Planning the Future

Often when people turn 50 years old they decide to treat themselves to a little gift. That tradition was the genesis of the Honda S2000 sports car. It was designed to celebrate Honda's 50th anniversary, and it was first shown in the 1995 Tokyo Motor Show as the "sports study model," a kind of gift Honda gave itself. Even then, it was destined for production with three key markets in mind: Asia, Western Europe and North America.

Recently Driving Today got the opportunity to speak with the key American product planner behind the S2000, Peter Rech, who is assistant product planning manager for Honda cars and trucks. And he told us the key difference between the S2000 and other two-seat sports cars in the market today is Honda's race-bred engineering.

"The car was designed to bring Honda's racing spirit to the street," he said. "It epitomizes the engineering that has made Honda such a strong factor in Formula One and CART racing."

According to Rech the S2000 uses state-of-the-art tech to deliver the most advanced "sporty" handling on the road today.

"We wanted to bring the pleasure of driving to a wide range of audiences," he said.

The sports study model that appeared on the show stand in Tokyo in 1995 was a striking image, but the designers knew that some changes would be necessary to make the car a success in the steaming cauldron that is today's sports car market, a market that includes great products from BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Porsche and Mazda. One of the first things to go was the unique "double-cabin" configuration intended to give the car a true racing car feel. But separating the driver from the passenger proved to be too radical idea even for this leading-edge design.

Still, even though the twin-cabin motif disappeared, the S2000 is still as close as you can get to a formula race car and still be street legal. And Honda technical innovation is in evidence throughout.

Take, for example, the lightweight, all-alloy 2-liter engine. Most advanced 2-liters these days produce 130-150 horsepower. The S2000's four cylinder engine wrings out an amazing 240 horsepower. How? By using racing technology - components like forged pistons and roller cams. To keep it all very light, the materials used are all F1 spec.

Backing up the over-achieving engine is a close-ratio 6-speed manual transmission that also owes its inspiration to racing. With the gear ratios tight and the throws very short, skillful drivers will find themselves losing very few rpm with each shift, and keeping that sweet engine at full song near its 9,000-rpm redline is one way to keep the countryside moving by very rapidly. Just to give you a little taste of its prowess, the 0-60-mph sprint can be made in under six seconds - supercar-caliber acceleration.

Of course, power means very little if the chassis and suspension can't keep the car glued to the pavement. That's another area where the S2000 shines.

First, even though we live in an age of front-wheel-drive, this car was designed from the beginning as a rear-drive platform. Going that route made it considerably more expensive to engineer and develop, but the results are something no heavily tweaked front-drive passenger car could ever dream of.

The "X-Bone" chassis is exceedingly stiff, and its high torsional rigidity allows the suspension componentry to work to the optimum. And, as Rech said, Honda didn't skimp at all on the suspension design. Both front and rear are all-independent, double-wishbone designs: race-proven technology engineered with race-proven lightweight materials. The design and engineering were so flawless that the S2000 offers perfect 50/50 front/rear weight distribution.

Most sports cars that approach the S2000's performance numbers beat their drivers up with an uncomfortable ride and appalling lack of creature comforts, but, for all of the S2000's single-minded pursuit of the racing car ethos, Rech insisted that it still be a civilized car in which to ride.

"In positioning the car at this price point, I knew we had to have features like limited-slip [differential], a power top and leather seats," Rech said.

Honda is known for its top-of-the-line interior ergonomics, but the S2000 takes its reputation one step further. Every lever and control seems to be just an extension of the driver. One example Rech cited are the steering-wheel-mounted radio controls that allow you to change stations and settings without ever diverting your attention from where it belongs - down the road. The pedals are positioned to encourage drivers to "heel-and-toe" to keep the revs percolating, and the perforated leather seats grip you like a giant driving glove.

