Top 5 American Roads to Drive This Summer

No matter the scenery or driving challenge you’re up for this summer, there are countless places across the country to experience it all in four wheels. Here you’ll find a list of some of my all-time favorites. Although I could’ve included dozens more, this is a great place to start, especially if you’ve got the right vehicle. To generate the rankings, only roads that are spectacular for scenery or degree of driving challenge are included, different areas of the U.S. are represented, and road choices are geared to a range of vehicles – from motorcycles to four-wheel drives, and SUVs toting families. With that, here’s the list of top roads to drive in America.

Photo credit: Medhat Ibrahim

Photo credit: Medhat Ibrahim

1. State Route 1, California coast. Also known as the Pacific Coast Highway and designated as an All-American Road, some of this journey’s most spectacular scenery unfolds between Monterey, Calif., and Morro Bay, Calif., 123 miles south, even though Route 1 stretches further north and south beyond these two towns. Along the way, you’ll pass through redwood groves and quaint, historic towns, including Carmel-by-the-Sea, while easily accessed beaches contrast with granite cliffs and spectacular waves crashing into unforgiving rock formations. The single-span arched concrete structure known as Bixby Bridge will either terrify or excite drivers when they stop before crossing at turnouts on either end to admire this engineering marvel. No matter what type of vehicle you’re driving, this road will be remembered. If I were making the drive, however, I’d opt for an Audi Q7. It has plenty of room for friends and golf clubs, and with this level of style, we’ll have no trouble fitting right in with California’s car-conscious elite.

Skyline Drive photo2. Skyline Drive, Virginia Mountains. Located within Shenandoah National Park, part of the U.S. National Park System, Skyline Drive offers panoramic mountain views, cascading waterfalls, and observation of wildlife in their natural habitat via 75 overlooks spread throughout the Drive’s 105 miles. With a 35 mph speed limit that’s strictly enforced, don’t be in a rush or expecting high-performance thrills on this adventure. Rather, plan other activities to coincide with the drive, and save some money by visiting on days when the entrance fees are waived. If I’m in the mountains, the weather can be unpredictable and I might be tempted to explore an unpaved road or two. That’s why I’d pick a Subaru Outback for this trip, mainly for its all-wheel drive, comfort, and gas mileage.

White Rim Road photo3. White Rim Road, Canyonlands National Park, Utah. This road’s strictly for 4×4’s with high ground clearance, and some experience off-roading. So if you’re looking for a scenic yet moderately challenging place to put your $60,000 Land Rover LR4 through its paces and prove that, at 12.2 inches it really does offer the highest ground clearance of any 4×4 on the market today, this might be your destination, or not. In addition to astounding canyon views on this 100 mile loop, drivers may also encounter rapidly changing road conditions, as well as debris, impassable rivers, and even quicksand. The National Park Service recommends traveling in pairs of vehicles equipped with winches to aid in self-rescue as commercial towing services cost from $1,000 to over $2,000. Plan on spending two to three days to complete this drive, or as many as four days if you’re making the journey via mountain bike, which is another popular option. My choice on this demanding drive is the Ford F150 Raptor. It’s designed specifically to deliver the goods off-road, and looks tough doing it.

Florida Keys Scenic Highway photo4. Seven Mile Bridge, Florida Keys. If you’re not a fan of driving over bridges and open water for long stretches, you might want to avoid this road. But if you’re looking for a tranquil ocean views on one of the nation’s longest bridges, then this drive down US 1 is what memories are made of. While the whole journey from Miami to Key West can be completed in less than four hours, why would you want to? Drop the top, fire up the Harley, or simply roll down the windows to smell the salt air and take in stunning sunsets. The Seven Mile Bridge is one of many bridges on what is also known as The Overseas Highway, first completed in 1938. Today it offers 113 miles of pavement and 42 bridges waiting for exploration. I’d explore that pavement at a time of year when most of the country is cursing winter and in need of some Florida heat and sunshine – say late January – in a BMW 4 Series convertible. The removable hard top gives me a roof over my head when I need it, and sunshine when I don’t.

The Kancamagus Highway photo5. Kancamagus Highway, New Hampshire. The beauty and serenity associated with taking in New England’s spectacular fall foliage can be livened up by navigating New Hampshire’s Kancamagus Highway. Stretching more than 30 miles along northern New Hampshire’s Route 112, “The Kanc” as it’s called by locals, is designated an American Scenic Byway. Passing through the White Mountains, it challenges drivers with its sweeping turns and switchbacks, but the drive is well worth the effort because of the long-range views regardless of what you’re driving. Personally though, I’d like my fall foliage view to be as unobstructed as possible and to really feel like I’m close to nature. That’s why I’d tour The Kanc perched on a Honda Gold Wing. It’s big, comfortable and powerful, and the Gold Wing is the first bike to offer an airbag.

What’s your favorite driving experience and the best vehicle to experience it with? Let me know in the comments below.

Editor’s note: Before you hit the road this summer, hit up Advance Auto Parts for quality auto parts, tools and accessories. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Ford Super Duty F-250

2011 Ford F-250 Super Duty photoFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door explores the unstoppable beast that is the Ford Super Duty F-250.

When it comes to geography and trucks, bigger is always better. Just ask the people of Texas, or Ford Super Duty F250 owners.

The Ford F150 pickup is enough muscle for most weekend warriors towing the occasional camper, horse trailer, or boat for a weekend getaway. The same holds true for drivers hauling a bed full of hay bales, mulch for the flower beds or a relative’s furniture.

But when the game shifts to towing bigger, heavier loads more frequently, that’s when truck drivers opt for the big guns – the Ford Super Duty F-250.

