Not all spark plug wires are created equal. And because moving electricity to the plug to produce a spark is so critically important, using the wrong wires for your vehicle, damaged wires, or poor-quality wires will undoubtedly lead to problems down the road.
As electricity travels along the plug wires toward the plug so it can generate a spark, it’s also looking to do something else – escape. The electricity is looking for any opportunity to jump from the wire and instead head down the path of least resistance. When it finds the escape route it’s been searching for – usually in the form of missing or damaged wire insulation – the results can include engine misfire, poor fuel mileage, hard starts, rough idles and lack of power. Electricity also generates radios waves and if it escapes from the plug wires can interfere with a vehicle’s radio and other electronics.
The plug wires’ insulation is what keeps the electricity from escaping, and high-quality wires will have more insulation that’s made from durable components that are better able to resist wear from vibration and heat. Over time, the engine’s heat cycling takes its toll on even the best spark plug wires, which is why replacement is recommended by many manufacturers at 100,000 miles.
There are primarily three types of spark plug wires:
1. Distributed resistance wires are constructed of fiberglass-impregnated carbon. Also known as carbon core wires, they were the standard on about 95 percent of vehicles before 1980.
2. A shift to inductance or mag (magnetic resistance) wires accompanied the rising popularity of Asian vehicles. Featuring a spiral wound core of a copper nickel alloy, the material presents less resistance to the electricity flow, meaning less current is needed to generate the spark, and at the same time the winding pattern and materials help prevent any Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from escaping.
3. Lastly, there are fixed resistor wires. These are often found on European vehicles and feature steel or copper wire and a resistor inside the plug boot to control interference.
If you think your vehicle might be having some issues caused by faulty plug wires, begin the diagnosis with a close inspection of the wires’ condition. Examine them for heat-induced cracks or abrasions caused by rubbing against other parts. Look for areas where they’ve been burned through because of contact with an exhaust manifold. Also try examining the engine in the dark, looking for visible sparks where the electricity is escaping along the wires, and also listen for an electrical ticking sound, similar to what you hear when you receive a big static electricity shock. Also measure the wire’s resistance with an ohmmeter. One plug wire with a resistance that’s significantly different than the other wires could indicate that’s the problem wire.
When installing new wires, make sure you’re using wires specified for your vehicle. Characteristics such as the wire length or a boot that attaches using clips as compared to a thread-on boot matter when it comes to performance. Also avoid problems by routing new wires in the same manner that the previous wires were, and removing and replacing the wires one at a time.
Using the best spark plug in the world won’t make any difference to your engine if that plug can’t get the electricity it needs, so choose and install plug wires wisely.
Editor’s note: Advance Auto Parts has your car wiring needs covered. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.
If you’re paying too much at the pump, read on as our Mechanic Next Store explores the mysteries behind gasoline pricing and octane ratings.
When it comes to gas for your vehicle, is it all the same? Is there a difference between the “name brands” of Exxon, Mobil, Shell versus the “grocery store gas” at Kroger or WalMart or even the less common “off-brand” names sold at discount stations with odd-sounding names that include “Kangaroo,” “Pure,” or “Liberty”?
And what about the different grades of gas available at starkly different prices. Call it what you will – regular, mid-grade, premium, 87, 89, 93, or even “V-Power” if you happen to be filling up at a Shell station. By choosing one fuel over another, are you risking damaging your engine in the interest of saving money?
Let’s start with the easy answer. Unless the station attendant is bringing your gas out in a metal bucket or dispensing it from a pump with a glass globe on top so you can see the “quality” or lack thereof, like they did at the earliest gas stations, there’s little difference in quality no matter where you buy gas. Gas quality today is regulated and legally required to contain certain levels of detergents, octane, ethanol and other ingredients. And while “name brand” gas might contain more engine-cleaning detergents, there’s a good chance that the gas found at “off-brand” stations was actually produced by the same name-brand manufacturers you know. Save some money and buy gas where it’s convenient for you and easiest on your wallet and comfort level.
The bigger, and age-old question and debate on most motorists’ minds is, “do I need to spend more money on a higher grade fuel, and if so, which one, and why?” There are generally three grades of unleaded gasoline available at nearly all U.S. gas stations, regardless of name, with the price per gallon rising in tandem with the fuel grade. Depending on what you drive, these grades matter.