With all this emphasis on performance one might guess that the S2000 comes up short in other areas, like its attention to the environment or occupant safety, but Rech says it has those bases covered, too. The S2000 is certified as a LEV (low-emission vehicle) thanks to its high-tech computerized engine controls and new-age catalytic converter. The S2000 is also highly rated in terms of its side-impact protection, an especially difficult feat for a small, lightweight vehicle.

So after all the planning sessions were over and the design was locked in, did the production S2000 live up to its American product planner's hopes and dreams? Absolutely, according to Rech.

"The feeling of being connected to the car is like no other I've ever driven," he said. "The engine and transmission are so well synced that it's just like driving a race car."

The S2000 went on sale in North America on September 16 and with only 5,000-6,000 of its 15,000-unit annual production destined for North America, it seems likely to be in short-supply throughout the model year. At just $32,000, it offers all the high-tech componentry of an exoticar at a fraction of the cost, and, on top of that, it delivers the quality and reliability of a Honda - quite a parlay.

As we said, the S2000 was designed as a present Honda gave itself for its 50th birthday, and it's our guess the S2000 is likely to be a birthday gift many 50-year-olds give themselves.

Cars on Film

As we said earlier this year in our look at racing pictures, movies are meant to move. When plot bogs down and characterization is going nowhere, you can trust the savvy director to toss in a car chase. From "A Night in Casablanca" to "Speed," the sight of cars careening wildly through city streets or country lanes adds a level of excitement to a motion picture that would often otherwise be sadly lacking. Cars and movies seem to be made for one another.

But what about movies that in some way or other revolve around cars? Do they capture the essence of our collective love affair with the automobile or do they wind up missing the point?

In our humble estimation, some car flicks hit the nail squarely on the head. Others are wildly off the mark. But even at their worst, when the plot is dismally predictable or sadly laughable, you can still enjoy the images of cool cars flashing across the screen.

So, without further ado, pop up some (more) corn, settle into your easy chair and get ready to re-live some of the most notable car movies of all time.

Hot Rods To Hell (1967)

In this classic "so-bad-it's-good" movie from the mid-Sixties, screen veteran Dana Andrews is disabled in a car wreck and decides to move his family to the desert and operate a motel. But on his way from his unnamed East Coast hometown, his family is beset and bedeviled by local kids driving souped-up cars. Oh my! It seems the motel Andrews' character is set to take over sells beer to underage kids, so those young hellions can't stand to see the old guy, the hero of the classic Otto Preminger movie "Laura," get control of the place. Even worse, one of the young hot rodders, Paul Bertoya, puts the moves on Andrews' comely teenage daughter, played by Mimsy Farmer. Jeanne Crain portrays her mother in a performance that consists primarily of her proclaiming "Oh, no!" while wringing her hands. As the tagline warned: Call them punks, call them animals but you better get out of their way!

Two-Lane Blacktop (1971)

They live to race; they race to live. That describes the two main characters in this film that's so minimalist the characters don't have names. Singer James Taylor is the driver of the primer-gray '55 Chevrolet; Beach Boy drummer Dennis Wilson, who was later to meet his death in a diving accident, is the mechanic. As the laconic drama unfolds, the duo travel across the southwestern United States looking for worthy racing opponents. Along the way they run into veteran character actor Warren Oates, the driver of a GTO, who challenges them to a race to Washington, D.C., where the winner will get the loser's car. Laurie Bird is "The Girl," who does, well, girl things. It's not for everyone, but if you get into the rhythm of this one, it's really not bad.

Crazy Larry, Dirty Mary (1974)

Can you say drive-in movie? This is the perfect accompaniment to fresh buttered popcorn and a front seat smooch, and, appropriately enough, the first time this reviewer saw this picture was at the Route 66 Drive-in in Countryside, Illinois, in 1974. Peter Fonda, relatively fresh from "Easy Rider," is Larry, and Susan George is his main squeeze, Mary. They're two fairly likable young people who decide to kidnap the daughter of a grocery storeowner and then escape with the ransom. Whenever the plot seems to wane, director John Hough is smart enough to toss in a fairly engaging car chase, and Larry's Dodge Charger becomes the unsung star of the film. If you go into this one with low expectations, you'll be rewarded with an entertainingly low-brow film.

