Monthly Archives: December 2011

When to Change a Timing Belt

By: Louis Albornoz  (

Do you know when it is time to change a timing belt? The answer depends on the type of vehicle you have. The right time to change a timing belt is upon reaching the mileage interval specified by your vehicle’s manufacturer. In most cases, this is usually between 60,000 and 75,000 miles.

The exact mileage interval for changing your timing belt is usually specified in the owner’s manual. If you can’t find the owner’s manual, you can call and ask the service department of any dealership that sells your make of vehicle. They will know when the timing belt of your vehicle should be replaced.

A timing belt is a ribbed band of rubber and fiber that controls the timing of your engine’s valvetrain. It connects the crankshaft with the camshaft and it is necessary for the operation of your engine. If your timing belt breaks, you’ll be going nowhere fast.

Timing chains are more durable than timing belts but timing belts don’t need lubrication, are quieter, and cost less money. This is why most vehicles nowadays use timing belts. The downside to timing belts though is their limited life span. There are usually no indications of their impending failure either. They simply break or come off while you are driving and leave you stranded.

In some engines, serious valvetrain damage can occur when a timing belt fails and this can be very costly to repair. Therefore, it is absolutely crucial to follow the timing belt replacement schedule recommended by your vehicle manufacturer. Doing so will save you a lot of headache down the road.

When anyone asks me about when to change a timing belt, I always give them the same advice: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Keep that in mind and happy motoring!



The Meaning of a VIN Number

By Louis Albornoz  (

Vehicle identification numbers, more commonly known as VIN’s, are used for a variety of reasons. Their primary purpose is to identify motor vehicles but they are often used to track other things such as registrations, insurance coverage, and even parking tickets.

Decoding the VIN of your own vehicle will probably not yield any surprising information but if anything, vehicle identification numbers can be helpful in discovering important facts about a car you may want to purchase.

There are many companies in the business of providing vehicle history reports, such as, and these valuable reports are all based on that magical and mysterious code known as the VIN.

Before 1980, there was no industry standard for vehicle identification numbers. Nowadays, auto manufacturers use 17 digits in total to give a VIN number meaning. Different combinations of numbers and letters are used (except the letters I, O, and Q) to represent specific information about the vehicle.

The following information applies to most standard vehicle identification numbers:

1. The first three digits of a VIN are known as the World Manufacturer Identifier (WMI) and these digits simply identify the manufacturer of the vehicle. Some automakers use the third digit though to identify subdivisions or particular brands. This is common to GM and other large auto manufacturers.

2. The fourth through ninth digits are known as the Vehicle Descriptor Section (VDS) and identify the model and the body style. The ninth digit though is almost universally used as a check digit. A check digit is a single letter or number used to verify the accuracy of the vehicle identification number transcription.

3. The tenth through seventeenth digits are known as the Vehicle Identification Section (VIS) and identify various characteristics of the vehicle, such as the plant where it was built, its options, and in what order it came off the assembly line.

Since there are endless permutations of VIN codes, the best way to decode the VIN of your own vehicle is to use a VIN decoder.

There are many free VIN decoders available on the Internet. You can use any search engine to find one and once you have done so, you simply input the VIN of your vehicle and its unique information is then displayed for your review.

The meaning of a VIN number is fairly uninteresting to most people except employees of your local DMV, law enforcement personnel, and die-hard car collectors.

The DMV will use your VIN to maintain a detailed record of your vehicle and issue you ownership and registration documents.

Law enforcement personnel usually use VIN’s in the course of vehicle theft recovery and prosecution.

Die-hard car collectors use VIN’s to identify rare and/or valuable cars and their special features.

A VIN is usually a small, rectangular metallic plate that is attached to the driver’s side of the dashboard, near the bottom of the windshield. Vehicle identification numbers can also be found on major components of a vehicle such as the engine block, chassis, and transmission.

How Airbags Work

By: Louis Albornoz (

Imagine you’re in your car driving home from work, or driving to the grocery store. The weather isn’t particularly bad, the road conditions are fine, and you’re singing along with the radio. Then out of nowhere, a car makes an illegal turn, winds up in front of you, and you don’t have time to stop. You hear the screech of metal as your car collides with the other, and brace yourself to go flying through the windshield. Instead, you are pushed backward into your seat, held there for a split second, and then the pressure subsides. Your seatbelt was the first line of defense but you are upright in the driver’s seat because your car is equipped with a vehicle airbag.

