Automotive 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.
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.
Let 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.
They 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
If you asked the good folks in my neighborhood how often they’re supposed to change their oil, I guarantee you they’d all give the same response: “Every 3,000 miles.”
And if you followed up by asking them what motor oils their cars require, how many quarts of oil their cars take, and which motor oil brands are the best, I guarantee you’d get a lot of blank stares.
That’s because most people in this country believe the myth that every car needs an oil change every 3,000 miles. And once they drop the car off at the garage, they trust that the mechanics on duty will get all of the details right.
In fact, most cars can safely go far more than 3,000 miles between changes. And when it’s finally time for an oil change, you should know just as much about what your car needs as a knowledgeable mechanic.
Debunking the 3,000-Mile Myth
I’m not sure how this one got started, but it has sure put a lot of big oil executives’ kids through college. Listen, you can either trust the mechanic who suggests the same 3,000-mile interval to every single customer, or you can consult the service schedule in your owner’s manual and trust the people who built your car.
I know people who build cars, and they design their vehicles to withstand far more stress than the service schedule allows. So if your owner’s manual recommends an oil change every 7,500 miles, rest assured that your engine is designed to go even longer on a batch of oil without missing a beat.
Trust me on this one. Don’t worry about draining perfectly good engine oil every 3,000 miles. Only change it when your car’s engineers say you should.
Knowledge is Power
Here’s what I do every time I go in for an oil change, and I recommend you do the same.
1. Know Your Viscosity
Viscosity is that funny combination of numbers and letters you see on a bottle of engine oil. 5W-30 is a common one; so is 10W-40. It basically refers to how easily the oil flows at different temperatures. Consult your owner’s manual for the recommended viscosity, and double-check with your mechanic that he plans to use it.
2. Know Your Car’s Oil Capacity
Find the page in your manual where oil capacity is specified. It will probably be in the neighborhood of five quarts, although some specialized engines can take eight or more. Keep that number in mind, and ask your mechanic how many quarts he’ll be putting in. It’s a good way to guard against overfilling, and also to make sure your mechanic’s on the ball.
3. Choose a Quality Engine Oil
I’ll give you a couple options here, depending on how involved you want to get. At a minimum, you’ll want to ask your mechanic about his motor oil brands of choice, and why. All motor oils are not created equal; you should only use motor oils with the American Petroleum Institute’s seal of approval. You might also want to read up on the benefits of synthetic oil and mention that, too. And if you’re a real stickler like me, hey, don’t be afraid to buy your own oil and bring it to your mechanic. That’s the best way to ensure that a high-quality product is keeping your car’s heart beating.
Editor’s note: If you do your own car maintenance, you can save even more with Oil Change Specials from Advance Auto Parts. Advance will also recycle your used motor oil free of charge—at one of more than 3,500 stores. (Most locations, unless prohibited by law.)
Hey friends, this time out, we’re gonna delve into the so-called brains of the operation—the car engine. Well, not the engine itself per se, but some of the things that will contribute to its sustained health.
But don’t worry and crinkle your face like my wife does when I try to smoke a cigar inside. What I’m gonna suggest today is just common-sense maintenance, and it’s mostly based around checking your fluids and hoses.
Fluids and Hoses
As you know, your car has a lot of fluids running through it. As your body needs water, your car needs engine oil and coolant, among other things, to keep its engine running smoothly and not too hot. So it’s always a good idea to make sure those fluids are not only at the right levels—and not leaking.
High operating temperatures for your car, particularly during seasonal travel, means more use of your air conditioner and an even stronger need to keep your engine well lubricated.
And as with tire pressure, all checks should be done while your car is cold. This is VERY important because hot fluids can burn you.
First of all, make sure they’re topped off. With coolant it, just means unscrewing the top and making sure the level is where it should be according to a line on the tank, and with oil it means pulling out the dipstick, wiping it down with a rag and sticking it back in. When you pull it out, it should be at or above the line marked on the stick. If it’s too low, add a quart. Your owner’s manual will tell you what kind you need. This is a very simple bit of basic car maintenance and it’s a good idea to check every time you fill your tank.
Also look under your hood and check for leaks. Squeeze the rubber radiator hoses and make sure they’ve got some give to them. If they’re hard and brittle, or worse yet, cracked, they should be replaced. It’s an easy job and it’s far preferable to breaking down on the side of the road when you’re headed out to the lake with the family.
What Do You Carry?
Make sure you have plenty of windshield wiper fluid. Even if it’s not raining, you need to be able to see clearly. Plus, when bugs get stuck to your windshield, your spouse may get antsy…my wife does.
Also make sure that you have a spare tire in your car that’s properly inflated, and you’ve got all the equipment needed should you need to change a tire by the side of the road. Read through the section of your owner’s manual to make sure you have all the necessary equipment and get a feel for what it takes to do it. It’s also a good idea to keep some basics in your car for emergencies: a blanket, a bottle of water, an extra bottle of radiator fluid and windshield wiper fluid.
As I like to tell my friends, get to know your car a little. Become a little familiar with the engine bay and check things out and it will not only save you money and hassle, but will give you something you just can’t put a price on: peace of mind.