Super Duty – it wasn’t a truck first

Ford Super Duty F-250 photoThe Ford Super Duty F-250 debuted in 1998 with the ’99 model year. Those early models featured distinct styling – including unique headlamps and grilles – with countless Ford Super Duty F-250 accessories available today that help them stand out from their less powerful F-150 brethren. That first 250 featured a 5.4 liter V-8 delivering 255 horsepower and 350 pounds of torque, with available options including a 6.8 liter V-10 or a 7.3 liter turbodiesel.

Fittingly, since the 250’s branding and performance focus on power, the Super Duty moniker first appeared on the scene in 1958 not as a truck but rather as a big, weighty engine producing high torque at low RPMs. And this engine was never designed for the light-duty tasks of transporting kids to a Saturday morning soccer game or hauling a couple of bags of potting soil and some plants. No, this beast of an engine worked and was usually found only in industrial-type vehicles such as buses, dump trucks, garbage trucks and cement mixers.

Forty years later, the first Ford Super Duty F-250 model would seem a fitting way to honor an engine similarly designed for heavy lifting and hard work.

Towing capacity is what matters

Ford says, “90 percent of all Super duty trucks are purchased by customers who tow often.” That’s the main reason truck marketing, and particularly Ford Heavy Duty ads, emphasize towing capacity. But just how much can they tow? 12,500 pounds – and that’s just for starters.

Pretty much across the board, any 2015 Super Duty F250 sporting a 6.2 liter, gas, V-8 and a 3.73 gear ratio can tow 12,500 pounds using a standard hitch and ball setup, regardless of cab configuration . The only exceptions being the Super Cab 4×4 and Crew Cab 4×4 which max out at 12,400 pounds and 12,200 pounds, respectively.

Jump up to a 6.7 liter, Power Stroke Turbo Diesel V-8, however, and that towing capacity increases to 14,000 pounds for both the Super Cab and Crew Cab configurations. Add a 5th wheel gooseneck towing configuration and towing capacities climb higher still, topping out at 16,600 pounds for the Power Stroke Diesel, 4×2 with a 3.31 axle ratio.

Which one of these is not like the others?

The Ford Super Duty F250 differs from its truck family members on both ends of the scale mainly in towing capacity. For example, the 2015 F150 has a maximum towing capacity of 12,200 pounds, while a diesel F350 or 450 can tow north of 26,000 pounds or 31,000 pounds, respectively, as compared to the F250 topping out at close to 17,000 pounds.

The F250’s distinct chrome-bar style grille featuring a huge Ford emblem, big telescoping mirrors, available roof clearance lights also give the Ford Super Duty F250 a look that helps further distinguish it from its less-powerful sibling.Ford Super Duty F-250 2

This might not be the truck for you.

The Ford Super Duty F250 isn’t necessarily the right choice for every pickup truck driver out there. Its main attraction is power – for both towing and hauling. Before you make a purchase decision based solely on that enticing “more power” characteristic, make sure you actually need all the horsepower that comes with an F250. Maybe you, and your wallet, would be happier with an F150? Whatever you decide, know that you’re not going to be disappointed by the best-selling truck in America.

Editor’s note: If you’re searching for Ford Super Duty F250 parts or accessories, stop by Advance Auto Parts for everything your truck needs. Buy online, pick up in store, and get back to the garage.




Four Vehicle Fluids You May Be Forgetting

Power steering fluid tank photoCheck your oil, coolant, and transmission fluid levels often and change them according to the vehicle manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. That message has been drilled into drivers’ heads since the days of Drivers Ed 101, and with good reason. Fluids are a vehicle’s lifeblood, and over time, they are depleted and also wear out.

But what about the so-called “forgotten fluids,” the ones you don’t hear about every day? Their function is just as important as the previously mentioned three fluids, but they can’t provide protection unless their levels are checked often and they are replaced frequently.

Providing protection in the form of lubrication is what comes to most people’s minds when they think about their engine oil, transmission fluid and other lubricants. But that’s just one of a fluid’s many purposes. They also contain detergents designed to trap contaminants and hold them in suspension until they’re removed during the next fluid change, thereby preventing the contaminants from adhering to the surface of the very parts the fluid is designed to protect. Transmission fluid is a good example of a high detergent fluid because of its ability to remove and hold contaminants. Many old-school mechanics, backed by a healthy dose of modern online chatter in vehicle forums, even advocate adding some ATF to the engine before an oil change. The theory is that the ATF’s high detergent levels deliver a superior cleaning performance, removing contaminants and buildup that can affect engine performance. Do you agree? Have you ever tried this? If so, what were the results? (Let us know in the comments.)

Since transmission fluid probably isn’t one that you’ve been neglecting, let’s focus instead on the four forgotten fluids – transfer case, differential, brake, and power steering. If you’ve been neglecting any of these, it could be time for a vehicle fluids checkup.

Transfer case fluid

Vehicles with four-wheel or all-wheel drive have a transfer case on the back of the transmission. Its job is to direct power to the vehicle axles. Because it’s filled with rotating gears that are doing some heavy lifting and need constant lubrication, it needs to contain the right amount, type and quality of transfer case fluid.

Just like your vehicle’s other vital fluids, transfer case fluid degrades over time and needs to be changed. How often depends on a couple factors, including manufacturer’s-recommended guidelines and driving conditions.

Using a ’04 F150 with a 5.4 liter Triton V-8 and four-wheel drive as an example, Ford recommends changing the transfer case fluid at 150,000 miles. Shorter change intervals are recommended if the vehicle is driven through water, such as during stream crossings or when launching or retrieving a boat. That’s because there’s a chance water could seep into the transfer case and degrade the fluid’s lubricating properties sooner.