Death Race 2000 (1975)

What better way to welcome the new millennium than with this, another from the "it's-so-bad-it's-good" school of film-making. With a cast that includes David Carradine as Frankenstein and a pre-"Rocky" Sylvester Stallone as Machine-Gun Joe Viterbo, how could this be anything else? The premise is that in the year 2000 road racing has evolved into a death sport in which competitors get points for running over pedestrians, seemingly anticipating something on its way from Fox or the WB. The only problem is, they warn the pedestrians, so when the racers roll through, they're lying low. Still there's some completely politically incorrect carnage, including several folks in wheelchairs and on crutches biting the dust. Included are some wacky "political statements," now so anachronistic that they only add to the fun. Topping it all off, the racecars are some of the weirdest damn dune buggies you'll ever see.

Vanishing Point (1971)

In some ways this underrated film is the Holy Grail of car movies. Directed by Richard C. Sarafian, it has just the right texture and gritty feel, as if screenwriters Malcolm Hart and Guillermo Cain had actually been sniffing nitro. Barry Newman gives a surprisingly evocative performance as Kowalski, who overdoses on speed, literally and figuratively, and spends the rest of the movie trying to outrun the cops. Along the way, a blind disk jockey, portrayed by Cleavon Little, catches on to Kowalski's predicament and makes him the subject of a long pre-rap rap. The driving footage is tremendous as Newman, at the wheel of a muscle car, rockets through the wide-empty landscape between Denver and San Francisco, pursued by the cops the whole way. The classic ending makes the conclusion to "Thelma and Louise" seem wimpy in comparison.

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad is currently working on screenplay based on his recent Avon true crime book, Fatal Photographs.

Dealer Invoice Pricing

One of the unique aspects of the auto industry is that you can find out, virtually to the penny, what the retailer paid for the product he's about to sell you. Just try to find out what Sears paid for the Frigidaire refrigerator you're about to buy. Or make an attempt to discover what Circuit City paid for the High-Definition Sony TV you're looking at so longingly. You will find the going tough, if not impossible.

But when it comes to the auto industry, if you have access to the Web, and one presumes you must since you're reading this, then you have almost instant access to sources of so-called "dealer invoice pricing." The dealer invoice is, of course, the price the dealer pays the factory (or distributor, in the case of the imports) for an individual vehicle. Just log onto one of several Web sites that offer the detailed information and you can quickly and painlessly tote up what the dealer paid for a vehicle equipped exactly as you want it, base price and options included. In fact, some of the sites have "calculators" that will do the toting for you. And the cost to you is a very reasonable free.

Among the sites that offer this potentially valuable information are Kelley Blue Book, Edmunds Publishing, and two that are linked directly through the Driving Today web guide - MSN CarPoint and IntelliChoice. My advice is, you might as well log on because knowing the dealer invoice price for the vehicle you want to buy can be a very valuable piece of information. As the guy who wrote The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying and Leasing a Car (which is available from Amazon, Barnesand Noble and the friendly local bookstore near you), I recommend very strenuously that you avail yourself of this information. But I must also recommend that you be careful how you use it. Because it is my view that having the dealer invoice price might not get you a good deal, but it might bring you a great deal of frustration.

What You Should Pay for a Car

In preparing to write The Complete Idiot's Guide, I drew on my experience as Editor of Motor Trend magazine, Auto Age magazine (a dealer publication) and Director of Publications for J.D. Power and Associates. In addition I talked with a number of dealers and on-the-floor car salespeople, and I spent more than two years working within an auto manufacturer-distributor. From this you might gather I know whereof I speak. And based on all this experience I get more than a little peeved when a so-called "car-buying expert" says on a TV talk show or writes in the pages of a magazine that the "fair price" for a vehicle is X dollars over dealer invoice, usually a number like $400 or $500. Other quasi-experts even suggest that you the consumer demand that the dealer sell at the invoice price, relying on the elusive concept of "holdback" to give the dealer his requisite profit.

