FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS ABOUT AUTO SERVICE


STEERING AND SUSPENSION

BRAKES

ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER

FUEL SYSTEMS

ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION

OTHER

TEXAS EMISSIONS TEST ***

 

STEERING AND SUSPENSION
My car is shaking the steering wheel really badly regardless of brake application  and pulls to one side.  Do I need an alignment and new struts and shocks?
While you might need both of these it would be strictly a coincidence!  This is just about the most common inquiry we receive and I have yet to receive feedback that the problem was other than a tire.  One of your front tires is ready to blow out or separate, so please don't waste a moment and get to a tire store.  Meanwhile, do not drive at a higher speed than that at which you would feel comfortable with a blowout.  The tire is probably the one on the side that the car is pulling towards and may well look ok in terms of tread depth.  If a rear tire is failing the symptoms will be similar except that the pull will be absent and the entire car will shake but not particularly concentrated in the steering wheel.  There ARE other problems similar in symptoms to a failing rear tire but NONE the same as the front tire failure.
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What else could it be?  Its so bad I know its not a tire!
It is a tire!
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I feel every little bump in the road.  Do I need new struts or shocks?
Probably not!  At Don's we don't like to even discuss ride or handling issues until we know for an absolute fact that the tire pressures are correct.  This means inflated to the vehicle manufacturer's recommendations that are--by law--posted somewhere in the vehicle.  Typically this will be on a door, door pillar or the glove box lid.  This is NOT printed on the side of the tire despite all-too-universal misunderstanding.  Printed on the side of the tire is the absolute maximum inflation pressure the tire can safely hold.  At this maximum pressure the tire is capable of supporting a specified maximum load.  A well designed vehicle is built with significant  reserve tire capacity (unlike a Ford Explorer!) and does not require the maximum tire pressure nor is it usually appropriate.  The proper pressure is based on many factors such as weight, suspension design, height of the center of gravity, etc. etc. etc.  The engineers who designed your vehicle should not  be second guessed.   Now that the tires are known to be properly inflated--WITH A KNOWN GOOD TIRE GAUGE--we can move on to shocks and struts.  Struts are merely a variation of shock absorber that doubles as an actual structural member of the suspension.  To explain it another way: you can take the shocks off a car and throw them in a ditch and it can be be driven--albeit with horrible  handling and ride characteristics, but you cannot remove the struts and keep the wheels in place.  When shocks or struts are worn the most common symptom is not so much harshness on every little impact, but the feeling of piloting a waterbed or boat.  The car rocks and sways and does not come to rest immediately after a sudden stop or dip in the road.  It will bottom out easily.  There are other problems with struts--shocks less so--so after making certain the tires are correct we move on to check the suspension.  Making certain the tires are correct means, unfortunately, not trusting a lube franchise or tire store employee to find the information on the vehicle and inflate according because they rarely do!
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BRAKES
My car shakes when I apply the brakes, are my brake pads worn out?
They could be but the problem lies in the front brake rotors being warped.  Occasionally this comes from the rear.  The way to tell is if the shake is particularly noticeable in the steering wheel at highway speed.  If so the problem comes from the front.  Unless severe it is more of a nuisance than an immediate peril, but sooner or later you will want to get it fixed.
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I had to slam on the brakes suddenly during one of Austin's rare days of icy weather and my brake pedal sank and vibrated and made all kinds of funny noises.  I was able to pump up the pedal, but what in the world is wrong with my brakes?
Nothing!  This is normal behavior for your anti-lock brake system, (ABS) which maintains superior control on slippery surfaces by pumping the brakes on any individual locked and skidding wheel.  You could not even begin to attempt what ABS does unless you had four brake pedals and four feet!  This modulation of the brakes is done by hydraulic valving and computer means.   You lost valuable stopping time when you lifted your foot so I surely hope you didn't run into something as has been known to happen.  If you have ABS on your vehicle PLEASE find an empty gravel parking lot or other poor traction surface and practice slamming on the brakes until you overcome the natural instinct to pump the brake pedal on your vehicle.
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When I first apply the brakes they feel fine, but when I sit at a stoplight the pedal gradually sinks to the floor.  Why?
The master cylinder has an internal leak bleeding off pressure.  The car needs immediate professional attention because there is no way to predict what the brake pedal will do next time.
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Are my brakes unsafe?  They squeal and screech even though I just had them serviced at a brake franchise.  It sounds like something is rubbing!
They are most likely perfectly serviceable apart from the noise.  There is indeed something rubbing when the brakes are applied because that is exactly how they work--two unlubricated surfaces rubbing on one another--the metal rotor or drum and the friction material of the brake pad or shoe.  From an engineering standpoint there is nothing more NATURAL than brake squeal, screech and groan.  That is why brake noises are a common cause of new car warranty complaints.  Vehicle designers attempt to appease the public with all sorts of gimmicks added on to the basic brake design in a desperate attempt to dampen normal vibration and noise or at least shift it to a frequency above the range of human hearing.  Sometimes they get lucky.  At Don's we try to make a practice of replacing all the little pieces of anti-squeal hardware when we do a brake job and this keeps our noise comebacks lower than those shops--typically franchises--that rarely do this.  Brake noise is unpredictable and effected by dust, humidity, temperature and the phase of the moon.
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ELECTRICAL AND COMPUTER
How do the new Travis County emissions standards apply to my vehicle?
There are three categories:
 