To make an informed decision, you need to first understand what those numbers mean. The results might surprise you. Spoiler alert – a higher number doesn’t necessarily mean the gasoline supercharges your engine.
The three numbers in question are simply octane ratings, which mean nothing to most drivers unless they’re a chemical engineer, or work in the petroleum industry. When crude oil is refined (cracked) into gasoline and other byproducts, the end results are products composed of hydrocarbon chains of varying lengths. For example, methane has one carbon atom, propane has three, hexane six, and octane eight. Thanks to Mother Nature, it turns out that octane – technically iso-octane – with its eight carbon atoms and 13 hydrogen atoms, resists detonation really well, as compared to, say, heptane, which ignites fairly easily. An 87-octane rating means the gas is composed of 87 percent octane and 13 percent hexane and/or other ingredients. Pushing the “91” button at the pump delivers gas that’s 91 percent octane, and so forth. You get the picture.
Fascinating – but what’s this got to do with your engine, and possibly saving some dollars at the pump? Simply put – as the octane rating goes up, so too does the gasoline’s ability, when mixed with air in the engine’s cylinders, to withstand compression without spontaneously detonating or igniting. In gasoline engines, the air/fuel mixture inside the cylinder is supposed to ignite only when a small flame is sparked by – you guessed it – the spark plug. As that small flame gradually grows and spreads out within the cylinder, the air/fuel mixture should ignite in one detonation. Problems arise, mainly in the form of an audible “knock”, when more than one detonation occurs within the cylinder. And that “knocking” or “pinging,” or “pinking” if you’re in the U.K., can be more than just an annoyance and rob your engine of power – it can also destroy it, quickly or over time.
As that initial flame grows, pressure and heat within the cylinder rise. Under the right circumstances, those increases will cause the air/fuel mixture that hasn’t yet been reached by the flame to detonate, resulting in two detonations – one from the flame and a spontaneous one from the increased pressure and heat. The knocking sound results.
Most modern vehicles have knock sensors on the engine that can tell when a knock is about to occur and can adjust the spark’s timing just enough to prevent the premature explosion. A higher octane fuel is better able to withstand the increased pressure or compression, thus preventing spontaneous detonation.
Does your vehicle need higher octane?
But that doesn’t answer the question of which engines need higher octane fuel. It’s a question with several answers. For starters, high-performance engines need higher octane fuel. That’s because the engine’s designers engineered it to generate higher compression within the cylinder and increased power. Higher pressure and lower octane, however, isn’t a good match.
To help determine what octane rating your vehicle needs, start by looking in the owner’s manual. Other good sources are two lists in this article that specify which vehicles require premium gas and those for which it’s just a recommendation. For example, Acura’s MDX, RDX and RLX are all on the “premium-required” list, as are Audi’s A4 through A7, several BMW models, Chevy’s Camaro and Corvette, the Dodge Viper, and numerous other vehicle manufacturers and models. On the “premium-recommended” list are again Acuras and Audis, Ford’s Escape, Subaru’s WRX and several Volvos. High-performance engines that require a higher-octane fuel and don’t get it will deliver decreased power and performance.
Still other drivers determine whether they need a higher octane fuel through experimentation. If the vehicle runs great on 87 with no knocking, pinging, or performance issues, and choosing the lower grade fuel doesn’t run afoul of any warranty requirements or specific manufacturer guidelines, why spend the extra money on a higher octane fuel?
Knocking or spontaneous detonation can be caused by other factors as well. For starters, the environment can be the culprit. Areas with high temperatures and low humidity can increase knocking and the need for higher octane. So too can vehicle age. Older vehicles can have a buildup of carbon within the cylinder, creating hot spots that lead to pre-ignition. These deposits can also decrease cylinder volume leading to higher pressures. Other culprits include a malfunctioning EGR system that increases cylinder temperature or an improper or malfunctioning spark plug. Increased load – like those that occur when towing or during steep uphill climbs – higher RPMs, or a malfunctioning cooling system that results in higher engine operating temperatures can also bring on the knocking.
Leaded gas and older vehicles
Many drivers will remember another choice available at the pump in addition to the three grades available today – leaded or unleaded fuel. Around the 1920s, a partnership between GM and ESSO, now Exxon, discovered that adding tetraethyl lead (TEL) to fuel helped raise the octane ratings above what they were listed at by increasing the compression ratio. Leaded fuel also came with the added benefit of helping protect soft valve seats, like those found in many 1970s-era vehicles and earlier.