Differential fluids

Because wheels on the same axle don’t always turn at the same speed, every axle needs a differential. On front wheel-drive vehicles, the differential may be housed within the transmission and utilize the transmission fluid. On rear-wheel drive vehicles there’s a differential in the back, and on four-wheel drive vehicles there can be three differentials – one in the front, center and rear.

And, just like the transfer case fluid, differential fluids have to keep all those turning gears and parts lubricated and moving freely. Fortunately it too is usually a high-mileage interval change, but consult and follow specific vehicle-manufacturer recommendations to be sure.

Brake fluid

Brake fluid is hygroscopic. Simply put – it attracts moisture. That’s its weakness and the reason it needs to be changed according the manufacturer’s specs. That’s also why, in addition to convenience, the under-hood reservoir is usually see-through, so the level can be checked without removing the cap and exposing the brake fluid to more moisture in the atmosphere. Interestingly, and helping prove the case in point about forgotten fluids, Ford’s online resource that lists the maintenance schedule for an F-150 includes no mention of ever changing the brake fluid, which appears to be an oversight on their part. All brake fluid isn’t the same either so don’t just grab anything off the shelf. Most manufacturers are using DOT 3 or DOT 4 brake fluid, but find out for sure what’s recommended for your vehicle because those brake fluids can’t be mixed with DOT 5 fluid. Here’s why.Brake Fluid tank photo

DOT 3 and 4 brake fluids are glycol based whereas DOT 5 is silicone based, containing at least 70 percent silicone by weight. Because of its higher boiling point, DOT 5 is often specified for applications that include military vehicles and high-performance race cars. Unlike other brake fluid, it also doesn’t attract moisture and won’t damage vehicle paint if accidently spilled. Before you go out and purchase a bottle of DOT 5 brake fluid however, know that it can only be used when specified by the vehicle manufacturer. Mixing it with other types of brake fluid can lead to system corrosion and failure, and it isn’t compatible with anti-lock brake systems.

Further confusing the naming system is DOT 5.1 brake fluid. This category was created to include glycol-based brake fluid with performance characteristics similar to silicone-based DOT 5 fluid, despite the fact that it doesn’t include any silicone. Unfortunately many people understand – incorrectly – the 5.1 as signifying some sort of connection to silicone-based DOT 5, further confusing the situation. Think of DOT 5.1 as a DOT 4 brake fluid that performs like a DOT 5 brake fluid. Is that as clear as a dirty fluid?

Power steering fluid

Some manufacturers and mechanics say power steering fluid never needs to be changed while others have specific mileage- and/or time-based intervals. All will agree, however, that the level needs to be checked periodically to prevent damage to the power steering pump and to avoid a situation where you’re forced to try and steer a vehicle whose power-steering has failed. Take it from me, it’s nearly impossible, and dangerous. That’s why I’m of the opinion that it’s a lot less expensive to replace my power steering fluid than it is a power steering pump so why not show it some love with a change out every so often?

If you’re guilty of forgetting fluids, take comfort in the fact that you’re not alone. Consult the owner’s manual that’s in your glovebox or available online, ask your mechanic, and check your fluid’s levels and ages. You’ll save money in the long run and drive with peace of mind.

Editor’s note: Stop by Advance Auto Parts for the fluids, parts and tools you need to finish your projects. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

Minor body damage: eyesore or easy fix?


minor car body damage photoIt’s not a question of if it’s going to happen, but rather when. In a parking lot. In the driveway. On the road. Even from within the safe confines of your garage. Your vehicle is going to get scratched or dented, and in all likelihood more than just once over the course of its lifetime. And because the damage is minor, it’s probably not worth filing a claim with your insurance company considering you’ll have to pay the deductible first and possibly be penalized later with higher rates.

You can lessen the sting that comes from inflicting or discovering the damage with the knowledge and confidence that minor body damage can often be fixed by drivers with no previous body repair experience, saving time, money and the inconvenience of being without a car while repairs are made.

Body shop professionals are skilled craftsmen and true artists when it comes to repairing collision damage or restoring a classic vehicle. But if the damage is minor or superficial, most body shops are so busy they probably won’t be heartbroken if you try repairing the damage on your own, saving them for the complex jobs.

Metal hoods, doors, roofs, fenders, and plastic bumpers are all going to dent when impacted with enough force, with shopping carts, hail, another vehicle’s door, and even kids playing baseball often to blame. But these tools could help lessen the damage to both your vehicle and wallet.

Look no further than your bathroom for the first dent removal tool to try – a common household toilet plunger. Wet the plunger’s end, stick it on dent, and gently pull to see if the dent will pop out.

If the plunger doesn’t work, upgrade to a tool that works using the same principle but is designed specifically for the task – a suction cup-type dent puller. Available wherever auto parts are sold, this tool can feature just one suction cup or have several on multiple heads for extra pulling power. There are also several kits available that use the similar pulling-force theory to repair minor dents, but instead of relying on a suction cup they employ an adhesive to attach the tool to the vehicle body.

One homegrown dent-removal procedure popular online involves a hair dryer and can of compressed air. Heat the dent for several minutes using a hair dryer on the hottest setting. Don’t use a heat gun as this could damage the paint. Then take a can of compressed air commonly used to clean off computer keyboards, hold it upside down and spray the area just heated. The science behind this experiment is that the sudden change in temperature extremes causes the metal to expand and contract, popping the dent out and returning the metal to its undamaged state. It seems to work better at removing dents from a large expanse of flat metal, such as a hood, trunk or fender.

