battery will inevitably go dead during winter car storage if you just leave it the way it is, and cold temperatures might knock it out for good, so you’ll need to take preemptive action. Some mechanics suggest taking the battery out altogether, but I’m not a fan of that; you lose all your electronic settings, for one thing, and for another, who knows what computer system you might mess up if it’s a modern car? What I recommend for winter car battery maintenance is picking up a “trickle charger” and making sure you run it at regular intervals to keep the battery charged. This lets you keep the battery hooked up in the car without any risk that it’ll wear itself out.

3. Overinflate your tires or remove the wheels altogether

If you let your car sit in the same spot for three or four months without preparing the tires, you’re bound to get flat spots. So here’s the deal: if you’ve got modern radial tires, add an extra 5-10psi of air for the winter–and if you’ve got old-school bias ply tires, put the car on jack stands, take the wheels off and stack them in a corner. For full protection, consider doing the same with radials, too. Hey, you’ll thank me come spring when you’re the only one who doesn’t need a replacement set of tires.

4. Keep the parking brake off

Here’s a little thing that a lot of people forget about. If you park a car for months with the emergency brake engaged, the e-brake could get stuck to the rotors and warp them, wreaking havoc on your braking performance. Just get some wheel chocks instead and stick one behind each wheel–problem solved.

5. Drive it ASAP!

I know I’m getting ahead of myself here, but seriously, don’t wait a minute longer than you have to. Cars like to be driven, and months of solitary confinement isn’t their idea of a good time. I’m not talking about a little trip around the block, either; when you drive a car that’s been in winter car storage, you’ll want to mix in plenty of highway driving to get the operating temperature up and circulate those fluids through the engine. Speaking of fluids, you’ll definitely want to get an oil change as soon as you take your car out of hibernation, but I’ll have more to say about that when I revisit this topic in the spring.

How about you–what are you planning to do when you store your car for the winter? Let me know; I always like to hear about what other mechanics next door are up to.

Editor’s note: visit Advance Auto Parts for a wide selection of quality auto parts and accessories. Buy online, pick up in store.

Graphic courtesy of Carpediem Mag.

Spark Plugs 101

Advance Auto PartsA lot of people come to me for car advice, and here’s one thing I’ve noticed: everyone thinks they know about spark plugs, but almost no one really does. So I decided to make this column all about spark plugs, because trust me, your engine relies on them every day–which means you do, too. That’s why I want you to get familiar with these little buggers. Let’s dive right in with a little Q&A.

What do spark plugs do?

Here’s a fun fact about your engine: unless you’re driving an electric car, in which case this article definitely isn’t for you, you’ve got what’s known as an ICE, which stands for “internal combustion engine.” Now, combustion requires a spark, doesn’t it. See where I’m going with this? Spark plugs are a crucial part of your engine because they’re what makes that combustion happen, both at ignition and while the engine moves through each combustion cycle during operation. When the plugs aren’t doing their job, your engine’s not getting the full combustion benefit, so everything from acceleration and fuel economy to engine smoothness is going to be negatively affected.

How do I know when to replace spark plugs?

My rule of thumb is that if something seems funny about your engine, you should check the spark plugs first. If you’re a hands-off kind of car owner, of course, you’ll just take it to your mechanic and get it diagnosed. But if you want to inspect the plugs yourself, it’s a pretty easy job. Check your owner’s manual to find out where the plugs are located, and then pop the hood and have a look. If the plugs appear dirty, that could mean you’ve got an oil leak or excessive carbon deposits–and if they look damaged, your engine might be running too hot or misfiring.

Keep in mind, though, that even if they look fine, they might be past their prime. Consult your owner’s manual for when to replace spark plugs, too, and if you think you’re past due, I’d recommend replacing them, just to be safe.

Can I replace my own spark plugs?