During engine operation, heat from combustion gases causes valves to temporarily weld themselves to valve seats, if only for a tiny fraction of a second. Each time the weld between the two is broken, minute metal pieces from the soft valve seat are torn away, attaching to the valve. Over time, these deposits oxidize and further harden, inflicting damage on the valve seat as the valve continually hammers down. Lead in fuel helped prevent the two from welding, reducing valve seat recession or wear. Unfortunately, lead – which was spewing from the exhaust of millions of vehicles worldwide by that time – is bad for the environment and devastating to human health, which is why it was gradually phased out beginning in the 70s.
That begs the question of what’s a 1970’s muscle-car owner to do to prevent damage in the absence of leaded fuel, short of spending a lot of money to install hardened valve seats or replace a cast-iron head with an alloy one? For starters, don’t overwork your engine, turn consistently high RPMs, or let her get too hot. And, consider adding a lead substitute with anti-wear properties to your gas tank.
For the rest of you, consider using one of the countless octane boosters available, most of which are designated as being safe for turbos, oxygen sensors and catalytic converters, if your vehicle needs it.
And remember two things. If you hear some knocking and there’s no one at your door, it might be time to switch to a higher octane fuel. On the other hand, if the vehicle manufacturer doesn’t specify high octane and there aren’t any performance issues, save some money by sticking with a lower octane fuel, and purchasing it where you want.
Editor’s note: Whether you need a lead substitute, octane booster, fuel additives or even a new engine, stop by Advance Auto Parts is here to help. Buy online, pick up in-store, in 30 minutes.
From timeless icons to everyday essentials, Crucial Cars examines the vehicles we can’t live without.
In this installment, the Mechanic Next Door takes on the feature-rich Chevy Tahoe.
Kelly Blue Book voted the 2015 Chevrolet Tahoe The Best Buy of the Year among full-size SUVs. ALG awarded it first place in the full-size SUV category. Car and Driver named it the Editors Choice in Full-Size Crossovers/SUVs, and the Texas Auto Writers Association selected Tahoe as the Full-Size SUV of Texas (doesn’t it go without saying that everything in Texas is full-size?) at the Texas Truck Rodeo.
The Tahoe has impressive numbers to go along with those awards and accolades. Tahoe sales increased 88 percent in January of this year compared to the same time period last year, and in the large SUV category, Tahoe sales year-to-date in April were nearly double that of its closest competitor – second-place Chevy Suburban.
Clearly, the Chrvrolet Tahoe has what drivers want, especially when gas prices are low.
Tahoe was born in 1994 for the ’95 model year, springing from the Chevrolet Blazer and capturing MotorTrend’s Truck of the Year Award in just its second year. Shorter than its Suburban brother, Tahoe shared until 2000 the similar GMT400-series platform with Suburban, as did the Yukon, Escalade, Blazer and C/K trucks.
In the 20 years since Tahoe’s debut, consumer demands and tastes have evolved, as has vehicle technology – so much so that today’s Tahoe bears little resemblance to its first predecessor, other than its name.
A quick look inside Tahoe’s interior leaves little doubt what’s front and center on consumers’ wants and needs list, and it’s not just cup holders. We can’t live without our electronics, and Tahoe’s amenities ensure we don’t have to.
Available 4G LTE Wi-Fi Technology accommodates the simultaneous connection of up to seven devices so every passenger remains connected, even on the road. All those devices need power, which they’ll have no trouble finding, thanks to 13 charging stations (airport waiting area planners, take note) as well as the availability of wireless charging and a three-prong, 110-volt outlet for laptops and larger devices. Six of those 13 charging stations are USB ports and there’s Bluetooth capability that can also attach up to seven devices with Chevy’s MyLink system.
Controlling MyLink is accomplished with the swipe of a finger on an eight-inch, color touch screen that features customizable icon locations. Hidden behind the touch screen is a secret compartment for storing small items, accessible only by entering a password on the screen.
Yes, Tahoe has class and style, right down to its instrument cluster, which Chevy describes as being “designed after high-end watches.”