Equally frustrating is damage to your vehicle’s paint, whether it’s from a scratch, ding, or something deposited on the paint. In both cases, there are several repair options.

First, try a scratch-repair product. Most vehicles on the road today come from the factory with several layers of paint topped by a clear coat for added protection. If the scratch isn’t so deep that it penetrates down to bare metal, you might be able to repair it with a scratch-repair product that hides and blends the scratch with the surrounding surface while improving the finish’s appearance.

Chipped paint from a stone or other mishap needs to be fixed before the exposed metal reacts with the environment and rust forms. Fortunately, touch-up paint can easily hide small blemishes in the finish. The paint is available as an exact match for many vehicle paint schemes and finishes. Depending on the size of the repair, it’s applied as an aerosol spray or brushed on using a small applicator.

A vehicle’s finish can also be damaged by substances inadvertently added to it. Tree sap and the yellow and white paint used to line roads are two common culprits. If you accidently drive through wet road line paint, follow these steps to remove it before it dries and damages the finish.

First, drive to a car wash and use the pressure wash wand wherever the paint has accumulated. Unless it’s been on there for more than a day, most of the paint should come off. If the paint has already dried or if any remains after the washing, spray WD-40 on the paint and leave it there for a couple hours. The WD-40 will soften the paint, making it easier to remove. For really heavy paint accumulations or paint that’s dried for several days, coat the paint with petroleum jelly, leave it on for eight to 12 hours, and then pressure wash, repeating as needed until all the road paint is gone.

Tree sap, bird droppings, berries, tape residue and old bumper stickers can also damage a vehicle’s finish if they’re not removed promptly. To prevent further damage from aggressive removal procedures, use a cleaner designed specifically for vehicles. They soften and break down the substance, making it easier to remove without damaging the vehicle’s finish.

Body damage also occurs frequently to vehicle lights, exterior mirrors, door handles and other plastic components. Oftentimes the easiest and most economical method for repairing this damage, particularly in the case of light assemblies, is simply to replace the damaged part with a new or salvaged one from an auto parts store or other supplier. For example, the hole in the Subaru tail light assembly pictured here could eventually lead to more serious damage for the vehicle’s electrical system because of water exposure. The broken tail light can be replaced with one costing less than $100 following an easy procedure that takes less than 15 minutes.broken tail light picture

Since the vehicle’s body has already been damaged, drivers don’t have much to lose when it comes to trying to repair minor damage themselves, and the rewards of a better-looking vehicle and money saved make the effort worthwhile.

Editor’s note: If your vehicle’s body or finish has suffered a minor mishap, shop Advance Auto Parts for the parts and tools you need to do do the body repairs. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

Note: Always consult your owner’s manual before performing repairs. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure warranties are not voided.

Engine Gaskets: the Good, the Bad, the Ugly

Felpro gasket photo

Get the inside track on engine gaskets and a few of their failings, courtesy of The Mechanic Next Door.

Gaskets. How can these relatively inexpensive, somewhat simple vehicle components perform such a crucial role, stand up to torturous temperature and pressure extremes, and wreak so much wallet-emptying havoc if and when they do fail? As it is with most vehicle systems, the answer lies in physics and mechanical engineering.

What they are supposed do

Whether it’s the head gasket on a 1993 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme or the gasket on the end of a garden hose, gaskets – when they work properly – are supposed to form an impenetrable seal between two surfaces, thereby preventing fluids or gases from mixing or escaping. Your vehicle literally has hundreds of gaskets, from the seal around the doors and windows keeping air and water out, to the gaskets on the thermostat housing, valve cover, head, intake, exhaust, and numerous other places.

Gaskets are supposed to be designed and manufactured to withstand contact with a variety of chemicals and tolerate temperature extremes without degrading or suffering any loss of performance, even with long-term use. They’re also designed to compress under pressure so that the gasket molds itself to and matches any imperfections in the surfaces being sealed. And, thanks to being engineered to exact specifications, they help ensure that they are an appropriate match to the surface being sealed and that the materials they’re constructed from can withstand the physical forces they’re exposed to, including pressure and temperature.

Spectacular failures

Despite, however, the best intentions and designs, gaskets can and do go bad. When they do, the results are often spectacular, and very expensive to correct. One need only look to certain Subaru models and years, the third generation of GM’s 60-degree engine, or the V-6s in several Toyotas to see the ugly picture gasket failure paints.

Looking at head gaskets specifically, since those are the gaskets most drivers have heard about due to failures and the expense incurred in repairing them, and because most heavy DIYers know all too well the frustration and time commitment they demand, the reasons for gasket failure can be narrowed down to several of the most common.

  • Engine overheating
  • Deficient gasket design
  • Detonation damage
  • Improper torque
Subaru H4 engine picture

Some Subaru years and models are known for having head gasket issues, as are vehicles from some other manufacturers.

While some will debate whether the problem has ever actually been fixed, head gasket problems are no stranger to Subaru’s first-generation 2.5-liter engine found in many Imprezas, Outbacks, Legacy GTs, and Foresters around the ’96 to ’99 model years. The gasket in question here was a multi-layer one constructed of steel and coated with a graphite-type material. That coating can wear away over time as a result of contact with chemicals in vehicle fluids, and lead to a failed seal that allows coolant to seep into the combustion chamber.

GM’s problems with leaking intake manifold gaskets on the third generation of their 60-degree engine stretched from about the mid-90s to 2003 and led to several class-action lawsuits. Blame here was placed on the gaskets’ design and materials used that allowed the gasket to soften and lose its seal over time.