Now, I said you could check them, but I didn’t say you should try to replace them! Truth is, for a seasoned backyard mechanic, popping the old plugs out and putting new ones in is pretty straightforward. But if you haven’t done it before, you should probably have someone like me looking over your shoulder the first time through. I know the internet’s full of DIY guides on how to change spark plugs, but there’s some serious wrenching going on here–literally. You need a socket wrench, and you may need a specific spark-plug socket and other accessories as well. Plus, there’s a fairly advanced technique called “gapping” that may or may not be required, depending on your vehicle’s age and other factors.

Promise me this: if you do try one of those tutorials on how to change spark plugs, please, wait for the engine to cool off first. I’m talking four hours, minimum. Those plugs are responsible for combustion, remember? Better safe than scalded!

What about cleaning spark plugs?

Here’s where I differ from a lot of DIY-ers. You’ll find various folk remedies for cleaning spark plugs, but for peace of mind, I say just swap ‘em out if they’re that dirty. Because how much money are you really saving, right? Twenty bucks? Fifty? Spark plugs are a car owner’s dream, really, because they’re that rare important engine part that’s also inexpensive. If it’s my car, I believe my engine’s worth that kind of investment, every day of the week. Give it the shiny new plugs it deserves.

What do you think?

I’ve seen a few spark plugs in my day, but I’ll be the first to admit, this article isn’t the last word on the subject. Got anything to contribute? See things differently? Chime in with a comment, and help me and everyone else here understand where you’re coming from.

 

Editor’s note: For more info on these DIY essentials, check out the Resources & Video section at Advance Auto Parts.

Beat the bounce: suspension maintenance

BouncingI can’t tell you how many times car owners have given me that old line:

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

And it kills me, because today I want to talk about auto suspension maintenance–and if there’s anything you don’t want to roll the dice with, it’s your suspension.

Think about it: just what is a suspension in a car? In simplest terms, it’s what holds your car together. It keeps the wheels pointed in the right direction, and it enables you to maintain control when you hit bumps or go around corners. In other words, the car suspension is a pretty big deal.

Nonetheless, I get people telling me all the time that they don’t have to replace shocks or car springs. “The car still runs and drives, right?” they’ll say. “You know what, I’ll just wait until they get real bad.”

Well, I’m here to tell you, that’s not the right attitude to have about your auto suspension. Fact is, the more proactive you are with your suspension springs and such, the better off you’ll be.

For example, a lot of people wonder when to replace shocks. The answer is, “Whenever your mechanic says so!” You need to have your suspension checked regularly by a trained professional, because if you don’t replace shocks till they’re obviously spent, it’s already too late. Without shocks, you have much less control over the car, so your risk of getting into an accident is much higher.

And if you’re wondering about struts, they’re even more important, because they’re part of what holds the whole suspension together. I mean, you’re really playing with fire if you don’t replace struts when they need it. Technically, you could drive a car without shocks, although it would be highly dangerous. But you can’t drive a car without struts, and you don’t want to find out what it’s like to lose a strut on the road.

My point today is simple: if your car suspension “ain’t broke,” don’t rest on your laurels! Have regular suspension inspections performed by a trustworthy mechanic, and replace those shocks and struts whenever you’re told they’re on their way out. It won’t always be cheap, but your safety and the safety of those around you is well worth the hit to your wallet.

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts carries a wide selection of Monroe Shocks and Struts, one of the industry’s leading brands. Buy online, pick up in-store for ultra-fast availability.

Graphic courtesy of Lifex.hr.

Maximize Your MPG

Maximize mileageWhen I think of the word “hypermiling,” a lot of negative stuff comes to mind. I think of folks going 55 mph and holding up traffic on the Interstate, or putting cardboard over their radiators (I’m not kidding!) because it supposedly improves fuel economy.

But hypermiling doesn’t have to be like that. At heart, it’s just about squeezing every possible mile out of each gallon of gas or diesel, and with fuel prices as high as they are these days, that’s a goal that every driver can appreciate. So I went ahead and made a list of reasonable hypermiling techniques; you know, things that regular folk like you and me can pull off without too much trouble. Follow these tips and I promise you, you’re going to spend less on fuel without expending much effort.