Man oh man, has this been a quick summer. I’m not worried. In fact, now that most folks are getting back into their routines, I’m thinking it’s a good time to actually hit the road. It’ll be less hot (hopefully) and far less crowded out there, and that’s never a bad thing.
If you plan on still hitting the road, there are a few things you should keep in mind. First off, even if you’re not a seasoned mechanic, it’s good to know a little about how your car works and how to do basic maintenance. It helps build your confidence during summer travel, and let’s face it: It never hurts to get your hands dirty. When I met her, my wife didn’t know a dipstick from a lipstick, but she’s paid attention to my tips and I’ve taught her some basic car maintenance. She feels more confident and feels more confident on the road. Heed this, ladies. The more you know, the better prepared you will be when it comes time to bring your car in for service. You’re a lot less likely to get ripped off, too.
Traveling is stressful enough. You don’t need a breakdown. Keeping an eye on some basic things and adhering to the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule will keep your car or truck running smoothly and best of all, keep you from breaking down. Bear in mind that none of these things equate to rocket science. The suggestions I make are important, but also easy to do.
The first thing I’m gonna cover is checking tire pressure, because it’s not only vital to your car’s health, but easy to do. Your tires are, after all, your car’s connection with the road, so it’s very important to keep the pressure correct and even. Low tires can affect the car’s handling, wear unevenly and need more frequent replacement but also negatively affect your fuel mileage. This affects not only your wallet but the environment. And if your wife is anything like mine, she’ll appreciate both saving money and doing something good for mother earth.
First, check what your pressure is supposed to be. This information will be in two places: in the owner’s manual and on a sticker on the body of the car behind the driver’s door, measured in psi (pounds per square inch). The psi may be different for the front and rear tires.
Get yourself a tire gauge (shouldn’t be more than $15; I’m partial to the simple digital LED models) and keep it in your glove compartment. Unscrew the rubber cap over the air nozzle on the tire and stick the gauge over it firmly and straight. You’ll hear a quick hiss as a tiny bit of air comes out, but if you stick the gauge on correctly it will stop after about a second.
Read the number on the gauge, pull it off and then do it again. It takes a couple times to do it right before you get the handle of it. Do it for all four tires. If any of them is off by more than 2-3 psi, put some air in and then recheck. You can fill the air at any gas station.
Most importantly, make sure to do this first thing in the morning. The heat of the day and particularly driving will inflate your tires a little and you want to check them when they’re cold. And get in the habit of doing this every few weeks, as tires naturally lose some air pressure. Maintaining the right air pressure is not only good for the car but it’s key to safe driving, particularly driving in the summer.
Remember: Drive safely, enjoy your travels, and check back for more basic car maintenance tips.
I’ve always loved cars. And since my Dad was constantly involved in automotive projects of one form or another, my exposure to DIY came early on. From my initial oil changes, I eventually graduated to full-on rebuilds and restorations. Now, as Dad’s long moved on, I generally tend to be the guy in the neighborhood that friends and neighbors look to for advice on things like safe driving and maintenance. No surprise, in the last year particularly, they’ve been asking me how to save money on gas. While fuel prices as of now (Summer, 2012) seem to have peaked or are actually going down a bit, they’re still pretty high and there’s reason to believe that they will continue to rise over the long run. Fortunately, here are a few tips to save gas that will also hopefully make you a safer driver.
First and foremost, maintain your manufacturer’s recommended tire pressure. It saves wear and tear on your tires and will help you meet the fuel mileage targets of your car. Auto manufacturers have highly trained engineers who match specific tires to specific cars for a balance of ride, handling and fuel economy, so it’s best to adhere to their specs. Plus, it’s one of the easiest things to do to check and refill air. My wife used to always leave these sorts of things to me, but once I showed her how easy it was to check her tire pressure, she now insists on doing it every couple of weeks. (Of course, I still have to take out the trash.)
Underinflated tires may give you a slightly smoother ride, but they’re more likely to blow out and they will negatively affect your fuel consumption.
Another way to achieve good gas mileage is to drive with anticipation, which is good practice for safe driving anyway. By that I mean, think a few moves ahead, like a chess player rather than focusing only on the car ahead of you. This will help you avoid fender-benders or worse yet, a major accident. Look ahead when you drive, so you won’t be doing things like suddenly speeding up right before traffic slows on the highway. The more time you can spend at a steady speed (cruise control), the less your engine will have to work and the more fuel you can save.
Try to keep your car as aerodynamic as possible. It’s summer, so you’re traveling with your family, but if you can fit things in the car instead of in a giant roof rack, your car will cut through the air more easily and save fuel because the engine won’t have to work so hard. And for that matter, there’s no need to pack your entire house into your car. Pack smart. Less weight equals better mileage.
For that matter, clean out your trunk. It’s good to have some safety items like extra water and a blanket, but remember—extra weight is the enemy of fuel economy.
Try to maintain a steady speed also. Trust me. Since I’ve been married I tend to drive more conservatively (particularly when my wife is in the car) but I used to be Larry the Leadfoot. And, I was spending a LOT more money on gas. Gas mileage limits are set not only for safety, but because driving fast uses a lot more fuel than driving at a more moderate pace, and you won’t really get there that much faster anyway.
If you put even these simple tips to use, you’ll be amazed at how you can cut down on trips to the gas station and best of all, save money.
Learn more about ways to boost your fuel economy.