1st generation Honda Odyssey: Nice SUV alternative  


One of the better car buying decisions I made was when I bought a used 1995 Honda Odyssey. I've had it for about two years now, and it has been cheap and very reliable. This is actually an Accord based van, so it has a 4 cylinder.

Fuel mileage ratings are 18/22, which is just OK for its time, but you can still find clean 1st Gen Odysseys (1995-1998) for under $4,000 that will probably run forever. An interesting note about the 1st Gen Odyssey is that while Honda kept making this smaller, 4 cylinder based van for the rest of the world, North America got the bigger gas guzzling v-6 model starting in 1999.

The van seats 7, has fold down rear seats, and has plenty of cargo space. If I were to get another one, I would probably get a 1996-1998 model with OBD-II diagnostics, so that I could hook up my ScanGauge II to track fuel mileage. If you are looking for a reliable, cheap, no-frills, SUV alternative, consider an Odyssey 1st Gen.


Postal Service fuel economy drops with alternative fuel vehicles  


According to a blog post at the Wall Street Journal here, the U.S. Postal Service, between 1999 and 2005, purchased about 30,000 flex-fuel Ford Explorers in order to satisfy a 1992 mandate that a certain percentage of government vehicles be capable of running on alternative fuels.

The problem was that there was only limited availability of E85, so most of the vehicles were run on regular gasoline, but got 29% fewer miles per gallon than the vehicles they replaced.

Woops, nothing "Green" about that. Wouldn't it be cool to see Walt the Postman driving a Honda Fit, or maybe a Ford Escape hybrid? Either would've been a way better choice.


Time.com: 10 Things You Can Like About $4 Gas  


I came across a great article at Time.com called 10 Things You can Like About $4 Gas. The article suggests that high gas prices can reduce insurance costs, pollution, traffic deaths, and even promote healthier lifestyles. Number 5, More Frugality, touches on car stuff, and even talks about hyper-miling.

Anyway, the article got me thinking about how carpooling can be an excellent way to turn a gas sucking SUV into a "commuter bus" for coworkers. Even 2 or 3 people sharing a ride can greatly increase the miles per gallon per person, and by sharing the fuel costs, the riders will save money as well.

Are we reaching the tipping point where people who might have never considered ride sharing in the past, might now participate as a way to cut back on costs? I think so.


Real world tips to increase fuel economy  


Here are some basic proven tips to increase fuel economy. Keep in mind that there usually isn’t one big change that will magically double your mileage. The key to success for me was to make many small changes that had a cumulative effect.

• Tire pressure- Some people call this a myth, but there is no myth. Higher pressure equals less rolling resistance, which means better fuel economy. At the very least you should maintain the manufacturer’s recommended inflation pressure. Check your tire pressure at least every 30 days. Many people have increased their tire pressure beyond the recommended inflation pressure and seen even greater increases in fuel economy, but I wouldn’t recommend this, unless you understand the trade offs and potential safety risks in doing so, mainly less traction. I increased my tire pressure to 35 psi, which is slightly above the recommended pressure, but still well below the max sidewall pressure, and was able to see a measurable increase in mileage. There is an excellent site called www.cleanmpg.com that has some articles and discussion around the risks and benefits of higher than normal tire pressures.

• Low rolling resistance tires - Buy tires with lower rolling resistance. Consumer Reports.org includes tire rolling resistance testing in their tire test, and they claim it can save 1-2 mpg. Sounds reasonable to me. It probably doesn’t make financial sense to run out and buy them now, but consider rolling resistance when your car is ready for tires.

• Oxygen (O2) sensors – Most fuel economy guides overlook this one, but a faulty oxygen sensor can have a significant impact on fuel economy. O2 sensors diminish with age. Older sensors become sluggish and their voltage drops, causing the sensor to show leaner that it actually is. This will make your car run richer, and use more fuel.

• Synthetic oil - I recommend switching to synthetic motor oil, and using the lightest grade recommended by your vehicle manufacturer, which is often 5w-30. Just do me a favor, don’t ask me to justify the cost. I’m not sure the minimal increases in fuel mileage justify the added cost of the oil, but there are additional benefits, such as better engine protection, longer oil change durations, and longer engine life. WWW.cleanmpg.com has some discussions around using lower than recommended viscosity for additional fuel efficiency.

• Spark plugs and ignition wires – Check you vehicle’s maintenance schedule for the recommended replacement interval and stick to it.