Twenty years ago, when vehicle airbags were first being offered, many people joked about how they functioned. Some likened them to stove-top popcorn, of the type that started out looking like a pie pan and ended up looking like a lumpy silver balloon, while others thought they were just really big balloons. Either way, most people thought and many people still think that once an airbag inflates, it remains inflated leaving you cheek to cheek with talcum coated nylon until help arrives.

In reality though, how airbags work is by decreasing the momentum of the driver and passengers within a car to zero. It’s a direct relation to the old physics statement about objects in motion remaining in motion; when your car collides with another, the car stops moving but without an airbag and your seatbelt (they’re designed to work together) you would keep going forward. To make matters more difficult, this momentum must be stopped in less than a whole second and only the space between the driver and steering wheel or passenger and dashboard is available for this to happen.

Components of an Airbag System

There are three main components of an airbag, all integral to their function. They are the bag, the sensor, and the inflation system.

The Bag

Airbags are constructed from a fine gauge of nylon and then folded into the steering wheel, dashboard, the door panel or sometimes, the roof rails above the door.

The Sensor

This is the mechanism that tells the bag it’s time to inflate, which generally requires the equivalent force of running into a brick wall at 10 – 15 mph. Sensors in newer airbag systems are designed to determine whether or not there is a person in the front passenger seat and whether or not the passenger has enough weight for the bag to be safely deployed.

The Inflation System

The inflation system of an air bag is usually a combination of potassium nitrate (KNO3) and sodium azide (NaN3) which combine to form nitrogen gas. Hot discharges of this gas inflate the bag at a speed of roughly 200 mph. Immediately after inflation, the gas is dispersed through tiny holes in the air bag, which causes it to deflate. The entire process takes about 1/25 of a second.

Cornstarch or talcum powder is generally used within the storage system for airbags to keep everything flexible and stick-proof.

Airbags were originally designed to be used as a seatbelt replacement system. Ford actually produced cars with an early version of the technology in the 1970s but the modern version of the bags didn’t come into wide use until the late 1980s. It wasn’t until the mid-1990s that at least two airbags were standard in most cars.

No longer marketed to replace seatbelts, it is now understood that airbags work in tandem with safety belts to keep drivers and passengers inside a car, and in an upright position, during a collision. The use of a seatbelt however is still the most important aspect of automobile safety.

Other safety features related to vehicle airbags are as follows:

1. The ideal distance is 10 inches between your breastbone and an airbag. Smaller distances can cause impact injuries when the bag is first inflated.

2. Smaller adults (under 5′ 4″) and children may be safer riding in cars with the passenger seat airbags switched off, in order to avoid injuries to the face and neck during a collision.

3. Children in backward-facing infant seats should never be placed in a front seat with the airbag engaged; their heads are too close to the bag.

Modern vehicle airbags are much safer than the originals from the 80s and 90s, and now do more than just protect passengers from front-impact collisions. Current systems include special protection for the head and neck, and some will help cushion and restrain the driver and passengers if the vehicle should roll over.

The best hope, of course, is that you are never in a collision with enough force to cause harm but if you are, be glad that vehicle airbags are required by law in all new cars sold in the United States. In European markets, they are still considered optional features.


Synthetic versus Regular Oil

By: Louis Albornoz (

The oil we put in our engines serves multiple purposes. It coats the metal parts and allows them to run on a thin, smooth layer of lubrication, thus reducing friction and wear. It works as an additional coolant, holds by-product carbon particles in suspension until the oil filter traps them, neutralizes acids, and employs solvents to keep the engine clean. That’s a serious resumé and if there’s one thing motor enthusiasts love to do it’s debate the merits of one oil over another.

Sooner or later somebody brings up the “synthetic vs. regular oil” issue and the conversation is literally off to the races with “experts” pressing advantages and disadvantages with knowing passion. Like most arguments, there are degrees of “rightness” and “wrongness” depending on what you’re driving and how you’re driving it. The oil you use in your family car (even if you have tuned it up to breath a little life into that run to the grocery store) isn’t going to be the same oil that goes into a racing engine. Without trying to put an end to a discussion that has no end, let’s look at a few facts.