1. 25+ years old or diesel engine vehicles are not subject to emissions testing.
2. Pre-1995 models are subject to tailpipe analysis. Do not be intimidated by this as the standards are not very rigorous. The tests are for carbon monoxide and hydrocarbons. The vehicle should pass easily if reasonably well-maintained and tuned. A word of advice -- the vehicle should be driven a few miles and thoroughly warmed up to minimize tailpipe pollutant levels when inspected.
3. 1996 and newer models are not usually tailpipe tested. Instead, the vehicle's onboard engine management computer is interrogated by the computer at the inspection station. There must be NO fault code registered in the computer's memory, the "check engine" light must be working, the "check engine" light must be off. Of particular importance is that several self-diagnostic routines that the vehicle computer runs MUST be completed with "pass" results. For this reason resetting the light immediately before getting an emissions inspection WILL NOT work. The routines, aka "monitors," can take from an hour up to a few days to all complete after the computer has been reset. Turning off the check engine light resets all the "monitors ." The engine computer in a modern vehicles monitors so many systems so carefully that it is assumed the exhaust is clean if the computer is satisfied.
 
 
Don's Automotive does not perform state inspection. Don's Automotive IS fully equipped with computer scan tools,  a smoke machine, a digital graphing multimeter, Mitchell and AllData technical information databases and a 5-gas exhaust analyzer to perform needed service so your vehicle will pass emissions testing.
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Why does Don's Automotive charge to diagnose my "check engine" light when Autozone will do it for free?
There's a big difference here.  Autozone will pull a fault code from the engine computer in your vehicle.  This code is an error message referring to a fault in one of many engine control systems.  This can be done with a $79 code reader.  They present a generic list of possible causes that in no way takes into account specifics of your make and model.  If parts are replaced based on this "diagnosis" alone they typically will NOT fix the problem.  We have several thousands of dollars invested in service information, sophisticated scan tools that allow us to read a datastream from the vehicle and professional experience to isolate and fix the problem.  Sometimes the diagnosis is relatively easy and straightforward, sometimes considerable testing will be required.
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My car won't start and I know it can't be the battery because the horn honks, the radio plays and the headlights work.  What could it be?
Probably the battery!  The radio needs about 2-5 amperes of current to operate, the lights maybe 15, the horn 5 or 10.  The starter needs upwards of 75 amperes from the battery depending on the model.  Some Fords require approximately 400 amps to get the starter going.  Go ahead and try the jumper cables.  We jump-start a lot of vehicles that have been thought to have more wrong than a dead battery.  If that doesn't work you might try wiggling, tightening or cleaning the battery connections.  Cleaning the connections by pouring a Coca-Cola on them doesn't really work despite the legend.  To do any good you will probably have to take them apart and scrape off all the crud.
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How can my battery be bad? It is a seven-year Die-Hard!
It has been so long since I lived in Yankee-land I don't know how long batteries last up there, but the Texas heat kills batteries starting at about one year old. The fact that the battery is offered with a long-term--but almost always pro-rated--warranty has no bearing on its actual life expectancy any more than the various terms intended to invoke invincibility and great strength. The fact is there are only a handful of battery manufacturers none of whom seem to offer an industrial grade reliable product. It would be nice if they put the same effort into the product as into the marketing! For reliability about all you can do is go for weight and physical size. Electrical ratings are highly misleading. It is possible for a light-weight and physically small battery to have a very high cold-cranking-amps (CCA) rating. Because this is done by squeezing in more plates per cell, the plates will be thin and hence short-lived.
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Lately I often see a yellow light that says "check engine" but when I check the oil and coolant they are full.  What does this light mean?
