Most of us learned how to drive a car at the elbow of one of our parents. Of course, Drivers Ed in high school gave us the fundaments so that we could pass the written exam and get a permit. But the nuts and bolts of keeping the vehicle between the curves and out of the ditch was done, in many cases, in the family car, van, SUV or truck. But I’m here to reveal that some of what you learned is what happens when things get handed down from father to son or mom to daughter or whatever combination worked at your house. Here are some of the lies that I learned and have had to un-learn as I got older.
Don’t Warm Up The Car – In the old days, motor oils were simple. They had lubricating properties and detergent molecules that did a decent job of keeping the engine in your vehicle from self destructing before the warranty ran out. But chemistry, like time, has marched on and today’s quality motor oils – even the non-synthetic variety – are a quantum leap above the lubricants sold as recent as a decade ago. In the past, on a cold day, the oil in the crankcase was thick, like honey, and didn’t flow well until it got close to full operating temperatures. It was normal for mom or dad to go outside on a winter day and start the car before leaving for work or taking the kids to school. Besides wasting fuel and polluting the air, an engine sitting at idle is experiencing the worst kind of operation. Today’s multi-viscosity oils flow properly, even when cold and if you start your car, drive off after clicking the seatbelt, checking your mirrors and setting the radio – let’s say 10 or 20 seconds – you should be able to drive off at a conservative pace and do no harm to your engine. Plus, a car warms up faster when it’s being driven. Running the engine at high RPM is not recommended until the engine is warm but driving at around-town speeds for a few miles is perfectly safe. It’s true that some companies sell remote starters so you can pre-warm your car’s engine and while the idea of getting in a warm car on a freezing cold day is tempting, but practically speaking, it’s a bad idea for engine life and really wastes gasoline.
The Myth of High Test Gas – Gasoline has an octane rating posted on every pump in the state. And while I know that in New Jersey, we have the benefit of gas station attendants pumping our gas for us (bless them!) if you peek at the signs, you will see that there are numbers associated with the different gasoline options. The numbers you see – most commonly 87 – 89 – 93 – correspond to the octane or anti-knock properties of each grade. These numbers do not mean that 93 is more powerful than 87. What it means is that the higher grade gas has added ingredients that prevent the fuel from igniting too soon. This “pre-ignition” is also knows knocking or pinging and is very bad for your engine. A severe knock or ping can blow a head gasket or even, in extreme cases, crack a piston. But chances are very good that your car can safely run on the least expensive gasoline offered – i.e., 87 octane. The reason is simple, most cars today are designed to run on that grade.
The higher octane grades are for cars with high compression engines like BMWs, Audis, Porsches – basically any sporty or high performance car. The engines in these vehicles have a higher internal compression meaning if a low octane fuel is run, there is a chance of a knock or a ping because the gas has ignited before the spark fires. When that happens, the piston is on it’s way up as the explosion happens – a bad thing. Happily, today’s electronically controlled engine have computer sensors and they sense when knocking is occurring and retard the timing so that the engine will not be damaged. Of course, this timing change decreases performance a little and may even lower your fuel mileage but, on a modern car, that’s about all that will happen.
The bottom line – buying more octane than your car needs (i.e., paying for high test when your car doesn’t require it) is a waste of money and doesn’t give a car that is designed to run on regular octane gas any more power or fuel economy.
Air Conditioning is Just for the Summer – Just about every modern car today has air conditioning or even climate control built in from the factory. The myth is that it’s there to keep you cool in the summer – period. FALSE!! Air-conditioning is as valuable in cool weather as it is in the warmer months and here is why. First, the biggest thing that a properly functioning air-con system does is remove moisture from inside the car. On a humid summer day, if you looked under a car with the air-con running, you would see a puddle of water building under the engine. This is the moisture being pulled out of the air. In the winter, there may be less moisture in the air (cold air holds less water vapor than warm air) but moisture still exists and can fog up your windows. That’s why running the air-conditioner with your car’s heater when you are trying to defrost the windows is a good idea. It speeds up the defrosting process – especially effective if you have a car full of people exhaling moist air from their lungs! Also, running your air-conditioner at least five minutes a week – even in the winter – is a good way to keep all of the seals in the hoses lubricated and leak free (the refrigerant in most systems has special chemicals that do that).
Pump Your Brakes – Remember the advice to pump your brakes if you feel the tires skidding? Well, today with anti-lock-brakes (ABS), the computer sensors at each wheel actually do a much better job of detecting a slipping wheel than you or I ever could and rhythmically pulses the individual brake that’s slipping so that it doesn’t lock up. The reason for that is simple – a locked tire cannot be steered. Only when a tire is rolling can it provide steering and give the driver the ability to change direction. Experts recommend that, when yo feel that unusual pulsing from your brake pedal during a panic stop that you keep pressing and try to steer the car out of danger. It feels counter intuitive the first time it happens so what teen driving schools like the Tire Rack Teen Survival program do is secure an empty parking lot, wet it down with soap and water and ask the students to panic stop. This gives them the chance to both learn what their ABS system feels and sounds like when called upon to save them and allows them to safely experience steering at the limit.
So, bottom line – if your car has working ABS brakes, let the computer pump your brakes for you and use the steering to get yourself out of trouble if you can.
There are a few more myths we’ll address soon (snow tires, oil additives, windshield wiper life expectancy, junk in the trunk) so stay tuned!