Obviously “regular” oils are mineral-based products refined from crude oil taken from the ground. Over the past 20 years these lubricants have been “refined” even further, particularly in the area of viscosity enhancers — meaning modern oils flow better over a range of temperatures. This, in combination with engines that sport tighter clearances and better machining, allow for the use of thin oils that both reduce friction and improve fuel efficiency. In the world of racing, for instance, very few teams are going to be using motor oil with single rated viscosity. (The exception would be some nitro-burners.) Racers not only want efficient operation and greater power, they want the best lubrication of engine parts as quickly as possible. (Start-ups deliver high engine wear, so you want an oil that gets to work quickly.)

Synthetic oils, which have been around since the 1970s, have the same natural ingredients as “oil oil,” but they are distilled in a chemical plant where the concept of refining goes techno-geek. Try getting your head wrapped around the concept of “synthesized-hydrocarbon molecular chains” and base fluids including “polyalphaolefin, synthetic esters, and alkylated aromatics.” Practically, what the heck does this mean?

Synthetic oils:

  • are all season and have multi-viscosity properties, some flowing as much as seven times faster than regular oil.
  • can stand extremes of engine temperature (some above 400°F) more efficiently.
  • can boost effective horsepower more effectively than thinner regular oils.
  • can be used for as much as 10,000 miles before requiring an oil change.
  • contain fewer contaminants like sulfur, wax, and other elements that contribute to sludge build-up.

Of course, these synthetic oils are more expensive and there are some things they don’t do, including:

  • eliminate the need for oil changes.
  • eliminate engine wear.
  • or improve miles per gallon received.

The major advantage of synthetics is superior lubrication that significantly reduces engine wear over the long term.

For regular drivers and performance car enthusiasts, proponents suggest there’s a place for both types of oil. Conventional wisdom now suggests that you want to use “regular” oil while breaking in an engine. At this phase of an engine’s life, you want some wear to make sure all the components get properly smoothed down. (On the other hand, there are plenty of performance cars that come from the factory using synthetic oil.) Depending on who you ask, this breaking-in period can be as short as 500 or as long as 5,000 miles.

At whatever point you choose, however, the switch from regular to synthetic oil is intended to then slow engine wear down as much as possible. (And you don’t want to mix regular and synthetic as that’s a great recipe for sludge.) At the racing level, of course, a team is going to test various oils, determine what horsepower gain is returned, gauge the viscosity and temperature tolerances — in short, make a science out of oil choice versus engine benefit.

The best answer to this debate may be that there are virtues to both types of oil. Anything you put in your engine from the new car dealer or any modification you make to your vehicle — whether it’s a racer or the family car — has to be looked at in terms of the goal you’re seeking to achieve. Without question, the chemical composition of synthetic oils have a quality and uniformity at the molecular level that just isn’t found in traditional, “regular” oils. And without question, these oils will continue to be fine-tuned in the laboratory to give even higher levels of performance and benefit. As we ask more of our engines, not only in terms of output but in the areas of clean and efficient operation, no one can afford to rule out synthetic oils as a viable option. Like everything about automobiles, lubrication techniques are evolving rapidly and the days of indiscriminately telling the guy at the gas station to “just add a quart” are definitely over.

Why New Year’s Day is a big day for car thieves

By: Jerry Edgerton
If you celebrate too much on New Year’s Eve, by all means take a taxi home. But make sure you aren’t leaving your own car vulnerable to be stolen.Thieves steal more cars on New Year’s Day than any other holiday, according to the National Insurance Crime Bureau -2,347 last New Year’s. Many cars are sitting in parking lots or other locations away from home, some of them unlocked.

“Thieves never miss an opportunity to make a quick buck by stealing a car. They work nights, weekends and holidays,” cautions Joe Wehrle, president of the NICB.

After New Year’s Day, the holiday with the most auto theft is Memorial Day. The day with more car thefts than any other is a shifting date in the summer, usually in July or August.

If you want to have a good time on New Year’s Eve and not have a missing car be part of the hangover, follow these tips:

— Leave your car at home. Take a taxi or mass transit to your celebration. Or, if you have a selfless friend, go with a designated driver.

