We've all heard that cars are complicated -- and that's true -- but that doesn't mean you're completely helpless when a problem arises. Some minor automotive hiccups can be dealt with even by people who don't know a cold start injector from a pine tree air freshener.
1. The car feels "floaty": Very often this is caused by nothing more serious than underinflated tires. Instead of supporting the weight of the car evenly and firmly, the under-inflated tire's sidewall flexes excessively -- imparting a slidey seasick motion. Your car suddenly handles poorly -- and you find you need more time to stop. Plus, you're also wearing out your tires really quickly. Solution? Top off the air in all four tires so that they are inflated to the recommended pressure listed on the side of the tire (or on the sticker inside the door jamb or your owner's manual). Never assume tires are properly inflated just by looking at them -- or by kicking the sidewall. The only way to accurately tell whether a tire is properly inflated is by using a tire pressure gauge to check it . You can buy a tire pressure gauge for less than $10 at any auto parts store. Keep it in the glove box -- and use it at least every couple of weeks.
2. The engine is making "clicking" or "tapping" sounds: Very often this is caused by low oil. It's not a major problem -- unless you continue to operate the engine this way. Being a quart or more down from the "full" mark on the dipstick can happen to anyone -- and any engine, not just old, high-mile clunkers. All internal combustion engines consume some of their lubricating oil as they run. Check out various owner's manuals and you'll see that burning up a quart or so of oil every 3,000-5,000 miles is not unusual -- or anything to worry about. The problem arises when the lost oil is not replaced, which can starve moving parts of oil, especially at start-up after the engine has been sitting overnight, when all the remaining oil is sitting at the bottom of the oil pan. So if your engine is making clicking or light tapping noises, the first thing to do is pop the hood and pull out the engine oil dipstick. It will have markings on it indicating "full" and "add." If it's low, add a quart, run the engine for a few minutes, then shut it off and recheck the level after the oil has had a chance to settle back to the bottom. Add more as necessary to reach the "full" mark -- and the clicking noises should (hopefully) disappear. (If not, there may be a more serious underlying problem that you should have a trained mechanic check out.)
3. The key is stuck in the ignition: This fairly common problem is caused by the locking mechanism in the steering column not lining up exactly right. You can usually unstick things by returning the key to the "run" position, centering the steering wheel, then returning the switch to "off" and pulling the key out. Don't try to force either the key (it'll snap or bend) or the steering column (you could break something there, too). It may help to spray a little aerosol lubricant (such as WD-40) into the locking mechanism, but if the key is still "sticky," have your dealer look at it.
4. The gearshift won't move out of "Park": This problem is caused by a safety device called the brake-shift interlock, which is designed to prevent the car from being put into a forward gear before the driver has his foot on the brake. Sometimes, though, the mechanism breaks -- and it's seemingly impossible to put the car in gear so you can get going. Luckily, the fix is easy. If you look around the area around the shifter handle, you'll see a small tab that's designed to be broken off in order to temporarily defeat the brake-shift interlock -- and let you drive instead of wait for the tow truck. (Later on, you can stop by the dealer and have the brake-shift interlock checked and fixed as necessary -- and the trim plate with the break-off tab repaired or replaced.)
5. The turn signals won't blink -- or they stay on without blinking: If your left or right turn signal stops working -- or starts acting funny -- the problem is almost always with the flasher and not the lights themselves. The flasher is a small round thing that plugs into your car's fuse panel. It's a simple matter of finding the fuse panel (see your owner's manual), pulling out the dead flasher and plugging in a new one, which you can buy for a couple bucks at any auto parts store. Just bring in the old one for reference -- or ask the auto parts store counter man to give you what you need. It's also a good idea to keep some extra fuses of the type your car uses tucked in the glove box for those just-in-case moments when a 15 cent fuse can be the difference between being stuck and out of luck -- and making it home. Whenever any electric-related system suddenly stops working, the fuse box is the first thing to check. But if the fuse continues to burn out, there is probably a bigger problem here that will need an expert's touch. Never crutch the problem by swapping in a higher rated fuse -- a 20 amp in place of a 10 amp, for example. That's just asking for a fried wiring harness and big-bucks repairs.
6. Brakes "screech": Any type of grinding or screeching noise coming from your car's brakes is cause for immediate investigation -- but more likely than not, it's the wear indicators telling you it's time to have new pads installed. Many new cars have tabs built into the brake pad material that are designed to make noise once the friction material has worn beyond a certain point. It's no big deal -- unless you ignore the warning. If you do and the brakes wear down to bare metal, you'll dig ruts in the rotors and get to pay for new ones -- instead of just for pads. As a general rule, front brakes will go for about 30,000 miles before getting on the raw side; rear brakes (whether discs or drums) tend to last longer because it's the front brakes that do most of the work of stopping the car. It's not unusual for rear brake pads or shoes to go for 50,000 miles or more before they need to be replaced.
7. Engine never warms up: If the temperature needle seems to stay on "cold" no matter how long you've been driving and the heater hardly puts out anything more comforting than a tepid breeze -- you may have a stuck thermostat. The thermostat regulates the flow of engine coolant through the engine, radiator and a part called the heater core -- which is how you get warm air inside the car when everything's working right. The thermostat helps the engine warm up faster by limiting circulation of coolant at start-up -- but after it reaches a pre-set temperature, it should open up and allow the now-warm coolant to freely flow throughout the entire system, including the heater core. Sometimes, though, the thermostat will stick -- and if it sticks, especially in winter, the engine will have a tough time fully warming up -- and you will be one cold commuter! If you notice the engine running cool all the time --or the heater never seems to work very well -- have a mechanic check out the thermostat. It's an easy fix -- and you'll be toasty again in no time.