1. Keep your tires properly inflated.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gone to do some work on my wife’s car, or my kids’ cars, and found that the tire pressures were way too low. It’s easy to let this slide, because the way modern tires are designed, they always look a little flat — and they keep looking only a little flat even when they’re quite low on air. It gets worse with run-flat tires, which basically always look the same.

But here’s the thing: tires need their full allotment of air to roll efficiently. If they’re not inflated to the manufacturer’s specifications, you’ll need more energy to make them spin, and that means more fuel out of your tank.

So listen, do your wallet a favor and pick up a simple tire pressure gauge like this one from Autocraft. You don’t have to check the pressures every day or anything, but I’d say you want to check them every other time you stop to refuel. If they’re low, most filling stations have an air machine right there on the premises. You can honestly save a few miles per gallon or more just by incorporating regular tire-checks into your routine.

2. Take the route with the fewest full stops.
You’ve got the internet, right? Probably a few times over, what with your computer, your phone, your tablet — you name it. So put your favorite mapping program to work, and make sure that whenever you’re going somewhere, you’re maximizing continuous driving time and minimizing stops.

When you’re stopped, see, the engine’s still running, but you’re not going anywhere. Not good for MPG. Stop-and-go traffic can be even worse, because moving a stationary vehicle requires a lot of energy from the motor, and then you stop and repeat the process. On the other hand, so-called “steady-state” cruising is great for fuel economy. In a typical car, your MPG will increase by up to 50% in this scenario, so it often makes sense to take a longer route with fewer stops. Just do a little advance planning with one of those navigation programs, and you could save a lot of coin.

3. Be gentle with the throttle.
Americans have always loved good power, and as capable as engines are these days, it’s very tempting to goose that go-pedal at every opportunity. Not surprisingly, that’s not good for your fuel economy. But it’s not just about resisting the urge to burn a little rubber; there are also plenty of everyday situations where you can conserve fuel just by having a lighter foot.

Take the simple act of driving up a hill, for example. A lot of us will naturally ride the brakes on the way down a hill and then hammer the throttle on the way up, but trust me, there’s a better way. As long as there’s no one right behind you or in front of you, what you should do is anticipate that uphill climb by building a little extra speed on the way down, because that means you’ll need less energy to climb back up. And if no one’s behind you, don’t worry if your speed drops below the limit halfway up the hill. What’s your hurry? You’re saving fuel, right?

Another example is taking off from a stop sign or stop light. Again, our natural tendency is to step on it and keep up with traffic, but I’m here to tell you that it’s all about being smooth. Whereas big sudden throttle inputs open the floodgates in your engine, smooth progressive inputs keep the fuel flow nice and moderate. So be smooth out there, my friends, and save some money while you’re at it.

4. What do YOU think?
Now it’s your turn to chime in. Did I forget anything? What are some tricks that you use to conserve fuel? Let me know in the comments, and I might even add my own two cents.

Editor’s note: Visit Advance Auto Parts for tips on how to maximize your mileage.

Prep your car for summer

Advance Auto PartsEveryone knows you’ve got to get your car ready for snow season, but don’t forget about summer, folks. Your car could always use a little love, and summer presents some unique automotive challenges and opportunities. If you want to maximize your fun in the sun, check out my tips for making this car summer the best one yet.

1. Check Your Air Conditioning System

The thing about air conditioning systems is they have a way of quitting at the worst possible time. You might be stuck in traffic on a 90-degree day, for example, or in the middle of a scorching summer road trip through the Midwest. Sounds nasty, right? That’s why I recommend taking preemptive action and getting your air conditioning system checked before the summer months really heat up. Just head over to your trusted mechanic and have him run some diagnostic tests; it won’t cost you very much, and if anything needs fixing, you’ll be glad you didn’t find out the hard way.

