Some Random “Car Stuff”

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You probably know all about checking the air pressure of your car’s tires to make sure it’s up to spec – columns like that are as inescapable as “news” stories about the Kardashians. So I thought it might be good to mention five things about cars you may not have heard about:

* Radar detectors and some new cars may not be compatible –

That’s because a growing number of new cars radiate their own radar (and laser)  signatures, which can trigger false alerts. A  radar detector is a receiver; it detects the signals emanating from a cop’s radar gun. But it will also detect signals emanating from your car’s radar (or laser) assisted cruise control or similar in-car technology. I use a Valentine 1 – considered to be one of the best radar detectors available – and in certain new cars I’ve test-driven, the device was rendered effectively useless by the vehicle’s factory electronics. Each time the car’s “active cruise control” (as an example) sent out a pulse, it triggered a V1 false alert – lights flashing, warnings beeping. I could not filter out the “noise” coming from the car, perhaps because in most cases there is no way to fully disable or turn off the systems that emit the signals that cause the noise – and cause the detector to false-alert.

It is also possible that the use of a radar detector in a car that emits a radar (or laser) signal could cause a problem with the car’s systems. I’ve noticed stern warning labels affixed to the windshield of some new cars I’ve test driven recently specifically warning against the use of radar detectors – and that any problems resulting from their use will void your warranty coverage.

So, be advised before you spend $400 for a high-end detector – or $40,000 for a high-end car with radar (or laser) based technology.

*  Some new cars don’t have dipsticks –

In some late model (circa 2006 and newer) BMWs – also Audis, Porsches and Mercedes Benzes –  the only way to check the oil level is by consulting (cue Dr. Strangelove voice) a computer. The physical dipstick under the hood has been eliminated. Instead, there are sensors built into the oil sump tied into the car’s computer/driver information center. The owner surfs through a menu to check the oil level without ever having to raise the hood. On the upside, you never have to get your hands dirty. On the downside, this way of checking the oil level adds a layer of arguably unnecessary technology – replacing a simple, virtually foolproof way of doing the job with one that depends on electronics (and software) that by its nature is both more likely to eventually experience bugs (for example, the in-sump oil level sensor getting covered with varnish over time)  and cost you money when those bugs crop up.

Ironically, the cars that tend not to have dipsticks anymore – BMWs, especially – are also among the most (supposedly) enthusiast-oriented cars on the market. You’d think enthusiasts – gearhead types who like to do things themselves – would want to check their oil themselves, too.

Apparently, not so much!

* “Smart” air bags can be fooled –

Most new cars have “smart” air bags – meaning, there are weight sensors embedded in the seats that tell the system whether there’s a person sitting there – and also how big a person is sitting there. The air bag is then either turned off – or on – and its potential rate (and force) of deployment adjusted to accommodate a small – or large – adult. Or a child. Usually, the system is also tied into the seat belt warning system. If there’s no one in the seat, there’s no seat belt chime if the belt’s not buckled. That’s the theory. In practice, these smart air bags can be pretty dumb, too.

In at least a half-dozen different make/model new cars I’ve tested recently, all it took was a duffel bag – or a bag of groceries – to convince the system that a person was sitting in the passenger seat. In one case, it only took the weight of a “Mile High” turkey breast sub to do the job. The “passenger air bag on” light illuminated – and the annoying buckle-up buzzer commenced its racket.

Unfortunately, I’ve yet to find an off button for either the buzzer – or the air bags.

* Good-bye, steel gas tanks –

Many – probably most – new/recent vintage vehicles have plastic-composite fuel tanks instead of steel, as in the past. Just as many late-model vehicle engines have plastic intake manifolds and other parts instead of cast iron or aluminum parts. And the reason in both cases is the same: Saving weight and simplifying the manufacturing process. Each pound shaved off the curb weight of a new car translates into a potential fuel economy benefit – a major concern for automakers faced with the prospect of meeting a government-required fuel efficiency standard of 35.5 MPG on average by model year 2016 – just around the corner. Also, it’s easier to mold complex shapes out of plastic – and achieve near-perfect uniformity on a mass-production scale. That reduces manufacturing costs and also potential warranty costs down the line. An additional plus is that unlike steel tanks, plastic tanks never rust out – which would be a significant problem nowadays given 10 (and possible soon 15 percent) alcohol content “gas.” Because alcohol-laced gas attracts water – and water accelerates rust. But with plastic tanks, it’s not an issue anymore.

