Most of us don’t like surprises when it comes to our cars, especially the kind that leave us stranded on the highway in bad weather.
In the magazine’s annual auto issue, the editors of Consumer Reports provide advice on how to avoid unwelcome surprises like blowouts, dead batteries, blown fuses, and broken drive belts, and suggest how to deal with them if they do happen.
1. Dead Battery: This is often the culprit when the engine won’t turn over or start. All batteries will weaken over time. Certain activities can leave the battery undercharged, like infrequent use, a lot of short trips, or using multiple accessories when the headlights are on. Even forgetting to turn off a light or listening to the radio with the engine off can drain the juice out of your battery, making it too weak to start when you need it.
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How to prevent it: Although the effect of a drained battery often shows up on cold mornings, it's the high temperatures of summer that usually do the most damage. So a battery can fail at any time. Be sure to have the battery and alternator tested as part of an annual inspection.
2. Flat tire or blowout: Flats and blowouts can be caused by road hazards, a tire defect, or lack of care, and can cause you to lose control of the vehicle. If you experience either of these, Consumer Reports recommends taking a firm grip of the wheel and gently guiding the car off the road as soon as possible.
How to prevent it: Many tire problems result from underinflated tires that overheat, due to low tire pressure. Keep all tires, including the spare, properly inflated to the automaker's recommended pressure by checking them monthly. Also, inspect the tire sidewalls for bulges or cracks.
3. Fluid leak: An undetected leak in a critical system can be devastating, possibly resulting in a blown engine or transmission or even brake failure.
How to prevent it: Check the car's fluid levels regularly, using your owner's manual as a guide. Look for leaks on the pavement where you park. Black drips are oil; green, orange, or yellow are coolant; and brown or reddish oily drips can be transmission or brake fluid. Any of those can spell trouble and warrant a trip to the mechanic to inspect your car.
4. Blown fuse: When a fuse goes, it can disable a critical electrical system, such as the headlights, defroster, or antilock brake system, any of which could lead to an accident.
What to do: You can't prevent an electrical problem, but a blown fuse should be the first thing you check if one happens. Consumer Reports recommends carrying a selection of spare fuses and a fuse puller in the car. Fuse kits can be purchased at auto parts stores. Be sure to check your owner's manual to make sure the fuses you buy are the correct amp rating and size. If the same fuse blows repeatedly, have a mechanic inspect the system.