2. Bring Out that Summer Shine

Washing your car in the winter months can seem pointless, because you’re just going to get it dirty again the next time you drive somewhere. But now that summer’s finally here, it’s worth putting in some quality time with your car’s paint and wheels. That means you’re going to want some car wash supplies, and I’m going to show you the absolute easiest way to achieve car detailing nirvana: just grab a bottle of Meguiar’s Ultimate Wash and Wax Anywhere. You don’t even need water! Just spray this stuff on your paint, grab a microfiber cloth, and wipe till dry. Don’t tell anyone, but I use it for my wheels, too. It only takes a few minutes to do the whole car, and you’ll be amazed at the results.

3. Check Your Washer Fluid

Most people are surprised by this one, but if you think about it, it makes sense. Winter brings inclement weather to most parts of the country, and that means folks have to squirt their windshields a lot more than usual. Result? Washer fluid reservoirs are often nearly dry by spring. Fortunately, that reservoir is usually right at the front of the engine bay, and it’s super-easy to open and refill yourself. Try this washer fluid from Rain X—I swear by it myself.

4. Focus on Inner Beauty

Last but not least, let’s not forget about the interior of your car. Like everything else, the cabin’s probably a little worse for wear thanks to winter stress. But that’s nothing a good scrub can’t fix. To remove all that winter dirt and grime from your dashboard and other hard-to-clean areas, try something like these interior detail brushes from Autocraft. And to get your upholstery looking fresh again, check out Turtlewax’s upholstery cleaner—it even leaves a protective coating when you use it.

5. Lubricate your Brakes

Another consequence of harsh winter driving is that your brakes have to work harder than usual. That means they could use some lubrication to get back up to snuff, so I recommend grabbing a bottle of Permatex’s Ultra Disc Brake Caliper Lube. It’s a cheap and incredibly effective product. If you’re not comfortable putting it on yourself, just bring it to your mechanic and ask him to give you a hand.

6. Enjoy the Drive!

Follow these tips and I promise you, you’ll be ready for anything summer’s got in store. Drive safe, friends, and have fun out there.

 

Editor’s note: As you plan to hit the road this summer, get trusted tips on how to maximize your mileage.

Top 5 Cars with Underrated Styling

Advance Auto PartsAutomotive design is a funny thing. There are no objective truths in it, no yes-or-no answers, which is frustrating for a backyard mechanic like me. See, I like problems that have clear solutions: you set your goal, put your time in, and before you know it, boom — problem solved. But when your goal is to make a great-looking car body, it’s a hope and a prayer. As the old saying goes, you pays your money and you takes your chances.

That’s why I’ve got a lot of sympathy for car designers, and I think the public is too quick to criticize their efforts. I’ve always kept a mental list of quote-unquote ugly vehicles that really don’t deserve that reputation. So here they are: my Top 5 cars that should get more stylistic respect.

5: Toyota Prius

I think people like to hate on the Prius because of what it stands for. There’s this notion out there that every Prius driver wears a holier-than-thou smirk. Well, I know plenty of Prius drivers who simply appreciate the roomy hatchback interior and great fuel economy. And if you take an honest look at the Prius’s car body, you’ll see that when it got redesigned for 2010, they made it a lot sleeker from stem to stern. The interior is a home run, too — a spaceship for the street.

4: MINI Cooper Coupe

The Cooper Coupe has gotten the cold shoulder for its styling from the moment it appeared, but as with the Prius, I think folks are conflating two unrelated issues. In the Coupe’s case, the real problem is that a lot of people claim it just doesn’t make any sense. I can understand that — after all, it’s basically a regular Cooper Hardtop hatchback without the hatchback and backseat — but that doesn’t mean it’s ugly! When I look at the Cooper Coupe, I see shades of a fixed-roof Mazda Miata, or even the classic BMW Z3 M Coupe. Plus, when it comes to factory-built cute car accessories or a car body kit, MINI is the all-time auto accessory champ.