* AC service may be about to get more expensive (again) –

In the 1990s, the automotive refrigerant R-12 (Freon), which had been in use for decades and was used in every then-new car’s AC system, was pulled off the market over concerns about its effect on the ozone layer. It was replaced by the current refrigerant, R134a. In the meanwhile, older cars with R-12 systems became much more expensive to service and maintain – because of strict regulations governing who could handle it (only certified technicians, so no more do-it-yourself charging kits) and heavy taxes on the remaining stocks of replacement R-12. A can of R-12 that sold for $5 suddenly cost $40 or more – and you couldn’t even buy it yourself, anyhow.

Well, the Europeans have just banned R134a. (See here for some news coverage.) This will put – is putting – a lot of pressure on the use of R-134a here, both practically and politically. Practically, because now the car companies have to design different AC systems, one for the European market (using C02 or some such) and for the U.S. market (using R-134a) adding a layer of cost to their operations and so to the bottom line price of the cars. Politically, because if the U.S. doesn’t ban R134a, it will be smeared as “harming the environment.”

If R134a is banned – and it probably will be –  expect a scenario similar to what happened with R-12 back in the ’90s: Do-it-yourself recharge kits will no longer be available; you will have to get your R-134a-using car’s AC serviced by a technician. The R-134a itself will double or triple in cost. The technician will be required to use (and so, buy) expensive equipment to do the work – and will past the costs on to you.

So, now might be a good time to stock up on a case of R-134a recharge kits.

Throw it in the Woods?


  1. Urban legend or no, it’s still a great story. More than likely some of the tooling and basic engineering from the WWII era went into building an inline-6 that needed to be tipped to fit under the hood. I remember one of the Car and Driver editors back in the 80’s recalling his experience as a young engineer with Chrysler, whose job it was to carry over suspension parts yet again to a new design. Engineers being one of the costlier inputs in the business, the story has plausibility…

  2. Thanks for the warning about the 134a, Eric. I’ve noticed the price creeping up. It is now about $16 per can; a rise of $7 from last year. this is very problematic for us here in the taxi industry in Phoenix. Obviously, Phoenix is the hottest major city in the USA with summer daytime temps rising into the high 110s. Air conditioners hardly stand a chance down here, and you’re lucky to get 2 years out of a system. Which means we are constantly fixing ACs in the cabs. And that means if the Problem solvers in DC have their way, we are going to have to pay a whole lot more for cool taxis.

  3. The slant six was not half a V-12. Take a look at the casting and you’ll soon see that no provision was made for a second cylinder bank. Nor is there any evidence that one was cutt off. Similarly the crankshafts do not have provision to oil twelve connecnting rods. Oil passages emerge in the middle of each throw, exactly half way between the webs. This is correct for a single rod per throw, not a pair…

    If you visit the Allpar site and read the interview with one of Chrysler’s top engineers, Wertman, you’ll find the engine was tilted for packaging, weight, servicability and manifold layout.



    • you will also find that the Water Pump can only be installed at one end

      I am old enough to have worked on many, and not repeat ” myth”

  4. Ducati started using plastic tanks in their new motorcycles. Very cool, they can be formed into very complex shapes that allow decent capacity while also using otherwise unused space behind the engine and under the seat.

    But – alcohol and/or other fuel additives are causing these tanks to swell. Mount points snap, cracks form, soon you’ve got gasoline leaking out of your expensive motorcycle. Replacement tanks are insanely expensive – $1000 or more. In the past, you could repair a metal tank (of course it didn’t swell in the first place), or even fabricate your own. But there’s no way to fix these ingenious plastic tanks, and it would be virtually impossible to fabricate one which fit into the space allotted.

