Some options that fit the off-road-adventuring bill

Dear Car Talk:

I used to do a lot of off-road adventuring in my 1986 Chevy S-10 Blazer. Now, in my later years, I would like to get a vehicle to go on some of the unpaved roads in the Southwest. In particular, one area I want to frequent has deep sand, but not serious rock crawling.

My question is, What would be the best vehicle to consider? I would like it to be comfortable for on-road driving, but still high clearance and capable of off-roading. I’ve looked at the Subaru Forester. Is Subaru’s all-wheel-drive system as good as a “regular” four-wheel-drive system? Thanks! – Stephen

RAY: Subaru makes a very good all-wheel-drive system, but whether it’s as good as truck-based four-wheel-drive systems depends on what you plan to use it for. The Subaru is not designed for serious off-roading. It’s designed to get you through a snowstorm, up the rutted dirt road that leads to your ski house, or across the muddy field where there’s auxiliary parking for the Lilith Fair. It’s not really designed to drive over tree stumps, boulders or even deep sand.

While the ground clearance is pretty good, the center and rear differentials are not as rugged as they are on four-wheel-drive trucks. Plus, the underside of the Subaru isn’t as well-protected with skid plates and armor. Would a Subaru get you through some deep sand? We’ve never tried it, though it probably would. But as a vehicle in which you’re going to seek out deep sand recreationally? I don’t think I’d recommend it.

If you’re really determined to do off-roading as a hobby, you’re probably better off with a truck of some kind. Many pickup trucks are actually pretty comfortable on the road these days. Of course, you’ll get half the mileage that you’d get in a Subaru Forester. And you’ll have to pass up parking spaces that you used to fit into.

Another option is one of the trail-rated Jeeps. If comfort is a priority, I’d skip the Wrangler, the Compass and the Renegade. The Grand Cherokee would be the most comfortable and most versatile of the bunch, but it’s going to be a lot more expensive than a Forrester.

Given the compromises you’d have to make to get a vehicle rugged enough to do serious off-roading, you should think hard about how often you’re really going to do it. If it’s just a fantasy, or a once-a-year thing, you’re probably better off buying a car that suits your needs 51 weeks a year, like the Subaru, and renting a Jeep on your vacation. Or, even better, borrowing one from your brother-in-law.

But if it’s really going to be a regular activity, then something like a pickup truck or a trail-rated Jeep is probably what you need. And don’t forget to order the optional plastic pail and shovel kit in case you get stuck, Stephen.

Diagnostic code unavailable for short-lived rattling sound

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2008 Nissan Altima Hybrid with 93,000 miles. Beginning last winter, within the first couple of minutes of starting the car, there would be an intense shaking and rattling noise under the hood. It’s still happening, especially when the car hasn’t been used for a couple of days. This only occurs when the car is started for the first time. For the rest of the day, the car operates normally.

I had my mechanic look at the car, and he thought it was the engine mounts. So, the mounts were replaced. That didn’t fix it. I brought the car back, and the mechanic experienced the problem but said that it happens for such a short time that the diagnostic system couldn’t produce a code. Any ideas what could be causing this and how it can be fixed? – Spencer

RAY: If it’s not producing a code, that suggests it’s something mechanical, rather than electronic. And if I had to take a wild guess – which is usually what I do – I’d guess it’s your harmonic balancer. Every gasoline engine has a harmonic balancer, not just those sold in California.

The harmonic balancer is a big pulley that sits on the front of the crankshaft. It’s made of two concentric metal discs with a piece of rubber between them. And its job is to damp the vibrations created by the engine’s crankshaft. If your harmonic balancer is slipping when it’s cold, it could create lots of vibrations when you first start the car. And then once it warms up, it may start working properly. And that would not set a code.

If you had a bad injector (which would be my second wild guess), a bad spark plug or a bad coil, that probably would have a set a code that your mechanic would have found. So drop off the car with your mechanic some afternoon. Have him put it up on the lift and leave it there overnight. And when he starts the car the next day, he should have someone under the car to specifically watch the harmonic balancer and see if it’s wobbling or shaking for the first 30 or 40 seconds. See if it stops vibrating after that. If your mechanic catches it in the act, he’ll know what to do next, Spencer. Good luck.

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