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A letter from Stew

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Newsletter No 39
December 2003


BY THE TIME I GOT TO PHOENIX...

My 2001 Toyota Prius was waiting!

Last summer (for a variety of reasons, as you will see), I decided that  I should buy a hybrid (gas and electric) family size car.  After much research and soul searching, I decided to try to find  a Toyota  Prius.

Many of you who remember my disparaging remarks about hybrids just a few years ago may wonder why the change.

At first, I felt that hybrid cars surely must be combining the worst elements of electric and gas systems and creating an overly complex machine.

 Instead, I now believe that the two systems have been put together to build on each other’s strengths and overcome their weaknesses.  (Sort of like a really good relationship...)  For example, there really isn’t a transmission on the car.  We all know how expensive they can be to fix.  Instead, the car uses the electric motors to control the speed of the engine and the car.  The result is vastly fewer moving parts and therefore greater reliability and longevity.  By the way, locomotives have been doing something similar since the steam engine whistles were still shrieking.

So why did I have to go to Phoenix to buy a used hybrid car? 

I looked around town for a used one, and could  locate just one (available at a premium price).  Because hybrid cars are so popular out west, I was able to find a car rental agency in Phoenix  with a large supply of used Prius’s ( or is it Prii?) for sale.  I actually saved money by flying out to Phoenix, buying a car, and driving it back!  A long test drive, eh?  Actually, it was good to really get to know the car.

The Prius has been averaging 51 mpg (combination city/highway driving).  It’s dropped down to 49 mpg with the onset of cold weather.  And speaking of cold weather, one of the really nice features about this car is the electric heater!  Instant heat on a cold morning!  Just like my electric truck.  No more waiting for the engine to warm up. That’s a nice extra feature to have in this climate.

And speaking of mileage, it is amazing to watch the fuel economy skyrocket when you are stuck in freeway traffic—just the opposite of what you expect.  On a recent trip to the grandparents during the end of rush hour, our average fuel economy went over sixty mpg for the trip because we got STUCK IN TRAFFIC!  Weird.

Toyota gave tremendous  thought to making this car look, feel, and act like the cars we are accustomed to.  At first I thought that to be an odd approach, but it makes good sense if you want to sell loads of cars to wary consumers.  And for you lead foot drivers, the car is very peppy.  With one gas motor and two electric motors to draw upon,  it will go like a scolded troll.

Hybrids are here to stay. Forget about hydrogen cars for now; they are years away from production.  Hybrids are here now, and if you want to lessen your personal dependence on Middle Eastern oil, then think about a hybrid.


THERE’S A NEW KID IN TOWN

For those of you who haven’t been in lately, you will notice a few changes in the office.  Kris and I added a baby boy to our household last summer.  Joey was born August 18th, and has been coming into work quite often as Kris is getting back into the work routine.

Betsy has been service manager since mid-July.  She and Kris are trading the service manager & office manager jobs back and forth as the day’s needs warrant.

Meanwhile, I have gone back into the shop and am working primarily as a tech.  If I happen to yawn in the middle of a conversation, it is not from inattention or boredom -- just good old-fashioned sleep deprivation!


INFORMATION UPDATE

Here is some good news for you.  In August, a new federal law went into effect, requiring car manufacturers to make certain tools and information readily available to the independent repair market.  They had been attempting to keep the tools and information proprietary.  If the law hadn’t been passed, it may have spelled the beginning of the end for the independent repair industry; and you, the consumer, would have been forced to take your car to a dealer for most types of repairs.

For example, Saab has a diagnostic tool known as the Tech 2.  Without the Tech 2, a technician can’t access codes from the computer or reset service lights on most modern Saabs.  In the past, Saab has not allowed their dealers to sell these tools to independent shops.  We know, because we tried to buy one from our Saab dealer.  We were, however, able to procure one from a non-dealer source, but it was a huge hassle.

The great thing about the new regulation is that the information and tools are now easily available!  Or at least that’s the theory.  And you will continue to have choices with your auto repair.