  5. Eric, I think you’re a bit behind the times with the plastic tanks. Plastic tanks have been around for quite a while, but are now being replaced by stainless steel. We have those fruit loops in California to think for it. Basically, plastic leaks. The only way to meet the new/impending super strict emissions standards is with gas tanks that won’t sweat any hydrocarbons, at all. Granted the amount of vapors that the plastic tanks “leak” is so minimal as to be not worth discussion, but it is still too much. Add to that the lack of durability in the liners when confronted with ethanol and other additives, and steel is once again making a comeback. Granted, it’s the more expensive stainless steel.

    Speaking of plastic and ethanol. I remember, several years ago now, I was working at a VW dealer and we had a Phaeton come in that wouldn’t run. No fuel at the rail. The problem? The lines were clogged, with the liner from the tank. The guys at VW blamed it on the ethanol in the fuel over here. As the government continues to increase regulations on both fuels and emissions, this forces fuel producers to change how they formulate their fuels and the additives they use. I’m sure you’ve noticed the distinct increase in fuels that “keep the engine clean”. This puts increased pressure on plastic tank manufacturers to constantly improve their linings and plastics. The inability to keep up with admittedly unrealistic mandates has lead to the reintroduction of steel tanks in cars.

  6. interesting about dealer required service. Also i remember as a kid in the 80s my friends dad had a 74 Ferari Dino (the 2+2)
    and he had a radar detector. driving through a supermarket parking lot in front of the store with their auto sensor doors would make that thing sound off. Then some a-hole rear ended him at about 50 in stop and go freeway traffic, this was right after Enzo died and value of all Ferraris had really started to spike.

    My best friend is the Service Manager at a local BMW dealer. Conveniently also located next to the commute train that i take so I can drop it off in the AM if necessary. currently his techs wrench on my 97 VW for cash after hours and I supply parts from Autozone. The VW is developing alzheimers (stolen from above, thanks!) idiot lights coming on and off for no reason and now the speedo and tach have crapped the bed. Along with the gas guage being 1/2 a tank off at all times. It runs good and is paid for though. I’m considering getting a used BMW just for the fact i can get it worked on CHEAP by guys that know what their doing. Although the Versa is an interesting looking little econobox. We have a newer xterra and im happy with the Nissan brand

  7. Leave it to the Germans to over-engineer and over legislate something to the point of it becoming a living hell. You really have to muzzle their natural tendencies to do that sort of thing. Being at one time a dual citizen because of birth and family I can attest to all of the good and all of the bad.

  8. Great article, Eric! The other day me and my husband were discussing the technology on new high-end cars. He told me some new high-end cars with keyless ignitions have a bad downside – If the battery in your key-fob dies, you cannot get into your car! WTF! I wonder if that means you couldn’t get out of it either??

    • Thanks, Dottie!

      On the locks: I doubt you’d get locked in (most have a fail-safe, such as a pull knob or some such) but the possible hit to the wallet is very real. The price of the keyless fobs is startling. Maybe I’m just a cranky pre-computer kind of guy, but give me a simple metal key I can get copies of cut for $5 down at Lowes!

        • The prices between “smart” key fobs and modern key fobs that still maintain a physical key isn’t much, assuming you control for make and model.

          • True – but the physical key is rapidly disappearing. I have a Ford Focus right now and it’s the first new car I have had in more than two months (I get 1-2 every week) that came with a physical key…

        • my oldest child bought a Nissan Cube last summer, it has the “keyless-FOB”. Only came with one, $220 to get another one if that gets lost or if you want an extra one. Just got an extra set of keys made at Lowes for my ’78 Trans Am…6 bucks for 2 keys

  9. Those idiot engineers who eliminated dipsticks are the real dipsticks! What’s wrong with having an oil level sensor + the usual dipstick? I buy a $ 45,000 chariot and I don’t even get a dipstick? Oy gevalt!

    • It’s a marketing gimmick. BMWs used to be sold to the enthusiast driver crowd; people who appreciate machinery and (often) understood it, or at least, wanted to. Today, BMWs (and Benzes, etc.) are marketed – in the main – to the status conscious who buy them to wear the proverbial spinner on their lapels. Look at me, I drive a BMW. And – based on what I see out there – they usually drive slow.