3: Mazda 3

The Mazda 3 was the car that pioneered Mazda’s “smiley face” school of design — and as soon as its grinning grille burst on the scene, the fashion police were out in force. But I’ll tell you what I like about the 3’s much-maligned schnozz: it’s distinctive, first of all, but more than that, it genuinely makes me smile when I see it. There’s something to be said for a car that puts you in a good mood just because of the expression on its face. And thanks to extensive aftermarket support, there are plenty of vehicle accessories for the 3 that can jazz up its appearance.

2: Nissan Cube

I’ve learned in my time that familiar concepts often vary across cultures, so what’s cute here, for example, might not be cute over there. Well, judging by the Cube’s plummeting sales numbers, Americans don’t find it cute — whereas in Japan, it’s long been considered a cool car for young people, especially women. For my part, whenever I see a Cube drive by, with its asymmetrical windows and delivery-van profile, I think about what a neat first car it would be for teenagers. But I guess American teenagers don’t think it’s cute enough, and that’s a shame.

1: Chrysler PT Cruiser

They don’t even make this car anymore, but I had to make it my number-one, because I feel like the PT Cruiser always got penalized in the press for its looks. Unlike the Cube, mind you, the PT Cruiser was a very successful vehicle for Chrysler, so I know there’s a lot of Americans out there who agree with me on this. But when I read reviews of the PT Cruiser, I get the feeling that the critics just didn’t take it seriously. And that’s something I can’t really understand, because what Chrysler did with this car was take the humdrum Neon sedan and turn it into something with real 1930s-style visual impact. Was it sleek and chiseled like the latest performance cars? No sir, but it put eye-catching retro styling within reach of the average car shopper–and maybe I’m just getting old, but I wish more automakers would shake things up and give that a try.

 

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts carries a wide selection of items to improve your car’s appearance—dare we say, even “cute” car accessories. 

The new face of Diesel — top picks for 2013

Advance Auto PartsWhenever someone I know buys a hybrid, I always think to myself, Why not buy a diesel instead?

Now, don’t get me wrong, hybrids can make sense under the right circumstances. If you do a lot of city driving, for example, nothing can beat a hybrid’s fuel economy. And hybrids like the Toyota Prius and Ford C-MAX are downright practical vehicles, even if you put their incredible fuel economy aside.

But diesel engine cars and diesel powered trucks have a lot to offer.

For one thing, they’re about as fuel-efficient on the highway as the most frugal hybrids, so urban fuel economy is the only compromise.

For another, they give you great low-end torque. That means you can effortlessly scoot away from traffic lights, and oftentimes you don’t even need to downshift to pass someone. It also makes diesel powered trucks a superior choice for towing and hauling.

Finally, diesel engine cars and trucks are known for being reliable for hundreds of thousands of miles. Unlike hybrids, diesels use simple, proven technology that has powered commercial vehicles like buses and dump trucks for decades.

Intrigued? Good. Here are my top diesel cars and diesel powered trucks for 2013.

Best Small Car: 2013 Volkswagen Golf TDI

The Golf hatchback is one of my favorite small cars no matter what’s under the hood, because you just can’t get its combination of versatility, European dynamics, and upscale ambiance anywhere else. But when you thrown in Volkswagen’s turbodiesel 2.0-liter inline-4, the pot only gets sweeter. Rated at a modest 140 horsepower but a robust 236 pound-feet of torque, the “TDI” diesel motor gives the Golf great get-up-and-go around town. What’s more, the EPA says it’s good for 30 mpg city/42 mpg highway, and I’ve seen real-world results near 50 mpg on the open road.

Best Midsize Car: 2014 Mazda6 Skyactiv Diesel

You can’t even buy this car yet, but trust me, it’s worth waiting for. The Mazda6 is all-new for 2014, with beautiful styling and a much nicer interior, but the big news is that it’s going to offered with a 2.2-liter turbodiesel inline-4. Based on early reports, you can expect around 280 pound-feet of torque from the Mazda diesel, as well as fuel economy in excess of 40 mpg.