This does both you, the consumer, and the dealer an enormous disservice. First I defy anyone to define exactly what a "fair price" or "fair profit" is. It strikes me that definition is utterly in the eye of the beholder. Second, and equally important, sometimes $400 or $500 over invoice is way too little to pay and sometimes it's way too much.

Just as I tell the car-buying classes that I've been teaching for more than three years now, simply having the dealer invoice price in your hands won't guarantee that you'll get a good deal. And trying to goad the dealer into selling you the car you want for invoice price plus a few dollars is a recipe for customer dissatisfaction. On top of it, you might still end up paying too much for your particular vehicle. Why? Just because of a natural law called supply-and-demand.

Let's say you want one of the sport utility vehicles that are so hot today. Do you really think the dealer is going to forego a legitimate big-profit opportunity and instead sell you a $30,000 vehicle for a $500 gross (that's pre-expense, folks) profit? In other words, is a dealer expected to sell a 30 grand piece of equipment for a 1.7% profit BEFORE EXPENSES? Come on! And do you think holdback will add a bunch to the dealer's profit. Maybe two or three percent is the absolute max. Now how much gross profit do you think a jewelry store expects to get when it sells you a $30,000 ring? You can bet it's one huge amount more than 2-3%. Unless you're one of the last of the Communists, you've got to believe that a dealer needs and deserves to earn at least enough gross profit in every deal to pay all his expenses (things like personnel, rent, advertising, etc.) and make some money for his efforts. Frankly, that ain't going to happen on a 2% gross profit. So if you go into! a dealership asking to get the deal that most of these self-proclaimed experts say you should get, you will be rudely disappointed. The dealer can't sell that low and stay in business.

On the other hand, sometimes if you buy a car at $500 over invoice or even right at invoice, you're actually getting a bad deal. How can this be, you ask, especially after reading the previous paragraph? That's right, supply-and-demand.

Let's say that you set out to buy a car or truck that isn't real hot in the marketplace. What is the dynamic there? Well, the first thing you should know is that once manufacturers/distributors have established Manufacturer's Suggested List Prices (the fabled MSRP) and their accompanying dealer invoice prices, they are very loathe to lower them. To understand why you'd have to talk with their shrinks, but take it from me, they don't. They'll raise prices without batting an eye, but lower them? It's rare as a cocktail reception at an A.A. convention.

What they do when they encounter a lack of demand is 1. Offer you, the consumer, cash or special financing deals or 2. Offer the dealer a cash bounty for every one of the slow- or even average-movers that he/she sells.

Of these two options, Number 1 is easier to understand and deal with. The sticker says $15,000 (and the invoice price is, say, $13,500) but there's a $1,000 cash-back offer. Since $15,000 minus $1,000 equals $14,000, it might look to you like you've achieved that mystical $500-over-invoice deal. Sorry, pal, if you just take the grand and make it part of your down payment or if you pocket the dough, the dealer is still (most often) getting most, if not all of his (in this case 10%) gross profit. You probably could do better.

Number two, of course, is much more nebulous because you, the typical person-on-the-street, have no idea and pretty much no reliable way to find out the current cash bounty or, in industry parlance, "factory cash" being put against the vehicle you are about to buy. And it could be a big hunk of change - as much as $5,000. So if you walk into a dealership to buy a slow-seller and the dealer writes you a deal at invoice price - he'll probably be happy to show you the actual invoice - he might well be walking away from your deal with a $5,000 gross profit plus a little holdback. On a $40,000 car, that's a 12.5% profit, not bad at all in automotive terms.

So what to do? Shop, compare prices and make several dealers compete for your business. You should do this whether or not you have obtained dealer invoice pricing, and if you've got the dealer invoice you'll have another tool by which you can judge the deal. But, the key to a good deal is not having dealer invoice pricing in hand; the key to a good deal is making supply-and-demand - the push-and-pull of the marketplace -- work for you rather than against you.