  10. I had several slant 6s, I rebuilt the carb on one for $2 in my Valient,I did have to check the oil every week since it did use some. I think I paid $400 for it in Alabama and it was about 10 yeras old and ran great. It got 20 + MPG in the city and more on the hiway. I never checked it due to paying under a dollar for gas at the time. It was a cheap used car to go to the base and back. I was in the army and poor so cheap was the only was to live. All of them I had were slanted the same way so what happed to the other side of the engine?

  11. Note to Engineers: KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid!)
    I remember when you could almost climb in the engine area of the car.
    I remember when air conditioners actually worked. (The current mix works a little bit.} Well the United Nations will fix that! It is no coincidence that a lot of the countries are from the subarctic. Guess AC doesn’t matter if you are far enough north. Most of Europe is in that category. England is on a latitude with Montreal, Canada. It is warmed by the Gulf Stream. Most of England, France, and Germany do not even see the need for AC. They get two weeks of real summer a year. One year France had a real heat wave. People were dying because no one had air.
    I remember when we could change the plugs without an engineering degree.
    Everything was not buried with furniture of one kind or another keeping the plugs from easy access.
    Some genius is going to invent a 1972 Plymouth Duster again with a straight 6 engine. Everything will be readily engineered for easy maintaining and repairs. He will sell it dirt cheap and it will bankrupt the entire industry of fancy cars if the government doesn’t stop them first.
    They will tune it up so it gets about 20 in town and about 30 on the highway. If he is real good, he’ll come up with a more efficient engine that gets 30 in town and about 45 on the highway. But everything on that engine can be worked on by a barn yard mechanic. Then he will make parts cheap enough to keep the car running forever.
    Well, Disney has Fantasyland. One can dream. They haven’t done mandatory lobotomies yet. I figure they could sell it for about 12,000. And still make a decent profit if they tried.
    I would love for someone to stop the government from restricting cars and putting expensive modifications on them in the name of polution and safety.
    If it is a do-gooder law made to make us eat our vegetables or some such it needs to be thrown off the books. Frankly, they have no business making laws governing my behavior anyway. Laws such as you must have your headlights on if it is raining and you are using your wipers. Sometimes the sun is shining as it rains. I don’t even think seat belts should be mandatory. Put them in the cars. But don’t make people wear them. It is good for me, therefore it is wrong. Take any gadget that produces radiation off a car. Take the computers off the cars as well.
    Try a better engineering that is easy to maintain and easy to repair. Make the engines more efficient with better engineering, not fancy toys that add thousands or 10s of thousands to a car.
    A lot of us have gone to trucks. Why? Because at least on a truck the engine is designed to last a little longer. You can still get a rear wheel transmission on a truck which doesn’t break as easy as the new ones on the front wheels. Try sliding your way out of ice with a newer transmission and you will need a new transmission on the car. That is pitiable engineering and if you want to outlaw something outlaw engineered deliberately to break and the first sign of hard use totalling out the car.
    I don’t want fancy. I want solid engineered cars that are kept simple enough to work on when needed. I don’t want a computer that takes 3-6 hundred dollars to replace if something goes wrong. I want the old fashioned cars we could actually work on comfortably ourselves. Yes, I want dipsticks. I want them in the engine and also in the transmission. I want cars that don’t have all the fancy electronic engineering that breaks easily.
    I think I am not alone.

    • You are absolutely DEFINITELY not alone… and the ’72 Duster had a SLANT-six (LOL). Yes, I know perfectly well that it IS actually a “straight six”… just tipped a bit! One of the reasons Mopar made so many gazillion of the those fabulous Slant-six motors was that they had a huge stockpile of V-12’s (some even from WWII, if I remember right), and they just cut them apart with a band saw, slapped some thinner metal parts on to cover the crankshaft, etc, and presto! A brand-new six-cylinder motor!

        • I saw at least one crank that did have the “exras,” on a ’64 Dodge Dart if I remember right. You’re correct that the vast majority didn’t, though. On the “all tipped the same way,” point, I heard two different explanations: one that Chrysler user the “other way tipped” motors in commercial applications (and I can testify that that explanation does have at least some evidence behind it: I saw at least one Zamboni–an ice-resurfacing machine for skating rinks– that WAS tipped the “other” way); and the other claimed that the “other” halves of the original V-12’s were indistinguishable once installed… they simply “turned around” the “other” halves. I never found out which (if either) explanation was true. The fact of these reliable motors being sliced halves of V-12’s I’m pretty confident of, however, since I saw it in writing in a maintenance manual from Chrysler printed in the 1950’s. Unfortunately, the manual didn’t elaborate on the “which way tipped,” question!