ALL KEYED UP &  NOWHERE TO GO

Do you know what a transponder is?  Or a “keyless entry” system?  These are all components of increasingly complex anti-theft devices installed in your car.

A transponder is a little computer chip present in some late-model car keys.  If you try to start the car with a duplicate key (meaning one without the computer chip),  you won’t have any luck.  The key will go in and turn, but nothing will happen.

This is good for you, because it cuts down on the chance of your car being stolen.  It’s bad for you, if you don’t have another transponder key tucked away somewhere!

What about the problem of locking your keys in the car accidentally?  Don’t throw away your magnetic hide- a-key box.  With increasingly complex interactions between doors closing,  buttons locking and timers doing things automatically, more people are finding themselves locked out of their cars.  Ouch...  It still pays to carry a spare key on the car somewhere.  If it is a simple copy (without a transponder) you will be able to open the door with it, but someone finding it would not be able to drive away with the car.  Nice!

This brings up another example of the law of unintended consequences.  Because cars are getting so hard to steal, carjackings are becoming a big problem.

To address this, on some cars, in addition to having the transponder key, they’re making a transponder card (like a charge card) that you carry near you when you start the car.  This is another anti-theft device.  Say your car has been carjacked (unlikely, but who knows).  The carjacker orders you out of the car at some point.  You (and the transponder card in your shirt pocket) run.  Once the transponder card gets out of range of the car, the car won’t run.  (Of course, if the carjackers have taken your wallet or your purse with the transponder card inside, you’re out of luck.)

 Gone are the days when you could stop by the hardware store, or call the dealer and order another key by using either your key code or the VIN (vehicle identification number).  With the new Prius, we had to take the car to the Toyota dealer in order to have a second computerized key made.  They “cut” the key and then programmed the computer to recognize it.

On some cars, if you lose all your remotes and your key, you have to have the whole computer replaced just to get a new key.  The cost of having this done can run into the thousands-- shocking.

That old adage is even wiser than ever:  always have more than one car key.


OLDIES BUT GOODIES?

We’ve been fielding many inquiries lately regarding the advisability of owning an “old” car.

The idea of getting 200,000 miles from a modern car is not  far-fetched, in the right circumstances.  Just because your car is “old” (80’s or very early 90’s), don’t assume that it’s a candidate for the scrap yard!

In our climate, a car is most likely to rust out long before the engine wears out.  Cosmetic rust (the kind you see on the car itself) is mostly nuisance rust (until, of course, your door rusts and falls off).   Rust becomes a serious safety concern, obviously, when it gets in the frame of the car.

If you have an aging car and are trying to decide whether or not to reinvest in it, give us a call.  We can do a one-hour inspection.  We go over the car bumper-to-bumper, and provide you with a list of upcoming issues. We will prioritize the issues for you and also give you estimates.  If we think a car is not worth reinvesting in, we will tell you.

And if you have a new car, we can do your maintenance.  You don’t have to take it to the dealer (the only thing the dealer needs to do is any work under warranty or recall).   Be sure to bring in your maintenance booklet, so we can fill it out.  With your new car, you want to be absolutely sure to do at least the minimum required.  Dealers seem to look for reasons  to not honor warranties, and neglecting the minimum required maintenance is one of the first things they pounce on.

Oh, and no newsletter would be complete without my urging you to change your oil every 3000 miles, no matter what your warranty booklet says.  The shorter interval is cheap insurance for engine problems down the road (after the car is out of warranty).      

Give us a call if you have any questions about maintenance on your newer car.  We had a Honda Odyssey in here last week for maintenance.  It had about 65,000 miles on it.  Honda’s maintenance list calls for the first spark plug replacement at 105,000 miles!   Chances are very very high that plugs with 105,000 miles on them will be stuck in the cylinder head.  Man, that’s gonna be an expensive spark change when the cylinder heads need to come off.

As always, we are here to help you make the best decisions for your car.

Hope to hear from you soon!




Stop in to visit us, or if you have any questions about your cars, call us at 651-635-0395.



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