• Get rid of the roof rack. It reduces wind resistance and some estimates put savings at 1 or 2 mpg. If you are carrying around one of those giant Thule luggage carriers, then your savings will be substantially higher.

• If you have 4 wheel drive, turn it off. Most cars should see better fuel economy in 2 wheel drive mode. Better yet, buy the 2 wheel drive model next time, which is less expensive to buy, maintain, and operate.

• Consider getting a manual transmission on your next car. They are usually more efficient, and they give the driver more flexibility to maximize fuel saving techniques while driving.


Consider using a AAA approved auto repair shop  


My last article mentioned how AAA approved shops are a great way to find a competent, honest auto repair facility. I wanted to share with others why I feel this way, and illustrate a true story involving AAA and how they resolved a repair issue with a customer's car. Keep in mind that I have no ties at all to AAA, other than being a member.

The requirements to become a AAA approved auto repair shop are pretty stringent. A shop needs to have ASE certified techs in each area of repair. The shop is inspected for the proper equipment and facilities, including cleanliness. Surveys are done of past customers to determine satisfaction. If you do a search for approved shops at AAA.com, you will probably not find that many in your area. I believe this is because there just aren't that many shops able or willing to raise the quality of their business to the level required for AAA approval. If you have a local AAA approved shop near you, I recommend that you at least check it out, and apply my criteria mentioned in my prior blog. I bet you will find that the shop passes all of my tests.

The best part of the AAA deal, in my opinion, is that should anything ever turn ugly, you can go to AAA and they will mediate for you. They have a lot of leverage against their approved shops, and can make things right quickly. That is assuming you are being reasonable, of course. It also assumes you are a AAA member. Keep in mind though, that even if you aren't a AAA member, you can still get the list of AAA approved shops and check them out. You just aren't going to get AAA to go to bat for you if there is a problem.

OK, so here is the story that illustrates my point. Now keep in mind that the shop in question was not a AAA approved auto repair facility, but was a AAA approved towing facility used by AAA. A customer was driving a 1986 Nissan 300ZX. The car dies in Newark, NJ, so he calls AAA for a tow. The tow truck tows the car back to its own shop in Elizabeth, NJ. They diagnose the problem as a bad fuel pump. Unfortunately, the new fuel pump quickly broke, and the customer got a run around from the shop, and got charged for hundreds of dollars worth of additional repairs all in an effort to solve the mysterious fuel pump issue.

Eventually, the customer comes in to my employer's shop with the Nissan and explains the situation. Sure enough, the car has yet another bad fuel pump, so we install a new fuel pump and check fuel pressure. We quickly determined that the fuel pressure regulator was stuck closed, forcing the pump to run at max resistance, which will quickly destroy the fuel pump. We ordered up a $36.00 regulator and the problem was solved.

The AAA towing shop refused to offer the customer a refund. The customer presented the case to AAA, and shortly thereafter received a check from the AAA shop for a full refund. Without AAA's leverage here, the customer would have had to go to small claims court to get any type of refund at all.


How to find a good auto repair shop  


As an Auto Tech I worked in three different repair shops. As an automotive equipment salesman, I have walked into and talked with literally hundreds of shops. It became easy to separate the successful, thriving shops from the poorly run, burned out shops, simply by their appearance, attitude, and equipment. I wanted to share my observations so that others can be successful in finding a high quality, honest repair shop.

One of the best ways I have found to locate a great auto repair shop is through word of mouth. Ask around. If someone is raving about a great shop, then do your online research, and go check them out.