          • Even with late 40s and 50s labor rates sawing engines in half just would not work.

            Furthermore a V12 aircraft engine casting would not accept a transmission and those engines are huge. Half still being considerably larger than an automotive inline 6.

            It’s clearly an urban legend as far as I am concerned.

            The slant would be for packaging concerns. That is fitting the engine into the car, intake runner and air cleaner placement, etc.

            • I am suspicious of the WWII-era V-12 leftovers story… those engines were massively heavy (and fairly primitive) ’40s-era designs, for one. I am pretty sure the slant six was a modern, light-casting, OHV engine. If it had been half the WWII-era V-12 tank engine, it would probably have weighed 600-plus pounds, just for openers… or more than a fully dressed small block V-8.

          • The Chrysler Manual I referred to said that at least SOME slant sixes were sliced V-12’s… it did NOT say they were from WWII. For all I know, the manual referred to a single year’s production run.

    • You’re not alone – I’m with you! – but we are (apparently) in the minority. The majority seems to prefer debt servitude and “safety” – gadgets, rather than DIY – passivity, rather than driving.

      America is not the place it used to be.

    • I had a 75 Dodge Dart with he slant six and it was the easiest vehicle to maintain EVER… long as you kept a spare ballast resistor with you 😉 Unfortunately the body was crapola and rusted away in short order.

  12. Plastic intake manifolds if done correctly give a very nice internal surface that only careful hand finishing could achieve with a casting.

    The problem with plastic intake manifolds was trying to use them to make a coolant cross over.

    R-134a. Banning it? Now that is really telling me the patent conspiracy theory on R-12 had merit. Nothing like repeating something to give what was dismissed as a “conspiracy theory” to be worth looking into.

  13. My solution is to just keep my old cars going for as long as possible. Thanks for the information on the dipsticks. Audi, BMW, Mercedes-Benz are now off my purchase list.

    • Me too.

      I am pretty sure my ’02 Nissan pick-up is the “newest” vehicle I will ever own. Until they let someone make something like it again, anyhow.

  14. I just bought a new 2012 Nissan Versa S (partly due to your effusive praise), and I observed the “smart” air bag being fooled by my definitely un-seat-belted lunch box. This is an annoying feature in an otherwise fantastic car.

    Sadly, “Throw it in the woods” is the decision on my 1996 Nissan Maxima SE, which at 200K developed Alzheimers’ Disease. This is the other reason I bought the Versa, which, happy to report, still has a dipstick.

    • Can’t pass up this opportunity to tell a related funny story: my 1969 mercury Marquis Colony Park station wagon had those seat sensors all the way back then, and thereby hangs a tale. It will occur to anyone who really knows that model year n Ford products that these seat sensors were only offered with the Lincoln models. Yes… but you could order a Mercury with them (back in those days, you could still factory-order a custom car). A doctor wanted a Lincoln station wagon–which they didn’t make–so they loaded up a Mercury station wagon with all the top-end Lincoln options he wanted. I acquired the car third-hand a few years later, after someone had backed into it in a parking lot and ruined both the steering wheel and the dashboard in addition to the driver’s door. These three items contained almost all of the switches and buttons controlling the fancy Lincoln options. When the dealer repaired the car, since the owner was selling it (which is how I got it), they replaced everything with standard Mercury parts, which did NOT include the extra switches. But I, the electronics geek/gearhead, went under the dash and reconnected most of the options, following the Ford wiring code. One of these options was the “security package,” which rolled up all the windows and locked all the doors 60 seconds after the last person exted the car IF NOBODY WAS SITTING IN THE SEATS, and here’s the worst part: I MISSED the wire for the front passenger seat sensor. Since I always rolled up the windows and locked the dorrs whenever i parked the car, the system never had anything to do. Scene: I took my father-nin-law (a former WWII Army Sergeant) with me on a trip to the auto-parts store, and he decided to stay in the car while I went in… and he was sitting–of course–in the right front passenger seat. Just as I got to the front door of the store, I heard a terrified squeak from behind me as the 60 seconds expired, and my poor father-in-law was trapped in the car by a mechanical genie… as he saw it. He couldn’t even unlock the door and escape… those old vacuum locks were pretty strong. I ran back around and stuck my key in the driver’s side lock, overriding the system, which released him. He backed up against the front wall of the shop and said feelingly: “That’s car’s haunted!”