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad's book, The Complete Idiot's Guide to Buying or Leasing a Car, is published by Alpha Books, a division of Macmillan.

The Celluloid Oval

Watch somebody else drive fast for a change.

Movies are meant to move. And nothing puts more zip in the typical action picture than a great car chase. From The Bank Dick to Bullitt to The French Connection to Speed, vehicles in motion have lent a great deal of luster to the flickering images on the silver screen. Sadly, however, moviemakers have been far less successful in capturing the drama, excitement, thrills and competition of motor racing.

Because cars and the movies grew along roughly parallel paths, motion pictures have, from the beginning, done stories about racing. And though some have come closer than others to delivering the real experience with some degree of accuracy and believability, they have, all in all, pretty much missed the mark. Still, for those who love driving, a racing movie, however flawed, can still provide a great deal of pleasure. If the romantic sub-plots are laughable and the racing action sometimes gets hilariously out there, well, all that’s part of the fun.

So, without further ado, pop up some corn, settle into your easy chair and get ready to re-live some of the most notable racing movies of all time.

The Big Wheel (1949)

Can you picture Mickey Rooney as a race car driver? Well, it’s not so ludicrous as it might at first sound. Mickey is a young kid whose father died at Indianapolis. Now he wants his chance at the wheel in the Indy 500, but first he has to convince Red, played by legendary character actor Thomas Mitchell, that he’s ready for the big one. Spring Byington, known to older Baby Boomers for her role in the long-running TV series December Bride, has a featured role. The racing footage includes several genuine Indy car racers including George Lynch, whose crash into the wall is memorialized on film.

Spinout (1966)

Can’t picture Mickey Rooney as a race driver? How about Elvis Presley? In this typical E-Man vehicle, Presley is cast as a race car driver who’s haunted by his tendency to — you guessed it — spin out. Shelley Fabares of The Donna Reed Show and Coach plays the love interest. Between races Elvis croons such unmemorable tunes as Beach Shack, Adam and Evil, and Smorgasbord. As its advertising tagline claimed: "It’s Elvis with his foot on the gas and no brakes on the fun!!!" Need we say more?

Grand Prix (1966)

Director John Frankenheimer, who’s perhaps best known for The Manchurian Candidate, took a distinctly more serious view of racing than did Norman Taurog in Spinout. James Garner plays Formula One driver Pete Aron, who gets involved in a shunt that injures British teammate Scott Stoddard (portrayed by Brian Bedford) and is booted from the team. If that ain’t bad enough, Aron then gets involved with Stoddard’s wife, while getting a ride with the up-and-coming Yamura team. Jessica Walter, perhaps most remembered as the obsessive fan in Play Misty for Me, is the two-timing wife. Yves Montand and Antonio Sabato add European color, while Eva Marie Saint plays an American journalist with amour on her mind. Frankenheimer went to unusual lengths to get realistic racing footage and, 30 years later, it’s still as good as any ever put on film.

Speedway (1968)

Elvis was such a hotshoe in Spinout that his handlers decided to follow it up two years later with another racing flick, Speedway. This time around he’s a successful driver who gets into trouble with the IRS thanks to his conniving manager, portrayed by Bill Bixby of My Favorite Martian fame. Nancy Sinatra is the quote-unquote love interest in the piece, playing an IRS tax auditor. (These boots were made for auditing.) Also featured is Gale Gordon of The Lucy Show. Real-life racers Richard Petty and Cale Yarborough lend some authenticity to the proceedings, but the racing action is ridiculous anyway.