Toyota’s head gasket failures in the mid-90s on some of their 3.0 and 3.4 liter V-6s meanwhile were traced to the heads’ design and the fact that they are difficult to seal.

Ford Windstars, Dodge Neons, and many other manufacturers and models also experienced head gasket problems at one time or another, further illustrating the critically important role this vehicle component plays and the engineering challenges it presents.

What they’re made of

Depending on their application, gaskets are made of anything from cork, to metal, to rubber and beyond. Vehicle head gaskets are typically:

  • Layered steel – constructed from multiple layers of steel (MLS) and usually coated to further enhance their performance. They’re the type most often used in vehicles.
  • Copper – delivers a long-lasting performance for extremely durable gaskets
  • Composites – made from several materials, including possibly asbestos in some older applications, and usually considered a technology that’s less reliable and more commonly found on earlier vehicles

Don’t Blow a Gasket

A sure-fire way to avoid the time and expense of a head-gasket failure and subsequent replacement is to stay away from vehicles with known head-gasket issues that haven’t had the problem repaired or resolved. After that comes careful attention to changing vehicle coolant and oil at recommended levels to prevent prolonged gasket exposure to chemicals that may hasten its degradation; using the vehicle manufacturer-recommended coolant; maintaining proper torque on the head bolts; and watching for early signs of gasket failure, including white exhaust smoke or coolant mixing with oil, to prevent further engine damage.


The head gasket itself isn’t expensive, costing only about $20 for a 1995 F150 with a 5.0-liter engine or $50 for the complete head gasket set. It’s the time that’s involved with replacing the head gasket that really ratchets up the expense ratio. Because head gasket repairs are easily over $1,000 and can climb another thousand or more beyond that, seek advice from a professional mechanic as well as a second opinion before committing to a head-gasket replacement. Depending on the problem, it’s also worth trying one of the numerous head gasket sealant products available to see if that brings temporary or even long-term relief.

Whatever the gasket problem, and fix, turn out to be, don’t blow a gasket because of the expense and frustration involved. It’s just another part of the joy and pain equation that is vehicle ownership.

Editor’s note: If repairing a blown head gasket is your next project, stop by Advance Auto Parts for the parts and tools you need to fix the problem. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

Crucial Cars: Ford Explorer

Ford Explorer pictureFrom timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.

In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door talks about the comeback kid of the SUV variety, the Ford Explorer.

The Ford Explorer is back. Not that it ever went anywhere, but Explorer sales were declining steadily from their peak of nearly 450,000 new vehicles sold in 2000 to a low of just 52,000 sold in 2009. That nearly 90 percent reduction in sales over nine years certainly gave credence to the observation that there just didn’t seem to be as many Explorers on the road, and the feeling that perhaps Explorer was slowly but surely fading from the automotive landscape into the annals of Ford’s highly successful truck history.

And then 2011 happened, when Explorer sales increased more than 100 percent from the previous year and marked the start of a sales rebound that’s continued every year through 2014 – the latest year for which full-year sales data is available.

So who or what is responsible for the sudden and dramatic resurgence in Ford Explorer’s popularity? Blame it on the fifth generation.

Debuting with the 2011 model year and based on the concept vehicle that Ford unveiled at the 2008 North America International Auto Show, the fifth-generation Explorer was conceived by the same design engineer who held a similar position at Land Rover. Notice any similarities between the Explorer and Land Rover’s Range Rover?

But before looking forward to the latest installment in the fifth generation – the 2016 Ford Explorer – one has to look back to understand the Explorer’s roots, and popularity right out of the gate.Ford Explorer tow picture

The Explorer placed third in truck sales in 1991 – the very first year it was available, and Ford knew instantly they had a clear winner on their hands. If you’re feeling nostalgic, check out this official Ford video explaining how to use the new 1991 Explorer’s features – if you can get past the talents’ “stylish” wardrobe that is. Explorer replaced Ford’s other entry in the sport utility segment, the Bronco II, and was designed to compete directly with Chevrolet’s S-10 Blazer, even though Explorer wasn’t the first compact four-door sport utility to market. That distinction belongs to both the Jeep Cherokee and Isuzu Trooper.

Explorer wasn’t a new name either. Just six years earlier it could be found on Ford’s F-Series Trucks, serving as a trim package designation stretching all the way back to the late ‘60s.

When it debuted, the 1991 Explorer was available as either a two- or four-door model with two- or four-wheel drive in one of three trim levels available on the four-door – the base XL, XLT, or Eddie Bauer. The two-tone green and beige paint scheme available with the Eddie Bauer edition became nearly synonymous with those early Explorers as it seemed they were everywhere.

On the four-wheel drive option, Ford also offered the choice of automatic locking front hubs that engaged with just the push of a dash button, or the traditional hubs that had to be locked manually and the system engaged via a floor lever. As anti-lock brakes were still in their infancy, only the Explorer’s rear brakes were equipped with ABS.

