‘Don’t top off, Bill’

Dear Car Talk:

Your column is the first thing I read every week. Late last year, “Bill” wrote in about his 1999 Altima. He was told he needed a new charcoal canister for his fuel system. Bill complained that he could not effectively top off his fuel tank. He used the words, “I can never fill it up all the way … even with multiple squeezes of the nozzle.”

As you know and have preached before, topping off is what kills the evaporative control charcoal canister in the first place. You wryly highlighted the health problems he is foisting on his community, but simply replacing the canister will not necessarily solve the root problem of Bill's blind behavior: topping off. Could you please tell Bill not to top off? Thanks! – Mark

RAY: Don't top off, Bill!

Actually, you left out the part of his letter where Bill told us “when I refuel, the gas pump shuts off early.” That tells me that he’s not “topping off” when the tank is full. He’s simply unable to fill up his gas tank.

I took his letter to mean that if his tank holds 16 gallons, the pump was shutting off after adding only 8 gallons or 10 gallons. So I don’t think Bill is a serial topper-offer. I think he had a genuine problem just filling his tank.

And we agreed with his mechanic, that his vapor recovery system was probably at fault, and a new charcoal canister made sense. But generally, you are 100% right, Mark. The proper gas station etiquette is to fill the tank until the pump shuts itself off automatically, based on the back pressure coming up the filler neck. And then remove the nozzle, take your pack of Twizzlers, and leave the gas station.

Excessive topping up is harmful. By excessive, I don’t mean when the pump stops at $37.80, and you round up to $38.00. Excessive is when you continue to force more gasoline in, multiple times, after the pump has shut off.

That can send raw gasoline into the car’s vapor recovery system, which can cause hundreds of dollars’ worth of damage. As a repair shop owner, I really appreciate when people do that. But you might not when you get your repair bill. So we don’t recommend topping off, Mark. Unless you’re at the buffet.

Finding the perfect car for move to Maine

Dear Car Talk: After 30 years in California, I will soon move back home to Maine to be near my aging parents. I'm not taking my 2010 VW GTI with me. Nice car, but in snow it would wallow like a beached whale.

Can you recommend a small wagon for the frozen north? It needs to be all-wheel-drive, and big enough to carry groceries, luggage or a folding wheelchair, while not so big it is inconvenient to park.

I also want a car with good all-around visibility. Backup cameras are great, but they do not make up for the pitiful rear windshield on many recent models. I recently drove a rental that had a good camera, but the back window resembled a smoked-glass porthole. None of that, please.

My parents have a 2008 Subaru Forester. I wouldn't mind having a car just like it if it was less than 5 years old. But the newer Foresters are gigantic! Can you recommend a car that would work for me? Thanks! – Caroline

RAY: Gee, you kind of burst my bubble there at the end of your letter, Caroline.

Everything you asked for was pointing me toward a Subaru Forester: all-wheel drive, big enough for a wheelchair, great visibility. But then you described it as huge.

Maybe when you get to Maine, you can go test drive a Chevy Tahoe. And then go right from there to the Subaru dealer. The Forester will seem downright claustrophobic.

Seriously, I would give a little more thought to the Forester, because it meets so many of your criteria. It has great visibility – which, as you say, is unusual these days – and Subarus are notoriously good in the New England winter.

The other car that comes right to mind is the VW Golf Alltrack. It’s more commonly known as the Jetta Wagon.

It was just discontinued for 2020, but you can probably find a leftover new one, a demo or a lightly used one if you like it. It also has all-wheel drive. It’s a small station wagon, not an SUV. And it has excellent visibility, with a nice, large, flat back window that made us reminisce about the days when we could see behind us. It’s also a little smaller, in every dimension, than the Forester, and more carlike. You might like that.

Those are the two that come to mind first, Caroline. But if you decide they’re both too big for you, I’ll give you two other ideas. One is the Subaru CrossTrek, which is smaller than the Forester. But I don’t think you’ll like the visibility as much.

Another option is a car we just drove and liked, the Kia Seltos. Again, the visibility is not quite as good as in the Forester or the Alltrack, but it’s a good 8 inches shorter than even the VW. You’ll need to bring the wheelchair with you to test the cargo space, though, since we didn’t do a wheelchair test during our review.

But when considering size, bear in mind, you’re moving to Maine. Last we checked, lack of parking was not among the top 10 reasons not to move to Maine. Moose-car collisions and eight months of winter each made the top 10, but parking in most parts of Maine is pretty easy, so you might be due for a perspective adjustment.

But good for you for moving to be near your parents. They’re lucky to have you, Caroline. Maybe they’ll even show their gratitude by giving you your own parking space.

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