When Tahoe drivers need to haul something other than precious human cargo, there are 94.7 cubic feet of cargo space, and second and third-row seats that fold flat. Chevy also boasts that Tahoe has “the fastest power-release second-row and power-folding third-row seats of any competitor.” Because that’s important when you’re in a big hurry to…..remove or fold your seats?
In addition to a hands-free liftgate that opens with a gentle kicking motion thanks to a sensor hidden under the rear bumper, Tahoe also features keyless entry as well as starting, bringing the engine to life with just the push of a button. Passengers will have difficulty hearing that engine, or any other external noise for that matter, as Chevy claims this is “the quietest Tahoe ever.” Sound-dampening material has been added pretty much everywhere, including in the engine compartment, wheel liners, dash and floor, and there’s an “acoustic-laminated windshield” along with triple-sealed inlaid doors.
All this peace and quiet and style sit atop available 22-inch aluminum wheels with premium paint and chrome inserts, or 20 inchers or even 18’s on the LS and LT models.
Stepping up into a Tahoe – particularly one riding on 22’s – is made easier with the by retractable side assist steps with perimeter lighting. While that lighting is a nice touch, the heavy-duty illumination comes in the form of projector-beam headlamps and rear LED tail lamps that really light up the night, with high-intensity discharge (HID) lamps available on the LTZ model.
Even with gas prices being low, fuel economy is still top of mind for most drivers, and Tahoe delivers about what you’d expect for a vehicle of this size – EPA Estimated Fuel Economy of 16 MPG around town and 23 or 22 – depending if you’re piloting the two- or four-wheel drive version, respectively – on the open road.
That 26-gallon fuel tank is feeding a 5.3-liter EcoTech3 V-8 that features active fuel management which takes four cylinders offline when their power isn’t needed, direct injection for more power and fuel efficiency with reduced emissions, and variable valve timing for maximum power and efficiency. All this engine technology churns out an impressive 355 HP and 383 lb-ft torque that are capable of towing 8,500 lbs.
And, let’s not forget what’s most important – safety. Seven airbags, collision alerts, lane departure warnings, automatic front braking, side-blind zone alert, rear cross traffic alert, rear park assist, rear-vision camera, and a theft-protection package help protect and prevent.
Available in three models, an LS, LT, and LTZ, Chevy calls it, “the most advanced Tahoe ever,” and they’re not kidding. But first you’ll have to decide on what you need and what you can afford. MSRP is $46,300 and there is a list of add-on accessories – 58 to be exact – in nine categories covering everything from interior or exterior cargo management to electronics to security and protection.
Tahoe’s all grown up and has class and style, making it a perfect match for drivers with similar qualities.
Editor’s note: Stop by Advance Auto Parts for all you need to keep your Tahoe running right and looking sweet. Buy online, pick up in store—in 30 minutes.
Our Mechanic Next Door runs down the top six reasons–and foolproof steps–for cleaning your vehicle’s engine.
If you’ve ever purchased a new or used vehicle from a dealer or prepped for a car show, you know just how clean an engine compartment can look. The metal gleams, the black hoses glisten, and you can touch any surface and not come away covered in dirt, grease or oil. Conversely, every driver knows that it doesn’t stay that way long as things get nasty under there in a hurry – a fact we’re reminded of every time the hood’s popped to check fluids, do some work, or investigate a disturbing new noise, vibration, or smell.
Drivers clean their vehicles’ interiors and exteriors, but by and large tend to ignore the engine compartment, allowing grit and grime to accumulate over the years and miles. Whether you don’t clean under there because you don’t know how and are afraid you’ll damage something, or you’re a seasoned do-it-yourselfer but just don’t think it’s important, consider these thoughts and tips on engine cleaning.
Why do it?
Sure, a clean engine looks great, but that’s just one of the reasons for tackling this project. Here are some reasons you may not have thought of for cleaning your engine and engine compartment:
- It’s easier to spot potential trouble before it becomes a major problem. If your engine is filthy, you’re not going to know if that small fluid leak has been there forever, or if it just appeared. Clean engines make leaks, cracks and other problems easier to spot.
- Remove road salt and debris that can lead to corrosion if they’re allowed to accumulate.
- Remove debris that can cause hot spots to form on the engine and its components, shortening their lives.
- Prevent the buildup of combustible materials, such as leaves or oil, that are fire hazards on the road and in the garage.
- A clean engine is more enjoyable to work on and look at.