We sure don't want to dissuade you from checking your oil and coolant frequently although this light does not refer to either of those or, in most cases, to any kind of urgent mechanical problem.  The light is yellow as opposed to red--like an oil pressure light--because it refers to the tuning of the engine which is less urgent a matter than lack of oil pressure.  Lack of oil pressure is synonymous with "rapid engine destruction in progress!"  Every modern vehicle houses an on-board engine computer which has a dozen or two inputs--such things as vehicle speed, coolant temperature, throttle opening, etc. etc.  The computer has several output circuits to control amount of fuel, ignition timing, etc. etc.  If the internal diagnostic circuitry of the computer sees an input or output circuit that makes no sense the light is turned on, and, if deemed necessary, default "good enough to run" values are substituted for bogus data from the faulty input circuit.  For example, there is a corroded connection to the sensor that reads coolant temperature so that circuit tells the computer the coolant is at -40 degrees despite the fact that the engine has been running for fifteen minutes.  Many times the problem is subtle enough that nothing can be felt in terms of power or fuel mileage but the vehicle would probably flunk emissions testing.  So...don't panic but do get it checked at the first opportunity.  If you are told that there is really nothing wrong, "it is just the light" you can be pretty sure the problem has not been properly addressed.  At Don's Automotive we have four "scan tools" capable of talking to and resetting the computer on any make or model of vehicle through 2007.  Diagnostic time for "check engine" problems ranges from very little to quite extensive.
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It seems to be very difficult to find the problem in my car.  Should I take it to the dealer where they can put it on that big machine?
Unfortunately, it is almost never that easy!  There is no one machine that does it all--anywhere!  As a general rule, noises, vibrations, handling and braking behavior can't be diagnosed by means of a computer device.  Exceptions would be that wheel alignment can be checked on a computerized wheel alignment rack and anti-lock brake system computers can be accessed with computer diagnostic equipment.  Intermittent problems are the worst because the relevant system will probably test flawless if diagnosis it attempted when the problem is in remission.  Believe me, the dealership faces this obstacle just as we do!  Problems in computer operated systems often, but not always, leave "trouble codes" in the computer's memory.  Unfortunately these are more hints or guidelines than absolutely specific diagnosis.  At Don's Automotive we are more than happy to refer a problem elsewhere if we feel another facility has an advantage in finding the problem.
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The fuse for my taillights (or other system) keeps blowing out.  Is water getting in there and making a short?
Probably not!  The great bulk of your car's electrical system operates on 12 volts or less.  12 volts is not enough "electrical pressure" to push substantial current through water.  While enough current can flow through water at this voltage to disrupt delicate computer circuitry, the draw is not 1% of what it takes to blow a fuse.  Water causes problems in low voltage circuits by corroding electrical contacts causing poor connections and a LACK of current through the circuit.  The water could corrode the contacts in a taillight socket and the bulb will not light up but it will NOT blow the taillight fuse.  When we speak of the HIGH VOLTAGE part of the ignition system we have a very different story.  20,000+ volts is delivered to the spark plugs, this voltage being produced by the ignition coil.  At this voltage, the slightest imperfection in insulation somewhere will divert the spark to ground or even the wrong spark plug with disastrous results in how the vehicle runs.  If you car runs well on dry days but will not start or runs poorly after a night of rain it is a safe bet that somewhere in the high voltage (secondary) ignition system there are weak components.  This could be plug wires with cracked insulation, a faulty ignition rotor or distributor cap, bad coil or bad spark plugs.
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FUEL SYSTEMS
My car is running very poorly.  It feels like the gas is not getting through.  Do  you think I got some bad gas?  Could I have a clogged fuel line?
Most often not.  While certain components in the fuel system such as the fuel filter can become clogged, clogged fuel lines are a myth!  If there were contaminants so severe as to clog a fuel hose or metal line they will have already stalled the car by blocking the more restrictive parts of the fuel system.  It is important to remember that from the driver's seat it is very hard to tell the difference between UNDELIVERED FUEL and UNLIT FUEL.  In over half the perceived cases of poor fuel delivery there proves to be nothing wrong with the fuel delivery at all!  The problem is that the ignition system fails to light the fuel reliably.  Unlit fuel feels very much like lacking fuel.  "Bad gas" is only an occasional problem and scapegoated far more often than it occurs. When it does occur the problem is poor maintenance of the underground tanks at the gas station causing water to accumulate at the bottom.  The problem has nothing to do with brand or octane rating.
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A dealership or lube franchise says I should get a "fuel injector flush" every 15,000 miles as maintenance.  What do you think?
Don't get me started!  I have yet to see an owner's manual that contains any such recommendation for ANY make of car!  This service falls under the category of "additional profit," perhaps to offset a "loss-leader" oil and filter change price.  Your warranty does not require this service and no domestic or Asian vehicle manufacturer recommends it.  15-20 years ago when fuel injected vehicles were not common there were some problems with gasoline causing deposits in the fuel injectors, but those days are long gone.  If you have a high mileage vehicle that is sluggish and all other causes have been ruled out, a couple cans of Techron additive in the gas tank won't hurt and, in rare cases, may help.  This product is available at most auto parts stores.