    • I think you’ll be happy with the Vesa, Vini – but I hear you on the seat belt thing. This is not unique to the Versa by any means. As I mentioned in the article, I have encountered the same thing in several other new cars with “smart” air bags, most recently a Subaru Impreza. Probably the sensors are made by the same supplier (Bosch or some such) and made to the same generic standard.

      I am very much opposed to mandatory air bags, period. People should be be free to buy them if they wish. But it’s obnoxious to force them to buy several thousand dollars’ worth of elaborate “safety” technology that they might prefer not to buy, if they had the free choice.

      At minimum, the SRS system (including sensors and chimes) ought to come with an “off” switch.

  15. Gentlemen, considering all of the alcohol they put in “gas” nowadays, it might be a good idea to have a plastic gas tank.

    Does anyone know if the Hyundai Accent (2009) has this?

  16. So who will be the first manufacturer to introduce plastic structural members? We already have plastic body panels, roofs, and now gas tanks. It seems to me with all the advancements in carbon fiber (which is basically plastic) it will only be a matter of time until someone tries it.

    • Carbon nano-tubes. Graphene. Words to conjure with.

      That is, unless the totalitarian police state crushes the economy and we all end up wearing sackcloth and harvesting turnips in the local Lord’s fields.

      Anyway, my guess is the move to active cruise controls and their effects on the venerable Valentine will only serve to cause a technology turn in the radar detector market. Expect to drop around $500 to $1000 on a new detector in the next couple years.

  17. The V-1 makes different sounds depending on what type radar (or laser) signal is detected. What band is triggered by most of the active cruise controls? No biggie if it is X band (at least where I live.) But if the K band alert goes off, you have got to react as if it is a potential cop.

    • It depends on the car (different systems; including laser as well as radar). Some much worse than others. Audis, Lexus and Acuras are especially bad.

  18. RE: False alerts from radar-detectors.. it’s not only your own car that can create false alerts, but there are several models of car that now routinely trigger false alerts on the radar detectors in other cars. My observation is that Audis are the most frequent offenders. (Do they have some sort of ‘always on’ back-up radar?) Do you unplug your ‘detector when you find yourself behind one of these vehicles, or live with the continuous beeping until enough space develops between you, or another vehicle blocks the radiation? Anyway — it’s a pest, and another barrier to using the ever-more-important radar detector.

    • “…it’s not only your own car that can create false alerts, but there are several models of car that now routinely trigger false alerts on the radar detectors in other cars.”

      That’s true – but in my case, I know it’s the car. Because we live in the Boonies – on 16 acres, surrounded by 100-plus acres, miles from any major road. No other cars around except what’s parked (and not running) in my driveway – and the detector goes bananas in some of the electronics-laden press cars I drive, the moment I start the car. So, the car itself is triggering the false alerts.

      I’ve also noticed (per above) that when I am in proximity to new-ish BMWs, I also get warnings. I believe these cars are sending out signals that are picked up by the V1 – unless the cops are running new BMWs!

      • unless the cops are running new BMWs!

        Given their fondness for “asset forfeiture” thefts, they very well might be running BMWs.

  19. Yeah. I remember when the R-12 ban went into effect. I had bought a case for around $36.00. I sold some of the cans for abour $10.00 apiece. Back in the late 1990’s R134 was selling for $5.00-6.00 a can. Today, $9.99 is the lowest price you can find at Target. (Wal Mart is more expensive). This just shows how badly the dollar has depreciated and how these stores have come to gouge people. Every day is a new layer of disgust.

    • If the dollar has depreciated 9it has)….then “these stores” aren’t gouging people. Can’t have it both ways hot rod.

      If we read the article again with an intelligent eye we see, once again, that “the government” is the root of all evil – from destroying the currency to environmental stupidity.


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