First things first – Before walking into a shop, let’s do some checking online.
  • Do a Google search on the shop name, address and phone number. There are too many sites out there that report on auto repair scams, so I find a general search to be best. I recommend searching on the address and phone number separately just in case the shop changes names to avoid bad publicity. If you know the owner’s name, search on that too.
  • Go to BBB.org, and again search on name, address and phone number. Look for a history of complaints.
  • Go to autorepair.iatn.netand look for shops in your area that have technicians who are IATN members. IATN, or International Automotive Technician’s Network, is an online community exclusively for automotive professionals. IATN membership does not necessarily guarantee a great repair shop, but it’s a step in the right direction. At least you have a tech who is computer literate and is actively involved in his or her profession. A bonus is that you actually be able to identify the name of the IATN member. You can google the name, or even ask for him or her by name when you visit the shop.
  • Go to www.AAA.com and pull up a list of AAA approved auto repair facilities in your area. AAA has fairly stringent requirements for their approved facilities, so they are doing much of the work for you. I would consider AAA approval to be one of the bests indicators I know of to identify an honest, well equipped auto repair facility.
  • Some shops participate in the ASE Blue Seal program and can be located online here ASE Blue Seal link. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is the leading certification program for automotive technicians, and is another good indicator of a high quality shop. Keep in mind that if a shop is not listed in the Blue Seal program, they may still have employees who are ASE certified.
OK, so hopefully by now you have at least a couple repair shops in mind based on your online efforts. Rather than call for an appointment, why not go and ask for an appointment in person? This way you can inspect the shop on your first visit, before handing over the keys to your car. Don’t expect to have your car serviced right away, even though some shops may be able to do so. Most high quality shops tend to also be very busy shops, and will usually require an appointment.
  • Outside appearance – The outside should be clean and well lit. If you see used auto parts laying around, then just ask for directions and run away. Is the landscaping maintained? So many times the answer is no. If the management can’t keep up with the outside appearance, what else are they missing?
  • Look for signs of pride – You’ll not only see this on the outside, but everywhere. The office, shop, outside, bathrooms, should all be clean and welcoming. You should be greeted warmly. In larger shops, someone should always be at the counter. In smaller shops though, with only one or two people, you may have to wait a minute or two for the owner or Tech to stop what they are doing to greet you. I find this acceptable as long as they are pleasant and happy to see you.
  • Look for ASE signs or certifications hanging on the wall. The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence is the leading certification program for automotive technicians. Their site is www.asecert.org. ASE certification is no guarantee, but it shows that someone in the shop has seen the long term benefit in taking the time to read, study and pass the exams. What you really want to check for is a technician who is a Master Automobile Technician, meaning they have passed all 8 areas of auto repair certification.

Great! So you found a very promising shop and now are ready to let them service your car. I would suggest that you start off by letting them perform some routine maintenance, like an oil change. This allows you to test them out without having much at stake. If they treat you well, then you can always come back for more. I always recommend finding a great shop before you need major repairs. Having your car coming into the shop on the back of a tow truck doesn’t exactly give you a lot of leverage.

Also, I recommend that you treat your local auto repair shop as nicely as they treat you. What I mean is, let them do all of your repairs, not just the tough ones. Let them service your car on the easy (and profitable) stuff like tires, oil changes, and routine maintenance. Your will gain their loyalty, so that when your car is broken down, or you are in a pinch, they will go out of their way to accommodate you. Its kind of like getting a table at your favorite restaurant when they are all booked up. They always make room for their loyal customers.


Tips on buying a used car from a dealer  


I have a friend, let's call him Mike, who recently bought a used car from a used car dealer and is going to get burned. Price was right, and he even took the car for a test drive and everything seemed fine.

Mike decides to buy the car, puts $4,000 cash on the table, and is now the proud owner of a 1999 nightmare. Two hours after driving off the lot, the Service Engine soon light comes on, along with a flashing OD indicator light. Not good. Not only did Mike buy the car as-is, he also waived the state requirement that a car dealer guarantee that the car will pass inspection.

Turns out the car may need a transmission, and it is starting to look like Mike will have no recourse against the dealer. This is still an ongoing saga, so there is no final chapter, but I thought it was a glaring example of how not to buy a used car. I got me thinking of all the precautions that I would take when buying a used car. I thought I would list my opinions here and see if other people could add to the list:

  • Never buy a used car from a dealer without a warranty. If the dealer isn't going to stand behind the car, at least for 30 days, then you might as well buy private and pay less.
  • Ask the dealer for the Carfax report. They should be able to print it on the spot. You can get this yourself for $29.99 at carfax.com, but why pay when the dealer should have instant access? I have run a Carfax report against every used car I've bought in the last three years. There is a wealth of information in the report, such as prior accidents, title changes, insurance claims, mileage indicators, etc.
  • Take the car on a long test drive on both local roads and highways. Bring a friend to help listen for noises and vibrations. Check for steady and smooth braking.
  • Check every single device on the car. Lights, horn, wipers, radio, all power windows, seats, everything. Push every button. I would expect everything to work if buying a car from a dealer.
  • Check the tires for even wear. Check for a spare tire and jack.
  • Take a really close look at the paint and body. Any flaws? Any dull spots? Any overspray on the moulding or trim?
  • Look for signs of high mileage. Are the pedals unusually worn for the mileage? Check the door hinges by lifting the open door up and down to look for play. Check the seat cushion and upholstery for signs of high use.
  • Have the car checked by a competent repair facility. A comprehensive inspection could easily cost $100, but is well worth it.