Towing capacity on the first Explorer came in at a hefty 5,600 pounds thanks to a four-liter, 155-horsepower V-6 paired with either a four-speed automatic or five-speed manual. But perhaps one of the biggest reasons behind the Explorer’s instant popularity were its decidedly car-like luxuries, including leather seats and high-end audio, that drivers were not expecting to find in a truck-like vehicle. That power, performance and luxury came at a price – about $22,000 for the four-door model back in the day. Compare that to a price tag of approximately $30,000 for a base, entry-level Explorer today or jump up to the big daddy of them all, the 2016 Platinum Explorer, starting at $52,600.Ford Explorer interior picture

With four generations and five models in the current generation preceding it, Ford took its time arriving at the 2016 Explorer. Outside, the Platinum-level Explorer impresses with its platinum grille, dual-panel moonroof, hands-free, foot-activated liftgate, and LED lamps, all riding on bright aluminum 20’s featuring painted pockets. Inside, it’s all luxury, all the time, with wood accents and “Nirvana” (do they take you there?) leather-trimmed seats with “quilted inserts,” (what does that even mean?), USB charging ports, a command center with so much technology in its display that it looks more like the cockpit of a small plane, three rows of seating for seven, and Enhanced Active Park Assist to take the stress out of navigating virtually any type of parking space.

Under the hood, three engine choices are available with the Platinum – a 2.3 L EcoBoost I-4, a 3.5 L TI-VCT V6 (twin independent variable camshaft timing), or a 3.5 L EcoBoost V6. Getting all that power to the ground is a six-speed, SelectShift automatic transmission and front-wheel drive or four-wheel drive.

Twenty five years later, Ford hasn’t forgotten their roots, or what’s behind the Explorer’s enduring popularity – luxury, car-like features, towing and cargo capacities you’d expect to find in a truck, and a revamped style that helps you look good doing it all.

Editor’s note: Got projects? Count on Advance Auto Parts for the right parts and tools. Buy online, pick up in-store in 3o minutes. 

Tech Garage TV review

Tech Garage studio photoRead our review of the Velocity Channel’s popular DIY show.

Do you look forward to seeing how big The Donald’s hair is this week while two celebrities engage in a boardroom battle? Do you enjoy watching “real” housewives fight one another? Are you still upset about Chris’ choice to receive the final rose?

If so, then it’s probably a safe assumption that you can’t get enough drama in your life, and that you love “reality” TV. If that’s the case, then I recommend you stick with what’s been working for you and not watch Tech Garage, one of the newest car TV shows on the Velocity Channel that just concluded its first season.

If, however, you love everything about cars – including how to fix them, coax more performance from them, how their various systems work, why they break and how to prevent failures, then you’re going to want to tune in to Tech Garage every weekend, or catch the episodes online. It could become one of the top car TV shows on YouTube.

Tech Garage features John Gardner, an ASE-certified master mechanic and automotive instructor at Chipola College in Marianna, Fla., explaining how cars and their various systems work. There’s no drama here, but there are plenty of key tips. Whether you’re a heavy DIY’er who can handle pretty much anything under the hood or a 15-year old dreaming about the day you can drive, you’re going to learn something new about vehicle mechanics from watching this car TV show.

On one of the show’s first episodes, Gardner explored the vehicle’s battery, charging and starting system. What makes the show unique is that he doesn’t just explain to viewers how the systems work and leave them with only a cursory understanding. He breaks the system down and provides an in-depth explanation of not just how it works but why, and he uses some pretty cool, functioning system displays that any gearhead would love to have taking up space in their garage or man cave.

For example, in that first episode Gardner goes under the hood to diagnose a lack of starting power in a Mustang. He provides detailed diagnostics using a voltmeter, and has an awesome cutaway of a vehicle battery and even the internal battery plates to show viewers exactly what a crumpled mess it looks like when they begin to fail. Sure, most of us who know about cars understand why batteries fail and how to prolong their lives and replace them, but it’s not often we see the inside of one that has failed to add to our understanding or that we receive an education about volts, amps and resistance.

Tech Garage AC show AC photo

Gardner employs a similar tactic with the full-scale working model of a starting system. He even has a couple starters – including a big field-coil starter – that he’s taken apart to show viewers how they work and why. On this episode, the biggest moment of drama between people is when Gardner asks his assistant to crank the Mustang with the headlights on, and it fails to start. As I said, if you’re looking for fights and name calling, you’re going to find them on this car TV show.

In addition to adding to your knowledge under the hood, Tech Garage provides some pretty cool factoids in every episode that can be used to impress your friends, or one-up a fellow heavy DIY’er who always seems to be a step ahead. Try these on for size. What was the first production vehicle to use an alternator? That would be the 1960 Chrysler Valiant. How about the fact that the first storage battery – called the voltaic pile – was invented in 1796 by Italian scientist Allesandro Volta? The volt is named in his honor. And finally, 99 percent of all new cars sold have air conditioning.

On another episode, Gardner dives into a timely topic now that temperatures are starting to rise – a vehicle’s AC system. In addition to demonstrating how it works and how to quickly and easily recharge it using a canister of AC Pro, and how to identify the high side versus the low side, he has a full scale vehicle AC system, complete with condenser and evaporator – and it’s functioning. If you walk away not understanding more about vehicle AC and how the AC cycle works, you weren’t watching.

With insightful and timely show topics that include brakes and wheel bearings, fuel systems and turbo and supercharging, and engines and related emerging technologies, Tech Garage should quickly build a following of loyal viewers who want to learn vehicle mechanics from an ASE-certified pro.


The neighborhood service station — a dying breed?

Gas station photoOur Mechanic Next Door reminisces about this steadily declining American institution–where many DIY’ers and professional mechanics first got started.


Frank’s Gulf Gas and Service Station was a slightly intimidating place to a five year old. It was dark inside the “office” and in the garage, everything seemed to be either blue-gray or black, and Frank was a tall man, constantly wiping grease from his hands on the blue rag that dangled from his back pocket.

I learned quickly, however, that Frank’s was also a fun place. There were always ice cream sandwiches and cones in an old chest freezer inside the office that we could choose from. Frank’s easygoing personality, quick smile and willingness to help matched his intimidating stature. And, to top it all off, when our car was being serviced, Frank would let us sit in it while he raised it up high on the lift.

