Small oil leak is no cause for concern

Dear Car Talk:

I drive a 2002 Infiniti I35 with about 132,000 miles on it. Three months ago while replacing the passenger-side air bag, the Infiniti dealer service department told me the valve covers were leaking and the gaskets needed to be replaced, at a cost of $850. I declined at the time. Two months later, the AAA Car Care Center told me the same thing. Its cost was $750. Sometimes I catch a slight scent of burning oil when getting out of the car. I have been checking the oil level about every two weeks for three months without a discernible change in the oil level. When I served in the engineering departments on Navy ships, every piece of machinery with oil in it leaked oil. Is this a necessary repair? Is it dangerous to drive with this problem? And if I sell this car, is this the sort of thing I am required to tell a potential buyer about? - Richard

Ray: No, no, and no. If you've been checking the oil for three months and the oil level has stayed pretty much the same, then you're not leaking a whole lot of oil. That means the gaskets are not leaking badly - at least, not yet. And as long as you keep track of the oil level and add oil when and if it becomes necessary, your engine is in no danger.

The reason you smell burning oil is that it takes only a very small amount of burning oil to create a big amount of smell. When you’re driving, the wind disperses the smell. But when you stop, the smell hovers around the car long enough for you get a nostril full of it. That’s why I usually break wind while walking.

If you had a big leak from the valve covers, you’d notice it on the dipstick, you’d probably see a lot more smoke, and the smell would be driving you nuts.

I notice that the first estimate you got was for $850, and the second was for $750. So my suggestion is to get eight more estimates. By then, the last guy will be offering to pay you $50 to do the repair.

Actually, $750-$850 probably is the right price. It’s a complicated repair because the rear bank of cylinders on this car is hard to get to, and lots of other parts have to be removed first. So don’t go with the lowest price you get; go with someone you trust to do it right and trust to put all those parts back together correctly.

But you can live with this until you notice that you’re losing a meaningful amount of oil. Or until your car is enveloped by smoke every at stoplight.

And if you sell the car, you can tell the buyer the truth: There’s some oil leaking from the valve cover gaskets, but it’s not registering on the dipstick, so you were told it doesn’t need to be fixed yet.

And if you want to be a real mensch, you can take a couple of hundred bucks off the price to contribute to the repair, whenever the buyer decides to do it. Which means the selling price of the car could be -$100, but at least your conscience will be clear, Richard!

Car recommendations for really tall people

Dear Car Talk:

My 16-year-old grandson is 6 feet 6 inches tall and possibly still growing (yes, he plays basketball). His knees usually rest against the steering wheel. He has to keep his head at an odd angle in order to avoid the roof. We live in the mountains of Colorado, so we need a safe mountain-driving car, one that comfortably fits his body, but notT in a ridiculously high price range. Help make me (his grandma, Bubbe) his hero for finding the right one. I've waited 16 years to have a personal chauffeur. How long do you want a senior citizen to wait till he finds the "right" car? - Ellen

Ray: Since he's going to be a future NBA star, Ellen, you might as well put him right in a Cadillac Escalade. Am I right?

Actually, we recently drove a Subaru Forester and were pleasantly surprised by how much headroom it had. That’s also a safe, and modestly priced, all-wheel-drive car. So I’d have a look at one of those.

Consumer Reports occasionally publishes a list of best vehicles for tall and short drivers. The Forester, surprisingly, makes both lists. As does the Honda Odyssey minivan.

Unfortunately, many of the other cars on the “tall driver” list also are on the NBA list of approved vehicles. I mean, a Range Rover, an Audi A8, a BMW X5 or an E-Class Mercedes will make him very comfortable, I’m sure. But he might not enjoy it as much if Bubbe has to live in the backseat because she can no longer afford to pay rent.

Another class of vehicle to check out is trucks. We joked about the Escalade, but traditional body-on-frame pickup trucks and SUVs like that often are pretty roomy for tall people.

You just want to look for something with full-time all-wheel drive, rather than “on demand” or “part-time” four-wheel drive, which isn’t nearly as safe for on-road use.

One other tip: Avoid cars with sunroofs. Sunroofs take up space inside the car, and lower the available headroom. Unless you live in San Diego, where you can open it every day and he can poke his head through there and drive that way.

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