Electric cars are a good, lower-maintenance option

Dear Car Talk:

Electric motors have been around a long time. They are simple devices with few moving parts. They have no complicated valve trains, no head gaskets to blow, no piston rings, no oil to change and no coolant to leak out. I am an old man, tired of car maintenance and in need of a low-maintenance, reliable vehicle. It would seem that an all-electric car is the solution to my problem, but life has many ugly surprises. Are there excessive maintenance issues with e-cars? Serious reliability problems? Am I missing anything that I need to know? – John

RAY: I don't think you're missing anything, John. You're right. Electric motors are simple. Much simpler than internal combustion engines. And they're pretty bulletproof. While we're still in the relatively early stages of the electric-car revolution, hybrid electric cars have been around for decades now. And the electric motors in hybrid cars have been pretty trouble-free. We've seen them run for hundreds of thousands of miles without failure.

The bigger issue is battery failure. But most electric cars come with eight- or 10-year warrantees on the battery. So even that’s not a big deal. And presumably, eight to 10 years from now, replacement batteries will be even cheaper.

There are still things that can go wrong with electric cars, though. They are cars, after all. So they have electronic components, like computers, screens, safety systems and sensors that can fail. They also have mechanical parts that will wear out – like tires, shocks and wiper blades. Just because the car is electric doesn’t mean that someday you won’t need an air conditioning compressor, or a door handle.

But you’ll never have to replace a hose, weld an exhaust system or fix an oil leak. And by the way, your brake pads will last much longer, because regenerative braking (which uses the moving wheels as a generator when you slow down) cuts down on your use of your brake pads. So if you’re looking for a lower-maintenance car, and you can make do with a couple of hundred miles of range before recharging, an EV is for you.

For good, basic transportation, we like the Chevy Bolt, the Nissan Leaf, the Hyundai Kona and the Kia Niro. All four should get you more than 200 miles on a charge. As an added benefit, you’ll be able to “refuel” your car in your own driveway. So you’ll never have to visit a gas station again … unless you have a sudden urge to buy a pack of gum or use a filthy restroom.

Old cars learn new tricks when leaded gas was phased out

Dear Car Talk:

I bought a 1969 Chevrolet Chevelle SS 396 recently and want to know if unleaded gas will harm my engine. Also, will using regular unleaded instead of high-octane unleaded hurt? I'd rather use the less-expensive regular, but not sure what to do here. – Jim

RAY: You have no choice, Jim. You have to use unleaded gas. Will it harm your engine? Mostly no. When lead – a known carcinogen – was finally phased out of gasoline in the 1970s, older cars like yours did fine, except for one thing. It turns out the lead in the gasoline provided a cushion between the valves and the valve seats. And without lead, the valve seats suffered from something called "valve seat recession." Basically, they got pounded.

When those valve seats got pounded to the point that they wore out, they had to be replaced with hardened valve seats. That’s the only kind you can get now. And they’ve stood up well over time with unleaded gasoline. So if your Chevelle has already had its valve seats replaced (which is pretty likely, unless it’s got very low mileage), you already have hardened seats and there’s nothing to worry about. If your valve seats haven’t been replaced yet, when they do wear out, you’ll replace them with hardened seats, and then there’ll be nothing to worry about. Either way, there’s nothing you can do, so just drive the car and enjoy it.

In terms of the octane rating, your only goal is to prevent pinging. So experiment. First, make sure the valve timing is set correctly. Then try the lowest octane fuel, and when you accelerate up a hill, see if you can hear the engine pinging. If you can, try the next octane level up from there. Do that until the pinging goes away.

Pinging, also known as pre-ignition, is when some of the fuel combusts in the cylinder when it’s not supposed to. That’ll eventually burn holes in your pistons, which will cost much more to replace than those valve seats. So use unleaded fuel with an octane rating that’s high enough to prevent the car from pinging, pick up a pair of striped bell bottoms, and you’ll be good to go in the Chevelle, Jim. Enjoy.

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