If you absolutely need a midsize car right now, check out the VW Passat TDI, which shares the Golf’s motor. But if I were you, I’d wait for the more desirable Mazda.

Best Crossover/SUV: 2013 Mercedes-Benz ML350 BlueTEC

No Mercedes-Benz comes cheap, and the M-Class crossover is one of Benz’s pricier models. But if it fits your budget, you can’t go wrong with the diesel-powered ML350 BlueTEC. Blessed with an ultra-smooth 3.0-liter turbodiesel V6 that cranks out 240 horsepower and an incredible 455 pound-feet of torque, the ML350 BlueTEC delivers executive-grade acceleration and refinement. It also returns 20 mpg city/28 mpg highway, which is pretty amazing for a big rig like this.

Best Truck: 2013 Chevrolet Silverado 2500 HD Duramax

If you haven’t been paying attention to diesel powered trucks lately, let me bring you up to speed. There’s a diesel fuel arms race going on between GM, Dodge, and Ford, and the horsepower and torque figures are completely insane. But I’ll tell you a little secret: it’s not just about the numbers. At 397 horsepower and 765 pound-feet of torque, GM’s 6.6-liter “Duramax” turbodiesel V8 trails Ford’s entry on paper (believe it or not), but in the real world, it’s the strongest truck motor you can buy. And compared to a gasoline-powered V8, it’s going to give you significantly better fuel economy, too.

Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts carries a wide range of diesel programmers, diesel exhaust fluid and more. Get free shipping on orders over $75.

How to Buy a Used Car the Smart Way: Top 3 Tips

Get quality auto partsLet me tell you a cautionary tale about buying a used car. A good friend of mine just bought a Camry from the mid-1990s. Low mileage, no rust. Legendary Toyota reliability. The asking price was $2,200. Seems like a no-brainer, right?

Unfortunately, that’s exactly how my friend approached the purchase: without really using his brain. He basically bought the car on blind faith, no questions asked. And you know what happened? Two weeks later, the automatic transmission failed. He had to pay almost as much as the purchase price just to get his car back on the road.

Look, the fact is that any used-car purchase is a gamble. You can never be a hundred percent sure what you’re going to get. But if my friend had asked me for used car buying advice, I would have given him the 3 tips discussed below, and they might have saved him a lot of time, money and headaches.

So don’t make the same mistake he did. Heed my tips on how to buy a used car, and minimize the likelihood of bringing home a lemon.

3. Read consumer reviews to learn about common problems

The internet is full of online car reviews written by drivers just like you, and these reviews are an invaluable source of consumer information. Why? Because people love to talk about problems they’ve encountered with their cars. For example, if the used car you’re considering has a trouble-prone transmission, chances are you’ll hear all about it in those reviews. Armed with this knowledge, you can ask better used car questions of the seller, and you’ll also have a better idea of what to look for when you’re inspecting and test-driving the car.

I recommend starting at Edmunds.com and looking up the specific year, make and model of the car to access relevant consumer reviews. But don’t just limit yourself to that one year; do additional research to determine the other years in which the car was produced, and check out consumer reviews for those years, too.

2. Run a vehicle history check

There’s really no excuse for not doing this, folks. For only $25 or so, an online vehicle history check tells you if there have been any reported accidents or other damage-causing events (like flooding), and it also tells you if the odometer readings through the years indicate any manipulation.

Will every single issue be reported? No, but the major ones will be, so anything that shows up on one of these reports is a real red flag. I personally recommend buying only cars with clean records: no accidents, no nothing. But if you decide to pursue a vehicle that doesn’t have a clean history, keep in mind that the history report can be a valuable bargaining tool.

The two major online providers of vehicle history reports are Autocheck.com and Carfax.com. Pick the one you like best and go get that report!

1. Have a knowledgeable mechanic perform a pre-purchase inspection

Most people balk at the $100 fee that mechanics typically charge for this service, but remember the story of my friend and his ill-fated Camry. When you’re faced with something like a $2,000 transmission-replacement bill, you’re really going to regret having skipped this step. Paying a mechanic to inspect a used car before buying is the single most important thing you can do to ensure that you’re not getting a lemon. So grit your teeth and fork over the hundred bucks. I promise you’ll thank me later.