— If you do drive and leave your car, make sure it is locked and the alarm is activated.

— Park the car in a well-lighted, very visible place.

— Don’t leave holiday presents or other attractive targets in the car that could lure a thief to break in.

Plan your New Year’s Eve carefully. For sure, don’t get in an accident or arrested for drunk driving. But don’t get your car stolen either.

Saab Cancels All Warranty Coverage

 By Jim Gorzelany (of Forbes Magazine)
A Saab logo is pictured on a car at a Saab sho...
Image by AFP/Getty Images via @daylife

A leaked memo published by the website Autoblog indicates bankrupt automaker Saab has abruptly suspended warranty coverage on all its vehicles in North America, though owners may not be left as high and dry as originally feared.

Saab is apparently suspending all new car, powertrain, emissions and parts warranties, along with recall campaigns, certified pre-owned coverage and no-charge maintenance programs effective immediately. There’s no word, however, on whether this is a permanent or a temporary issue based on the automaker’s current bankruptcy proceedings, though the memo suggests that owners “keep receipts of all related warranty work done or services performed until further notice.”

Whatever stock of brand new Saab cars remains on dealers’ lots is to be sold “as is,” like some dubious merchandise advertised on Craig’s List.

Fortunately, General Motors just released a statement on the matter that should assuage recent Saab owners’ fears: “In the event Saab cannot or will not fulfill its obligations to administer the warranty programs with its U.S. and Canadian dealers through Saab Cars North America or otherwise, General Motors will take necessary steps to ensure that remaining warranty obligations on Saab vehicles marketed by GM in the United States and Canada will be honored.”

UPDATE: Consumer Reports’ website clarifies GM’s position with regard to Saab warranties, saying the company will honor them only for cars built before Jan. 1, 2010, which includes mainly Saab 9-3s, but not new redesigned 9-5s or 9-4Xs. Saab owners with models that fall within the applicable warranty period will be treated as creditors under Saab’s bankruptcy proceeding, and could be offered some coverage from Saab’s assets once they’re sold. Personally, we wouldn’t be holding our breaths over the possibility of that happening, neither would we consider buying a new “as is” Saab without warranty coverage, no matter how attractive any “fire sale” prices may subsequently become.

Here’s a link to a photocopy of the leaked memo via Autoblog.

Ways to make night driving easier: from high-tech to simple solutions


Night driving is difficult for many people. Driving in the dark is much different from driving during the daylight hours. The human eye’s field of vision is much smaller without the help of natural light.

Also consider that during this holiday season from December 23 to January 2, 92.3 million Americans will travel 50 or more miles from home, according to AAA. Much of that driving will take place before or after work hours. Last year December 21 had more darkness than any other day of the year—Hoosiers, for example, saw just 9 hours and 15 minutes of light—it’s clear as day how much driving in the dark we do during the winter months.

We all know that night driving is more challenging and unavoidable. So what can be done to make it easier? What are automobile manufacturers doing to make night driving less challenging? Are there simple ways we can make it easier as car owners? Hopefully this blog will help answer some of those questions.

New Technology to Make Night Driving Less Challenging

Auto makers are working on new ways to make night driving even easier. Many of these systems are based on newly available technology. Unfortunately, many of these options are still very expensive and are only available in high-end vehicles. Nonetheless, these advancements should be available for most cars over the next decade. Let’s review some of them.

1. Active Headlights


The most direct approach to making it easier to drive in the dark is simply to illuminate the road. High-intensity-discharge (or HID) headlamps began appearing on cars in the early 1990s and since then have spread across the industry. These lights most often use xenon gas and produce light up to four times brighter than traditional halogen headlights.

Brighter headlights help to illuminate the road ahead but can fall short when cars are taking corners or tackling twisty roads at night. The next step, therefore, is active lighting, which aims the headlights based on steering input and other factors. The Citroën DS featured rudimentary swiveling headlights in 1967. It wasn’t the first, though, and the modern equivalent of such systems are available on tons of vehicles today. But the latest setups, such as BMW’s adaptive headlights, use a camera integrated into the rearview mirror to detect oncoming vehicles and automatically dip the headlights so other drivers don’t get a flash of high-powered xenons in their eyes. Automakers such as Audi, Lexus, Ford, General Motors, and Infiniti offer similar systems. Mercedes even uses mirrors to redirect the headlight beams when driving in fog.