As much fun as it was for us kids, however, Frank’s was a lifesaver for my parents, and many of our neighbors.

Whenever there was anything wrong with the car, my dad always said, “Take it to Frank’s.” From routine maintenance to major repairs and pumping gas in between, Frank did it all in a two-bay gas station at the crossroads.

Frank’s, and tens of thousands of other gas and service stations like his across the country, are where countless teenagers first got some grease under their fingernails and began a journey to becoming a lifelong DIYer or professional mechanic. Hang around a gas station, cars and seasoned gas jockeys and mechanics long enough and you can’t help but learn about engines and how they run.

The service station’s history is murky, much like the quality of early gasoline when it was first dispensed everywhere and from everything, including in general stores and from buckets whose contents had to be funneled into the car. The first purpose-built service station is widely credited as being the Gulf Refining Company’s architect-designed, pagoda-style brick building that opened in Pittsburg in 1913. Earlier claims point to a Standard Oil station that opened in Seattle in 1907, but Gulf’s station is thought to be the first designed and built specifically to dispense free air, water and tire- and crankcase-related services, and of course gasoline. This entertaining and informative video traces the service station’s evolution and how the industry has changed. gas station 2 picture

Sadly, the neighborhood gas and service station is steadily becoming a thing of the past. Even Frank’s Gulf has long since closed, and the trend shows no sign of abating. 2013 data from NACS and Nielsen counted 152,995 retail fueling sites in the U.S., a continued decline from 1994 when there were nearly 203,000 gas stations. If you don’t remember or have never seen what a full-service, old-school gas station looks like, check out these photos.

Replacing the mom and pop neighborhood service station are 24-hour, corporate-owned convenience store chains whose primary business focus is selling motorists groceries, fast food and even hardware and household goods. With declining profit margins on gas sales, the only reason many even have pumps is simply to get customers in the door. Vehicle service and repairs at these convenience store gas stations have virtually disappeared. They even have their own trade industry association helping represent their interests – the National Association of Convenience Stores (NACS).

It’s widely agreed that the death knell for neighborhood service stations began in the 1960s when convenience stores first started invading the gas-dispensing business, helped in part by new pump technology and states lifting bans on motorists dispensing their own gasoline. Today, only New Jersey and Oregon still have a ban on filling the tank yourself. Also helping fuel the decline were big retailers and grocery store chains’, including WalMart and Kroger, entrance in the 1990s into the business of selling gas.

The decline can’t be blamed solely on competition, however. Stricter environmental regulations related to fuel pumps and underground fuel tanks increased costs for many mom and pop stations while improved vehicle fuel efficiency and the rise of vehicles that use little or no gas saw fewer customers pulling up their stations for a fill up.

gas station 3 pictureFull-service, neighborhood gas stations’ disappearance is a loss for budding mechanics and DIY’ers everywhere, who no longer have a place to go after school where they can get their hands dirty and their minds filled with automotive knowledge. It’s also a loss for drivers who don’t check tire pressure often enough or other vital fluids – including the oil level and when it needs to be changed – and for those who need a quick fix or some free advice while getting a fill up.

Frank’s empty building is still there, but inside it’s even darker than I remembered, much like the outlook for the remaining mom and pop service stations that have somehow managed to hang on.

Editor’s note: Have you logged in any hours at your neighborhood garage? In that same spirit, visit Advance Auto Parts for the parts and tools you need to finish your projects right. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.




Muffler Methodology: Getting the Sound You’re After

Car muffler pictureWhat’s your sound preference? Mild? Moderate? Aggressive? No sound at all? Maybe you want a different sound depending on what and where you’re driving? Choose an aggressive tone for your 1972 Dodge Charger that you lovingly restored and is parked in the garage, and another – shall we say – “less noticeable” tone for the Subaru Outback that’s parked in the driveway and shuttles the kids back and forth to their activities.

No matter what your harmonic preference or what you’re driving, there’s a muffler that will deliver exactly the sound you’re looking for. Welcome to the world of mufflers and sound enhancements – increasingly popular modifications that can personalize your ride.

Mufflers aren’t a new invention. The U.S. Patent Office records show that a patent for an engine muffler was awarded in 1897 to Milton and Marshall Reeves of the Reeves Pulley Company in Columbus, Ind. Mufflers in the early 1900s featured a “straight through” design that is still popular today. Essentially those early mufflers consisted of a pipe with holes, wrapped in something similar to steel wool, with the pipe passing through an outer shell. A big change to that early design occurred with a switch to a fiberglass packing material in place of the steel wool.

Contrary to the name, a muffler isn’t just muffling the sound. It’s actually destroying many of the sound waves. But let’s back up for second.

The two types of mufflers that most drivers have heard about are a chambered muffler and a straight through or “glasspack” muffler. In a chambered muffler, the sound waves generated by the engine at the end of the exhaust stroke enter the muffler and bounce around the muffler’s various chambers. As they do, they encounter friction which destroys some of the sound waves. Some of the sound waves that aren’t destroyed by friction bounce off a chamber wall and form a sound wave that’s an exact opposite, and those two sound waves cancel each other out, further reducing the noise that the vehicle produces.

In the straight-through muffler design, the sound waves pass through a straight pipe, with some of the waves being absorbed by the material surrounding the pipe, much like the earliest mufflers.

Still a third type of muffler design is a turbo style muffler in which the exhaust gases are forced into an s-shaped pattern and are peeled off and deadened by the muffler material.