- A vehicle with a clean engine and engine compartment has a higher resale value.
Make it shine.
Ask ten different DIYers how to clean an engine and you’ll get 10 different answers. It’s not rocket science, but it’s also not something you should dive into without possessing some knowledge. Back in the day, the preferred method of cleaning an engine was to steam clean it. Cheap, easy, and it got the job done. Times change, as do engines, and steam cleaning isn’t the best option any longer because of the sensitive electronics in the engine compartment. Fortunately, there’s an alternative today – engine cleaners.
First, browse the various engine cleaning and degreasing products available. There’s water-based, solvent-based, gel, foam, spray bottles, aerosol cans – you name it. I prefer a solvent-based cleaner because it cuts through grease and grime better than a water-based one, which translates to less effort and elbow grease for me trying to scrub away stubborn dirt. I also migrate toward gel-based engine cleaners because I like the way they stick better to vertical surfaces, giving the cleaner’s scrubbing action more time to work on the surface, and me more time to do something else.
How engine cleaners work is a mystery to me, mainly because I’m not a chemist. The Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) for Gunk Foamy Engine Brite Cleaner includes propane, 2-butoxyethanol, aromatic petroluem naptha, isobutene, and petroleum base oil as ingredients. I don’t know what they do, except work well, but I imagine the solvents and other ingredients break down the grease and grime and reduce its surface tension, making it easier to wash away.
In addition to choosing a cleaner/degreaser, you’ll also want to pick up a drip pan and some absorbent pads. Why? A lot of oil and other chemicals will be rolling off your engine when you clean it and this hazardous cocktail shouldn’t be going onto your driveway, into a storm water drain, or seeping throughout the ground. Instead, capture the dirty fluids on the pads and drip pan, allow the pads to sit in the sun until the water evaporates, and then find a local recycling center that accepts both the used pads and the oily water from the drip tray.
Once you have all your supplies, use an air compressor or can of compressed air to first blow away any loose debris that may have accumulated under the hood.
Next, start the vehicle and let the engine warm up – but just a little. You want it warm to help break up the grease when the cleaner is applied, but not so hot that you can’t touch it and that it presents a fire danger when sprayed with a solvent or when oil and grease start moving around. Also, a hot engine sprayed with cold water is a sure-fire way to damage an engine and other vehicle parts.
Once it’s warmed up and the engine is off, wrap all visible electronic connections and components in plastic wrap or plastic bags to prevent water from damaging them. Cover the alternator and all filters and the air intake as well.
Position the drip pan and absorbent pads under the engine, then apply the engine cleaner – following the manufacturer’s instructions – and wait for the magic to happen. While the cleaner is working, look for any areas that have a lot of grease or dirt and scrub those spots with a plastic-bristle brush or rag.
Once the cleaner has been on there for the recommended period of time, rinse it and the dirt off gently. Engine cleaning is not a job where you want to use a car wash hose or home pressure cleaner because the water pressure is too high and could force moisture into sensitive engine parts. Instead, use a gentle spray from a garden hose, being sure to avoid electronic components as much as possible. Once the rinse is complete, the compressed air will come in handy again to blow any water out of crevices where it may have accumulated.
When you’re satisfied with the appearance, remove the plastic coverings applied earlier, start the engine and let it reach operating temperature to help evaporate any remaining water.
When the engine has cooled, apply a rubber or vinyl protectant to hoses and plastic components. Then, step back and admire your very clean, very shiny, and very satisfying engine bay, and ask yourself why you waited so long to clean your engine.
Editor’s note: Don’t let a dirty engine get in the way. Rely upon Advance Auto Parts for everything you need to clean and protect your engine. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.
*Always consult your owner’s manual first. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations to ensure warranties are not voided.
There’s one sure-fire way to ruin your day, engine, reputation under the hood, and road trip this summer. It’s fast, requires virtually no effort or planning, and happens to countless drivers every day. All you have to do is let your engine overheat because of insufficient cooling.
In this instance, I’m not talking about the more common, run-of-the-mill catastrophes usually behind a cooling system failure, including broken hoses or belts, insufficient coolant level, water pump or thermostat failure, or foreign object piercing the radiator.