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I don't usually use 93 octane gas but I have heard it is a good idea to use it every fifth tankful or so to clean out the system.  What do you think?
You either need a high octane fuel or you don't.  Inside the combustion chambers of your engine the fuel is supposed to burn very rapidly--a sweeping "flame front."  It is not supposed to truly explode.  If it should explode or "detonate," a sound is produced that is known as "pinging."  It will be worst in hot weather and, usually, under acceleration.  If extreme or constant it is stressful to the engine.  All kinds of factors promote or discourage this incorrect mode of combustion.  These include, but are not limited to: compression ratio, humidity, outside air temperature, ignition timing, engine temperature, engine design and last but NOT least: the octane rating of your fuel.  If your car requires high octane fuel it will require it all the time--or at least until the weather changes.  Because fuel octane--contrary to myth--is in no way a measure of detergent properties, high octane fuel does not "clean out" your engine and has no residual effect.  If your car pings only lightly and rarely on a low octane fuel use the cheap blend and save your money!
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ENGINE AND TRANSMISSION
My "oil" light is coming on.  Can't I go just a little way to get a quart of oil?
If you don't mind destroying your engine go right ahead!  Depending on temperature and engine speed,  vital oil films in the heart of your motor are gone in 15 seconds to a minute.  As soon as the film has vanished due to a lack of oil being pumped to replenish it, major engine damage takes place rapidly.  If the motor is not yet knocking or locked up, it will require major disassembly to determine the extent of the damage.  Typically all will seem fine and a few months down the road the engine will throw a rod, perhaps rendering the car totaled!
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My "oil" light came on and my car was 2 1/2 quarts low on oil!  How can this be?  I get my oil changed every 4 months religiously!
Chances are the last several times the oil was changed this critical point was almost reached.  It is holding a car to a very high standard to expect no oil consumption between oil changes.  This standard is questionable for a brand new car and totally unrealistic once some mileage is accrued.  Even if no drops are seen on the garage floor some oil will be consumed by burning and go out the tailpipe.  It is also possible for a small or major leak to develop at any time.  The only way the engine has a fighting chance of long term survival is if the dipstick is checked frequently!
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Recently my clutch pedal has been feeling looser and looser and the car has been getting hard to shift. Now the pedal has fallen to the floor and the car won't shift at all unless I shut the engine off. Do I need to get it towed in for a new clutch?
How about let's get it back on the road (for now at least) for under $3.00?  That's what a can of brake fluid costs.  Most modern clutches work not by cables or long rods but just like brakes do.  The clutch pedal is attached to a hydraulic pump--the "master" cylinder--that pushes fluid through tubing to the "slave" cylinder.  When fluid is pushed into the "slave" cylinder it pushes on a short rod--per the "master's" bidding--that disengages the clutch so you can shift.  The reservoir for your clutch is almost certainly empty due to a leak at one or both of these cylinders.  This reservoir will be found next to that for the brakes.   Occasionally the reservoir is shared, but usually next to the brake master cylinder reservoir is the smaller one for the clutch.  The positions of both correspond roughly to the location of the respective pedals except higher and on the opposite side of the firewall.  Fill the reservoir up with fresh brake fluid from an unopened can.  Brake fluid should not be kept for long after opening because it attracts moisture and becomes corrosive.  Lacking clutch/brake bleeding equipment you will now have to pump the pedal until you start to get tunnel carpal syndrome of the ankle.  Wait a while and do it some more and eventually your clutch should come back.  Call Don's or some other fine repair facility for an appointment to get the leaking cylinder(s) replaced without having to hire a tow truck, without the expense of an entire clutch, and with your car's "down time," (no more than one day) scheduled at your convenience.  You're welcome!
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OTHER
Can you help me find a used car?
Don's Automotive is not a used car dealership and we are not real current on used car prices, nor do we have an inside track on used cars for sale. Most of our clients are the type who only get rid of a car if it has a problem, so we rarely get the opportunity to match a buyer and seller. However, we can offer some advice on what to look out for:

1. SUVs tend to be pricey for their relative condition and age. If an SUV has some form of four-wheel or "all-wheel" drive, it will be a great deal more expensive yet to purchase. It will tend to get poorer fuel mileage, have a poorer ride, be less safe and cost a great deal more to repair than a 2-wheel drive model. We ask you to seriously consider if you have a real need for 4-wheel drive that justifies all the above compromises. When we put a 4-wheel drive model on the lift it is obvious 95% of the time that the 4-wheel drive has been used rarely if ever. Now if you are planning a new career herding cattle in Wyoming it might be different matter!

2. Beware of "we tote the note" type car lots.  In order to offset the cost of covering poor credit risks the vehicles are invariably priced at 2-3 times their value or more.  They have likely been through a few repos already.

3. Never go car shopping desperate to buy a car immediately.  If you cannot avoid this situation at least do your utmost to conceal the urgency from the seller who will invariably turn it to his/her advantage and your disadvantage.  If you have to rent a crappy little sub-compact for two weeks to alleviate the pressure this expense will likely be more than offset by your being able to make a better choice in your new car.

4. With the possible exception of an almost new car still under factory warranty, or a car that is almost free, there is no situation that does not need a buyer's check.  This is no less true between family and friends.  Should a problem arise later it is important to know that it was unforeseeable.  Perhaps the seller honestly thinks he/she is helping a friend and does not have the car savvy to know that a major headache is about to change hands!  Anytime a seller impedes a buyer's check it is time to walk away!  If the seller attempts to pressure you by telling you about all the other people in line eager to buy the vehicle it is probably not meant for you!

5. There is an underground industry that consists of buying cars that have been totalled by an insurance company due to a major wreck or flood.  These cars become the property of the insurance companies when the loss is settled and then go to a "salvage pool" auction.  In Texas such a car has its title branded with the term "reconditioned"--a mark of Cain!  The car will sport a fresh paint job but have all manner of overwhelming problems underneath the shine.  Don's Automotive does not waste the time to perform buyers' checks on these and cannot recommend their purchase at any price.  You have to be careful because often these cars are offered for sale by a family member--often a UT student--who fronts for the operation to make it appear like an innocent private sale.  The key is to ask if the car has a "salvage title" and unless the answer is an offended "absolutely not" walk away or hang up the phone.

6. Extended warranties are not recommended.  Consumer Reports has estimated they pay an average of 11 cents in claims for every dollar spent.  This means that on the average you will come out ahead only if you buy a car with 9-10 times the industry average of anticipated service trouble!  The "bumper-to-bumper" extended warranties are hardly that and are full of loopholes and the insurers practice all manner of devious methods to avoid paying claims.  The extended service policies sold by new car dealerships are frequently no better than any other.

7. Toyota Corollas are famous for their trouble-free longevity.  If you buy one that says "Prizm" it came off the same assembly line in California as the Toyota Corolla and can be purchased for considerably less.

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Is Don's Automotive a good place to get a routine oil change? 
 
PRO:

1.  Personal attention and recommendations offered as if the car belonged to one of us or a family member

2.  No sales quotas imposed by a corporate office, so no dubious "upsells" are pushed.  Many "flushes" are known in the trade as "wallet flushes."  Special oil for vehicles with over 75k miles is a fraud.     

3.  Coolant checked in radiator -- not just in the reserve bottle.  

4.  Tires properly inflated to vehicle manufacturer's specs for make, model, tire size, front and rear position etc.  rather than some arbitrary figure.  Please note the inflation pressure printed on the tire is a MAXIMUM SAFE INFLATION and not a recommendation.  Proper tire inflation is dependent on many parameters of which the tire selected is only one.  The rest are specific to the vehicle.  The information is placed on the doorjamb by the vehicle manufacturer but, unfortunately, rarely heeded.

5.  We have NEVER stripped out the drain plug threads on a Honda oil pan.  We HAVE replaced lots of Honda oil pans stripped out elsewhere.

6.  We recommend an oil and filter change interval of every 5000 miles -- just fine for Texas which does not subject vehicles to the prolonged warmup that cold climates do.  The lube franchises are pushing for every 3000 miles -- which if followed will eat up much of the perceived savings.

7.  We stock  the proprietary Honda and Toyota transmission fluids and differential fluids need to properly service these vehicles.

8.  We will not cause a "check engine" light on your vehicle by improperly servicing the air filter. We frequently fix "check engine" lights when wiring or vacuum hoses were not properly reattached to the air intake.

9.  We respect factory service recommendations as opposed to writing our own for no reason other than to boost an oil and filter change from "loss leader" to profitable status.   

10.  We will check your service history regarding all aspects of the vehicle's needs when the oil and filter change is performed.  

          CON:

1.  Significantly higher price -- varies according to exactly what is performed, cost of lubricants specified for your car etc. 

2.  The convenience of while-you-wait, no-appointment service at locations all over town is NOT offered.  The vehicle will need to be left with us. We are a small shop.   

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