If you’re wondering how to inspect a used car before buying, the key is to find a mechanic who is both knowledgeable about the car you’re looking at and indifferent to whether you buy it or not. So if you’re looking at a Toyota, find yourself a local Toyota mechanic with a good reputation (I recommend reading consumer reviews on Yelp.com), and make sure he’s not a business associate or family friend of whoever’s trying to sell you the car. Also, don’t forget to ask the mechanic to “road test” the car in addition to putting it on a lift in his garage.

Oh, and don’t worry if you want to buy a used car online that’s located across the country—Advance’s Find My Mechanic feature can connect you with someone skilled in used-car inspections. Or, companies like Inspect My Ride let you tap into a nationwide network of inspection specialists.

Anyway, that’s the best used car buying advice I’ve got. Hasn’t let me down yet, and I hope it works for you, too. Good luck!

Editor’s note: Once you do find your new ride, count on Advance Auto Parts for the best in quality auto parts, services and more. Buy online, pick up in store.

Be a Car-Savvy Santa

Unique gift ideasThey say that kids are less interested in cars these days, but I say hogwash. Millions of American dads still teach their kids how to wrench on an engine; I’m one of them, and a lot of my friends can say the same thing.

But it’s true that we need to work harder than ever to hold our children’s attention. In my experience, it really makes a difference if you give them car enthusiast gifts from a young age. I think it’s a great way to communicate the importance of learning the automotive ins and outs.

With that in mind, I went ahead and put together my top 5 automotive gift ideas for the young mechanics in your family. Let’s help keep the DIY tradition alive by making sure our kids have the right auto tools and accessories for the job.

1. An Automotive Tool Set

You can’t wrench on anything if you don’t own a wrench, right? And even if there are already some auto tools in the garage, you want the kid to have a sense of ownership. It’ll keep him or her coming back to put those tools to use. An inexpensive stocking-stuffer for a novice would be this three-piece wrench and pliers set, while more seasoned gearheads might be ready for a complete home mechanic’s toolbox.

2. A Jack and Jack Stands

If you’re going to be an automotive DIYer, you’ll have to be able to get underneath a car. And in order to do that, you need a jack and jack stands. That sounds expensive, but it’s actually not. You can get a decent two-ton hydraulic jack for just 25 bucks and throw in a pair of two-ton jack stands for another $20. It’s auto tools like these that separate the real home mechanics from the pretenders.

3. Car Care Supplies

Kids are more likely to be interested in cars if you teach them to wash the family vehicles themselves. As a fringe benefit, you won’t have to keep forking over $20 a pop at the local hand-wash joint. But for your paint’s sake, only high-quality car care products should be used. I’ve always had good luck with the Mothers brand, from their classic Carnauba Wash and Wax to the PowerBall Headlight Restoration System.

4. Work Gloves

Although we want to encourage our kids to get their hands dirty, we don’t have to mean that literally. In fact, given the nasty chemicals involved in car maintenance, not to mention all the sharp and poky parts, a tough pair of work gloves is a must for any would-be driveway mechanic. The folks at Mechanix are glove experts, with a design for every DIY need.

5.  A Magazine Subscription

Car gift ideas are usually of the practical, hands-on variety, but I think it’s equally important to get kids hooked on the mystique of cars, you know? The romance of it all. And there’s no better way to do that than to have current car magazines lying around. The best writing is in Car and Driver, but I’ll also leaf through rags like Road & Track and MotorTrend for the photos. One-year, 12-issue subscriptions are widely available online for $10 or so. You don’t even have to give the subscription to the kid directly; just get one for the household, and make sure the bathroom reading rack always contains the latest issue.

Editor’s note: Visit our Holiday Gift Guide for gifts to last throughout the seasons. —JK