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Archive for Thursday, August 5, 1999

CAR TALK

August 5, 1999

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Dear Tom and Ray:

I leave my '88 Buick Park Avenue in my garage in Florida for approximately four months of the year while I'm away during the summer. I was told to have an oil change as close as possible to the time the auto will remain inactive and then to disconnect the battery. Just what is the proper thing to do for inactive periods? I saw an ad for this thing called the "Exergizer" which "exercises" your battery while you're away. It apparently places a 65-amp load on the battery for 17 seconds twice a day. Then it recharges the battery over the next couple of hours. An audible alarm and a "fail" light come on if there are any problems. It claims that it keeps your battery in operating condition, just as if you were starting the car every day. Would this be a good idea for these long periods of inactivity? -- Gerald

RAY: Gee, I don't know, Gerald. My brother has long periods of inactivity, and we don't do anything special for him.

TOM: I think it's a bad idea, myself. First of all, you're only going to be gone four months. For four months, you really don't need to do anything. I'd disconnect the battery, and that's it. My guess is that the car will start perfectly for you when you get back.

RAY: And I'd be wary of the "Exergizer." First of all, batteries have a limited number of charge and discharge cycles in their lifetimes. And I don't see any reason to waste two cycles a day while you're away. It's summer, and it's only four months. The battery simply doesn't need it.

TOM: But, more importantly, I'd be concerned about safety. Although it may make noise and turn on a light if something goes wrong, who's going to be around to check it? You won't know anything went wrong for four months!

RAY: So if it fails to shut off, melts your battery and sets your car, your garage and then your house on fire, it'll be nice to know a little red light came on, but will that do you any good after the fact? I'm sure the Exergizer folks will tell you that's a rare or nonexistent occurrence, but there's so much energy in a battery that I don't see any reason to take a chance.

TOM: If you're still not convinced, read the next letter, Gerald.

Dear Tom and Ray:

My beautiful 1993 Caprice Classic four-door sedan with only 28,000 miles on it -- and no dents or scratches -- is now a pile of junk. While parked in front of my home, the engine began to smolder, then it burst into flames. Within 10 minutes, the firefighters arrived. They could not open the hood but, boy, did they wield their axes! They had almost-fiendish looks in their eyes as they swung their axes and demolished the entire front half of my car before they finally pried open the hood and reached the fire. They said it must have been an electrical short. My tears didn't help put out the fire. Although I paid $18,000 for the car, my insurance company paid me just more than $9,000. They said something about "Blue Book value." The Chevy garage blamed the fire on a short circuit, but had no other comment. Is there any warranty covering such an event, and do I have any recourse? -- Harold

RAY: Your warranty, in this case, is called "fire insurance," Harold. And unfortunately, that's probably all the recourse you have. If you recently had some electrical work done to the car, you might be able to make a strong circumstantial case that those mechanics were responsible. But short of that (no pun intended), you're out of luck.

TOM: Once a car burns up to the extent that yours did, unless you can get Lieutenant Columbo in there with the forensics squad, there's usually no easy and inexpensive way to tell what started burning first. It could have been a fraying wire that was damaged during an unrelated repair. It could have been a wire pinched during a minor fender bender.

RAY: It could have been your Exergizer gone haywire!

TOM: Whatever the cause, there was a large, unintended discharge of electricity from the battery, and that produced the heat that started the fire.

RAY: In terms of your settlement, you can look up the used-car value yourself. Go to our Web site, the Car Talk section of www.cars.com. Then click on "Model Reports" and fill in your year, make and model. And if you think the insurance company is trying to low-ball you, you have the right to refuse its offer and bargain for more.

TOM: You may be able to argue that the car had extremely low miles or was in superb condition. They may tell you to flake off, but it's worth doing some research and making your case before agreeing on a settlement.

RAY: And, to confirm your observation, the firefighters probably did have a fiendish look in their eyes. After all, it's not that often that they get to chop the heck out of a car with axes. I've been dying to try that on my brother's car for years.

Dear Tom and Ray:

My 1992 Mazda Protege is currently in the shop having its CV joints replaced. This expensive repair happens eventually to every car I own. So the question is, is it me? Does my driving style have anything to do with how quickly a CV joint wears out? -- Bonnie

RAY: It can. We wrote a little pamphlet called Ten Ways You May Be Ruining Your Car Without Even Knowing It (for a copy, send $3 and a self-addressed, stamped -- 55 cents -- No. 10 envelope to Ruin, PO Box 6420, Riverton, NJ 08077-6420). And one of the ways you can ruin your car is with "jack-rabbit starts."

TOM: Basically, all of the components of your drivetrain are attached to one another, and if you slam your foot on the gas, it starts a chain reaction in which each part slams into the next one. Eventually, the CV (which stands for "constant velocity") joints get slammed, too. (They transfer power from the transmission to the axles and from the axles to the wheels.) And the harder and more often you slam parts together, the sooner they wear out.

RAY: But even if you're not driving the car hard, Bonnie, you may be inadvertently hastening the destruction of your CV joints. The CV joints are covered and protected by rubber boots called -- isn't this clever -- CV boots! They keep the grime and mud out, and keep the life-giving grease in.

TOM: The problem is that those boots can dry out and crack, or they can get torn by gravel and road debris. If you catch a bad boot in time, before the grease has drained out, you can keep the joint from being damaged. But if you drive around for a long time with a torn or cracked boot, the life of your CV joint will certainly be shortened.

RAY: So if you're driving like a knucklehead, stop doing that, Bonnie. And have your mechanic inspect your CV boots every six months or so during your regular oil change. You'll find that replacing boots on every car you own is a lot cheaper than replacing joints.

Got a question about cars? Write to Click and Clack in care of this newspaper, or e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk section of cars.com on the World Wide Web.

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