2. Night Vision with Pedestrian and Obstacle Detection


Even with powerful xenon headlights—and systems working to ensure they’re pointed where they need to be—there’s no way to illuminate the entire road ahead. To deal with that, a number of high-end manufacturers, including Mercedes, Audi, and BMW offer night-vision systems as options in their midrange and top-of-the-line models. Some project images onto a head-up display and some onto an LCD on the instrument panel or dash, and the newest systems in use specifically call out pedestrians or obstacles that pose an imminent threat of collision.

The latest night-vision system from Mercedes, called “active night view assist plus,” not only detects people but also objects by shining nonvisible infrared light, like military-grade night-vision tech. Other systems typically rely on the infrared generated from body heat. When a person is detected, the Mercedes system goes so far as to flash a spotlight on the pedestrian to warn of the oncoming car (although one assumes the headlights would do that already) and point out the person to the vehicle’s driver, in case the highlighted silhouette on the night-vision display wasn’t enough. At the same time, the HID headlights will dip for five seconds to avoid blinding the pedestrian. Audi’s version claims to be able to detect a pedestrian as far as an incredible 1000 feet away—more than three football fields.

3. Active Cruise Control and Braking


Radar- and laser-based active cruise-control systems have been available on premium cars for several years, modulating engine power and brakes to maintain a set distance behind a vehicle. But new iterations are even more intelligent and more capable. The latest systems, such as Toyota’s adaptive cruise control, can scan for slower-moving vehicles on roads with light or no traffic and apply the brakes while approaching. Some, like Audi’s, will warn a driver with a beep about upcoming vehicles, even in other lanes. The most active systems, however, can bring the vehicle to a full stop if they detect that the vehicle ahead is not moving. Volvo’s “city safety” system is active only at speeds less than 18 mph, but systems like Mercedes’ Pre-Safe, which works in conjunction with the adaptive cruise control, can completely halt the vehicle from any speed.

 4. Blind Spot Monitoring and Lane Departure Warning


Blind-spot monitoring systems use radar modules, usually one in each rear quarter-panel, to scan for and detect vehicles in adjacent lanes. If a vehicle is detected, the driver receives a warning. In Ford’s application, this is as simple as flashing LEDs located on the side mirror. BMW’s “active blind spot detection” will even vibrate the steering wheel as a tactile warning to drivers who begin to change lanes when another vehicle is in the blind spot. Audi’s optional “side assist” illuminates yellow LEDs in the side mirror any time the radar system detects an approaching vehicle in an adjacent lane—even before the Audi driver has flicked on the turn signal. How’s that for reading your mind?

Lane-departure warning systems are offered by quite a few manufacturers and are not limited to the most-expensive vehicles. Honda, Buick, Toyota, and Ford, among many others, use cameras to monitor lane markers. If a vehicle drifts over the line, these systems will alert the driver by vibrating the steering wheel or seat or with dash lights and beeps. In some vehicles, the computers go even further. Lexus’s system will countersteer the car to keep it in the intended lane, and Infiniti’s gently applies the appropriate brakes on one side of the vehicle to prevent drift. These systems generally do work in the dark, but as always, vigilance is best.

 5. Attention Assistance and Tiredness Alerts


We always suggest staying off the road when you’re tired—often the case when driving during those long winter nights—but it’s easy to become less alert over the course of a night without even realizing it. The other systems highlighted here help to avoid accidents based on physical surroundings (although there’s absolutely no substitute for careful, attentive, distraction free driving), but systems from several automakers are actually focused on determining when a driver is fatigued, before anything can happen.

The new “attention assist” system, which is standard on 2011 Mercedes E-classes, among other Benzes, monitors steering inputs to identify what Mercedes calls “erratic corrections” and will warn the driver with a tone and a message on the instrument panel, accompanied by—we kid you not—a coffee-cup icon. Volvo’s “driver alert control,” which has been on sale for several years, works differently. It depends on a road-facing camera and other sensors to determine if a driver seems inattentive by looking at the vehicle’s distance from lane markers and position on the road.