Less dramatic, but equally effective at causing an engine to overheat, are scenarios in which a vehicle’s cooling system can’t dissipate enough heat fast enough to prevent an overheated engine. In most cases, it’s the result of an efficiency issue, even when everything on the cooling system is working properly. In other situations, modifications designed to coax more horsepower from the engine might also require changes to the cooling system because more horsepower usually equates to more heat generated.
Here’s a look at several add-on solutions to prevent engine overheating.
There’s a reason copper and brass have historically been materials of choice in vehicle radiators. Copper is great when it comes to thermal conductivity, performing 50 percent better than radiator fins made from aluminum. And brass is durable. So why are aluminum radiators becoming all the rage in high-performance engines and even among vehicle manufacturers? Weight. Aluminum radiators weigh 10 to 15 pounds less than traditional radiators. And they compensate for the reduction in their material’s thermal conductivity with increased radiator surface area and coolant capacity, design, fin spacing and even tube size.
The larger the radiator’s surface area translates to greater airflow reaching more coolant which means improved cooling capability. The limiting factor here is the amount of space you have or can create in which to shoehorn in a larger radiator.
Most radiators utilize a single-pass design – hot coolant comes in one side of the radiator, passes through, and exits out the opposite side. For increased cooling capacity, look at a dual-pass, horizontal-flow radiator. With this design, coolant passes through one half of the radiator, but instead of exiting, it then passes through the other half of the radiator, essentially making two passes instead of one.
Moving to a dual-pass radiator will probably also require a water pump upgrade because this radiator design places more demand on the pump. Which brings us to the topic of coolant speed. An aluminum radiator with larger diameter tubes is going to require an increase in the speed at which the water pump is moving coolant through the system. Your muscle car’s pulley-pump speed might have been sufficient when everything was stock from the factory, but any modifications made might now require changes to that speed and ratio.
In addition to tube size, high-performance aluminum radiators also have more fins, spaced closer together, for increased heat transfer from the coolant to the atmosphere.
Engine-driven fans can get the job done when you’re tooling down the highway at cruising speeds, but when you’re idling or fighting stop-and-go traffic – not so much. For increased cooling capacity, consider installing an electric fan, or two.
Unlike an engine-driven fan, an electric fan is going to generate enough airflow to sufficiently help cool the engine, regardless of engine RPMs or traveling speed. In addition to consistent airflow, electric fans can also net you more horsepower. It’s estimated that engine-driven fans steal about 35 horsepower and clutch-driven fans about half that amount while electric fans only take about one horsepower.
Installing a dual-fan set up enables the entire radiator surface to be covered with cooling air flow. Another option is to use a two-fan system, but with one fan stationed in front of the radiator, pushing air to it, and a second fan behind the radiator, pulling air to it – remembering that pulling is always more efficient than pushing.
As for fan blade style, that depends on what’s more important to you – cooling or noise levels. Curved-bladed fans are quieter than straight-blade fans, but they don’t move as much air.
And in what’s probably beginning to sound like a reoccurring theme, a changeover from an engine-drive fan to an electric one might also require some beefing up of the vehicle’s electrical system to ensure it’s up to the task and increased loads.
If you’re making the effort of adding an electric fan, make sure you go all the way and include an aluminum fan shroud. The right fan shroud can maximize the fan’s heat-reduction capacity by delivering cooling air to nearly every square inch of the radiator surface, while choosing aluminum helps deliver further weight reduction.
Type of Coolant
When it comes to the liquid flowing through the radiator, nothing’s better at heat transfer than plain old water. Unfortunately nothing also beats water when it comes to freezing in winter and destroying your engine, and corroding the radiator and inflicting a similar level of carnage there. If you are running straight water for coolant – some racing series require this – be sure to also include an anti-corrosion additive to the mix, and to take the necessary steps to prevent freezing before lower temperatures arrive. You’ll also need to research the benefits of using softened water if this is the somewhat risky route you choose to go. If, however, you choose to play it safe by using traditional antifreeze, also consider an additive, such as Red Line’s Water Wetter that prevents bubbles or vapor pockets from forming and helps bring temperatures down.
When it comes to summer driving, just remember – keeping your cool begins with your engine.
Editor’s note: Don’t blow your top…or your radiator cap this summer. Visit Advance Auto Parts for everything your engine needs to stay cool. Buy online, pick up in store, in 30 minutes.
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.
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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. 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.
5. 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.
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
The 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.
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.
Check 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.
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 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.
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.
It’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.
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.
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.
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
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.