The real-life married couple of Joanne Woodward and Paul Newman play a pair whose marriage is threatened by an insatiable desire to win. Newman is Frank Capua, a rising star on the Indy car circuit. Robert Wagner is Luther Erding, his chief rival, not only on the track, but also for his wife’s affections. Richard Thomas, who would later gain attention in The Waltons, plays Capua’s stepson, who is upset by his stepfather’s single-minded pursuit of fame. Bobby Unser and Tony Hulman (of Indianapolis 500 fame) portray themselves in the film that whetted Newman’s appetite for racing. In future years Newman would go on to become an accomplished driver and racing team owner.

Bobby Deerfield (1977)

Lately director Sydney Pollack has graced the screen in a featured performance in Stanley Kubrick’s last film, the Tom Cruise-Nicole Kidman starrer Eyes Wide Shut. But Pollack directed this lukewarm piece about a self-absorbed American race car driver, played by Al Pacino, who falls in love with a somewhat aloof European woman, Marthe Keller. The only trouble is, she’s about to drop dead. Erich Maria Remarque, who wrote All Quiet on the Western Front, penned the novel on which this film is based, while Alvin Sargent wrote the screenplay. Racing is almost an afterthought in the turgid drama, which offers about as many laughs as a funeral procession. The tagline said: "He had to meet her to find himself." The question: why bother?

Days of Thunder (1990)

This Tom Cruise vehicle is essentially Top Gun but with cars, produced by Jerry Bruckheimer and Don Simpson, the team that brought us not only Top Gun but also Flashdance. Cruise, sporting a serious amount of attitude, plays Cole Trickle, an Indy car driver who lost his ride and decided to slum in NASCAR. But Trickle is haunted by a serious crash. Does he have what it takes to overcome his fear? Cruise’s wife, Nicole Kidman, is cast as Dr. Claire Lewicki, who’s around to help Trickle with his physical therapy, if you get our drift. Randy Quaid has the thankless role of team owner Tim Daland, and Robert Duvall goes way over the top in portraying legendary crew chief Harry Hogge. Directed by Tony Scott from a screenplay credited to Cruise and famous screenwriter Robert Towne (Chinatown) this ain’t exactly Shakespeare, but it does give Cruise fans a lot of what they want to see. As the tagline said, "You can’t stop the thunder.">

-- Jack R. Nerad

Nerad is currently working on screenplay based on his recent Avon true crime book, Fatal Photographs.

Late-Summer Car Care

Most people think that winter is the toughest season for your car. But they underestimate the rigors that summer weather puts your car through. Prolonged heat spurred on by high summer ambient temperatures isn't just tough on your car's cooling system; it can also be murder on your tires and battery. And if one of your tires or battery is a no-go, then you'll be a no-go, too.

Here are some car maintenance items to think about as we cruise into summer's dog days:

  • Tires: Your Connection to the Road

    Do you give your tires the care they deserve? If you don't the consequences could be serious. And because today's tires are so good, most people tend to ignore them. According to a recent AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety-Roper survey, millions of motorists are taking the increased reliability of vehicles and tires for granted. That leaves them vulnerable to tire failures or stranding due to a flat. Now, no one wants to be stuck on the side of the road with a flat tire. Just the inconvenience is a colossal pain in the lower back. But while many may see a flat tire as an inconvenience, it can actually be a matter of life and death.

    According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, six hundred pedestrians are killed on the interstate highway system each year, and almost one-third of those pedestrians were motorists who were working on their vehicle, walking on the shoulder, or exchanging information after an existing crash. So not only is a flat tire an irritant; some might call it a serious health problem.

    Fortunately, most flat tires these days can be prevented. But unfortunately, many members of the driving public are too lazy or uninvolved in the maintenance of their cars to take the simple steps necessary to avoid a big hassle or worse. Most flats aren't caused by road hazards or faulty tire construction. They aren't caused by running over a bottle or banging into a pothole. Instead, simple underinflation is the leading cause of tire failure.

    Sadly, the Roper survey found that more than one-half of all motorists don't check their tire pressure often enough. And what is even more frightening, when motorists do check tire pressure, 48% don't know how to determine their vehicle's recommended pressure correctly.