Other manufacturers are even examining drivers themselves for signs of tiredness, rather than the car. Lexus’s current “driver attention monitor” uses an infrared camera to determine the direction of the driver’s face and will lightly apply the brakes if an object is detected while the driver is looking away from the road ahead. Saab is working on technology that can scan a driver’s face for signs of fatigue, but such an advancement remains several years from production.

You might be thinking, “Wow that’s great! But what can I do on my car to make it easier to drive at night?”

  • Take your time. Allow your eyes a chance to adjust to the darkness before you start driving. It takes a few minutes for the pupils to fully dilate, allowing for maximum light to enter the eye. The more light your pupils let enter the eye, the better your vision will be.
  • Minimize glare. Look to the bottom right of the road to avoid approaching headlights. (Some headlights are blindingly bright.) Also use the night setting on your rearview mirror to deflect the glare from vehicles behind you. Older drivers find it more difficult to see at night because it takes longer for them to recover from glare.
  • Keep it dark. Turn off all interior lights. Any source of light inside the car will seem extremely bright and will make it more difficult to see.
  • Slow down. Reduce your driving speed to give yourself longer to react if something happens on the road in front of you. Driving at a slower speed will also give you more confidence.
  • Tune it up. Keep your car in tip-top shape for maximum safety. Regularly check fluid levels, tire pressure and brake pads and replace windshield wipers. Thoroughly clean headlights, taillights and signal lights. Make sure all windows are clean on both the inside and outside.

Ultimately, driving in the dark is more challenging than driving at night. Vehicle manufacturers are doing what they can to make it even easier. However, with a little bit of preperation and attention, night driving doesn’t need to be difficult.

(Note: New vehicle information gathered from Car & Driver)

Car-Trip Tips for families this holiday season

It’s officially that time of the year again, and many of us will be embarking on exciting adventures across the midwest, visiting family that live out of town, or just getting away to use up our remaining vacation days before the end of the year.

If you have kids there might be some anxiety associated with the thought of being locked up together for so many hours at a time. Tantrums, arguments, boredom, constant toilet stops, “Are we there yet(s)?” are common for most long car trips.

Here are a couple of tips on how to survive your holiday road trip; or any road trip for that matter!

Prepare before you go

Preperation is key. Make a list and check it twice. Leave yourself plenty of time the night before to pack the car with your roadtrip essentials. This will help ensure that everything you need is packed and there are no last minute trips to the store. If you or any of the kids tend to get motion sickness, remember to prepare for this in advance as well.


This almost goes without saying. Music will go a long way with making your trip more enjoyable and fun. Upbeat songs with a strong beat are best for keeping everyone awake and perky. If you’re feeling in the festive mood, Christmas music can be a good option (if you haven’t gotten sick of listening to carols yet!) Make sure to bring some soothing music to help with those times when things are a little tense.

Save money on food

If you stop at every café, fast food outlet or service station along the way to buy food and refreshments, your road trip is quickly going to become very expensive. Instead, pack plenty of your own food and drinks, and keep everything cool with frozen ice packs in a big freezer bag. Chopped up fruit, vegetable sticks and mini bags of air popped popcorn are great healthy snacks for everyone.


Research car games before you leave and have a few ready to play once you’re on the road. There are quite a few fun ones involving the alphabet, like the supermarket game. One person starts with naming an item which can be bought at the supermarket that starts with the letter ‘A’, like “avocado”. The next player has to repeat the first person’s word as well as add on a food that starts with the letter ‘B’. If you forget a word, you’re out of the game, and the game continues until the last player to remember all the words is the winner. If you have older kids, try a more difficult topic like countries or famous people.

Emergency supplies

As well as a first aid kit, you’ll need a kit to clean up any other mess in the car. Pack plenty of moist wipes, tissues and paper towels to be safe, as well as a few plastic bags for your garbage..


This is the most important…Make sure that you have your vehicle checked out before you leave. One of the easiest ways to make sure that you are road ready is scheduling a 60 Point (Road Trip Ready) inspection. It only takes and hour and provides you the peace of mind knowing that your vehicle be stopped on the side of the road miles from home. (Call 260.424.1630 or visit to schedule.)

In conclusion, wiith a few simple tips and a little bit of preparation, you’ll be well on your way to having an awesome road trip with the whole family.