Different types of mufflers yield different sounds, and that’s where personal preference and the type of vehicle enter the picture. Case in point, you’ll find more glasspacks on vintage muscle cars than you would on a custom Honda Civic.

Similarly, chambered mufflers deliver their own unique sounds depending on how many chambers they have and the chamber configuration, both of which determine which sound waves die and which escape and are heard.

The other consideration when choosing a muffler and exhaust system modification is, of course, backpressure. All those twists, turns and holes that the hot exhaust gases are forced through in the muffler slow down and restrict the gases’ migration toward the tailpipe. That restriction results in increased pressure, which forces the engine to work harder to expel the gas, which leads to a reduction in power. Less pressure equals more power, and more sound.

The muffler is just one popular modification when it comes to tweaking the exhaust system, with headers, catalytic converters and tailpipes presenting other options. Whatever you decide to modify, you’ll be in good company because exhaust system upgrades are increasingly popular and there are plenty of well-known suppliers in the game, including Walker, Flowmaster, and Magnaflow.

Begin your research by listening to as many different muffler sounds as you can, like the sound test of these eight Flowmaster mufflers that range from mild to wake-the-neighbors. Choose the one you like, and rest easy knowing you can always change up the sound if you get tired of it, or get too many complaints.

Editor’s note: When it’s time to make some noise, start with a muffler modification. Advance Auto Parts has you covered. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.

Top Tips for Spring Break Travel You Don’t Want To Miss

Spring break travel picture


This upcoming Spring Break, it’s all about trust.

While much of the country hibernates under a blanket of snow, freezing temperatures and a dull, brown/gray landscape, there are promising signs that all hope is not lost. Faith and experience tell us that we will one day soon smell the scent of fresh-cut grass on warm evening breezes and taste the mesquite-flavored smoke emanating from our backyard grill.

What’s a sunshine and warm-weather lover to do in the meantime? Plan for spring break 2015 of course, and instead of waiting for spring to come to you, go find it!

But before spring breakers can start enjoying that fun in the sun, shedding the multiple layers of clothes worn for months on end, and soaking up much-needed rays, they have to actually make it there first. And getting there, at least for purposes of this discussion, hinges on trust.

Sure, you know all about the basics when it comes to prepping your vehicle for a road trip – you’re a car guy or gal and certainly know your way in, under and around a vehicle.  But vehicle preparation is just one element of a successful road trip and arriving there safely and hassle-free. Here are four things to consider that just might help ensure your spring break 2015 road trip is a successful one.

1. Don’t trust GPS exclusively. Whether on your phone, dash or built-in display, GPS is great for directing us exactly where we want to be – when it works. Too often we rely exclusively on GPS without having even a basic knowledge of the general route or direction we should be heading. GPS can and does make mistakes.  It can direct us to a “road” that’s more suited for a four-wheel drive vehicle – or goat – or even closed in the winter months because of snow. The GPS signal can fail in an area that doesn’t have cell phone coverage, or when the satellites are malfunctioning or their signal is blocked, or simply because we forgot to charge our device before leaving and don’t have a way to charge it while in route. Have a backup plan by mapping out the general route before you travel or, dare I say it, by bringing a PAPER map or atlas along for the ride. That way if GPS lets you down, it doesn’t turn into an epic spring break 2015 fail on your part.

2. Don’t trust your memory. You know how to take care of your vehicle, and you know what needs to be done to ensure it’s always in top running condition and doesn’t let you down this spring break. But, do you know exactly what you did, were supposed to do or meant to do, and when? For example, you knew you were going to change the timing belt around the 100,000-mile mark, but when the odometer rolled around to that neighborhood, the weather was still bone-chilling cold and you were short on time for a for a project that demands full attention, and the ability to feel your fingers. As a result, you put off the job for a couple months. The same goes for any car maintenance project – you may have planned to do it, or thought you already did, but in reality you haven’t. You’re only human, which is why you can’t trust your memory exclusively. Instead, keep a detailed vehicle maintenance log that highlights the maintenance you’ve performed, when it was done, and when future maintenance is due, using your vehicle manufacturer’s suggested maintenance intervals as a guide, coupled with your knowledge.

3. Don’t trust that all will go according to plan. It won’t, because of a funny little think called “life.” The dashboard gas light just illuminated and there’s about 50 miles to go before you’re running on empty, but you know for sure there’s a gas station 40 miles ahead, over the state line where the prices are cheaper, so you decide not to fill up now and instead save some money for spring break 2015 festivities. Or, you know you always have a can of Fix-A-Flat in your emergency kit, so why bother checking the spare tire air pressure? What could possibly go wrong? Everything. The gas station could be out of gas, or out of business. You could experience two flat tires at the same time and only have one can of emergency tire inflator. No matter what your plan is, or how good it seems, always have a backup plan that you can rely on.

4. Trust your intuition. That “gut feeling” is more than just a hunch. Researchers have shown that intuition is actually our subconscious mind’s way of storing, retrieving and processing information that helps us avoid potentially harmful or dangerous situations. Maybe you don’t like the look of the single lane road ahead or the neighborhood you’re driving through or even the threatening sky. Perhaps something (other than your GPS or co-pilot) is telling you you’re traveling in the wrong direction or already missed your turn, but you just can’t put your finger on the feeling. Trust it, it’s your intuition trying to send you a message. Just because you can’t fully explain or rationalize the feeling you may be experiencing doesn’t mean it should be ignored.

By knowing what to trust, and what not to trust, you can enjoy your spring break destination and the journey there, instead of sitting at home, cursing Old Man Winter.

Editor’s note: for spring break travel and maintenance tips, visit Advance Auto Parts.