    To make sure you are not part of this dizzying statistic, go to an auto parts or discount store and invest in a simple tire pressure gauge. It shouldn't cost you more than $5. Then read the very easy-to-understand instructions that accompany it and practice using it on your own car's tires. Check the pressure in each of your tires at least once a month. Doing it while you're pumping gas is a convenient time, because you'll be close to a ready source of compressed air if you need to give your tires a boost. And don't forget the spare in the trunk. If you do have a flat and spare with air is a must-have item.

  • Don't Let Your Battery Fry

    People are used to having tough starts and battery failures in the extreme cold of winter. What they don't realize is that extreme heat is more brutal on a car battery than extreme cold. Cold weather can limit a battery's ability to put out starting voltage and that situation can be complicated by other issues, like cold, thickened engine oil that makes cranking difficult, but high heat can almost literally "fry" a battery.

    Why is heat so tough on batteries? Because heat speeds up all chemical reactions, and a car battery works by producing a chemical reaction that produces electricity. Extreme heat can make the chemical reaction go too fast, burning out the battery and preventing it from producing current.

    How can you avoid a problem? A good first step is to be sure your car battery is fully charged. Start by having a load check on the battery, a test that can be performed quickly by most automotive service centers. This check will tell you how much potential your battery has to retain a charge, because batteries lose some of their ability to produce electricity over time. If the power potential is marginal, be on the safe side and get a new battery. At the same time have the auto center check the charging system to make certain the alternator is working properly and producing enough current to charge the battery during normal operating conditions.

    When buying a battery, power is the principal consideration. Automotive batteries are ranked by two factors, starting power, called "cold cranking amps" (CCAs), which indicate the power available to start the engine, and reserve capacity (RC), the number of minutes the battery will operate the essential accessories if the alternator fails.

    If the car will be exposed to extreme weather, either heat or cold, the best guarantee against failure is a battery with a high level of cold cranking amps. Experts recommend at least 550, depending on the vehicle's engine type.

    With a good battery and a charging system that's working well, you're halfway home, but you still need to keep an eye on a few other items. For example, watch for corrosion on the battery terminals and make sure the battery cable connections are tight. Also check the ground wire to make certain it is tight, because if it is not making a good connection, you'll be stranded.

  • Heating, Ventilation and Air Conditioning

    A long, hot summer can give your air conditioning system a workout. If your air conditioner is making you hot instead of keeping you cool, having your system checked by a trained air conditioning specialist is a good idea. If your system fails the professional’s test or even if it’s just blowing hot air, retrofitting may be the answer.

    Most often, a quick fix for weak air conditioning performance is a charge of Freon. But if you plan to keep your car for an extended length of time you should seriously think about updating your vehicle's A/C system to use the new environmentally friendly refrigerant, R-134a.

    More than half the cars now on the road use Freon, an environmentally harmful and expensive refrigerant that’s also known as R-12. The production of R-12 was discontinued in 1995 as a result of the 1990 Clean Air Act, and R-134a was developed as an environmentally safe alternative. However, all automobiles made prior to 1992 and most made from 1992-1994 use R-12.

    For a professional, it is relatively easy to convert an R-12 system to use R-134a. Generally, A/C retrofits of an undamaged system cost around $200. And, while that may seem expensive, it can help you save money in the long run. It can take as much as three pounds of refrigerant to recharge an air conditioning system, and Freon currently costs about $30 a pound while the new R-134a costs about one-fifth of that. In addition, because Freon isn’t being manufactured any more, the supply is limited and costs will certainly go up, so retrofitting can make economic sense in the long run.

  • Staying on Top

    By staying on top of various out-of-sight, out-of-mind maintenance items like tires, batteries and air conditioning systems, you can be certain they won’t let you down. And now, in the last days of summer, it is a good time to make certain all these important items are in tip-top shape before the winter winds begin to howl.

    R.J. Himmell is a professional mechanic who resides in Burr Ridge, Illinois.