Category Archives: car features


Headlights are better on new cars.

Headlights are better on new cars.

It’s amazing how headlight technology has improved over the last 20 years. The biggest improvement seems to be with the lenses themselves. Sure HID and LED headlights are super cool these days, but they are still pricey to replace and aren’t quite in every car yet. Both cars in the image above use regular old halogen bulbs. The car on the left has factory bulbs, which are supposed to be long-life (ie- cheap, low output bulbs). The car on the right has aftermarket Sylvania Xtravisions, which are 25% brighter than the standard bottom-barrel bulbs. The difference is the car on the left uses reflector optics (clear lens with disco ball reflectors) and the car on the right uses lens optics (prismatic lens with curved reflector).

What does the techno-mumbo-jumbo mean? It means the car on the left has better light output with cheaper bulbs because of the clear lenses and mini-mirror reflectors bouncing light exactly where it needs to go. The light diffuses better to show a brighter pool of light. The prismatic lenses on the car on the right will concentrate the light into a straighter beam and also block some of the light since it has to pass through a lens of varying thickness. The more premium light bulbs can only do so much with light output. It still better than the cheap bulbs that were in there before being swapped out.

Halogen bulbs are cheap safety upgrades. Buy a nice set of premium bulbs, aim them correctly, and your night drives will be fun without blinding anyone.

A car with a story

She had a wonderful life.

She had a wonderful life.

I was reading this Road and Track article about how the author was interested in these humble, modest cars because the cars probably had a cool backstory to them. I feel the same way about every used car I’ve owned. All the used cars I’ve owned probably had the typical story of being owned by someone elderly and driven pretty softly (until I got my hands on them).

The two Fords I’ve owned started dying on my watch, and after they were traded in they ended up in the junkyard within six months. I was pretty distraught the first time since it was my first car, but the second time I didn’t care too much since I had already dealt with the emotion of losing the first car. The first car brought me through my formative years of high school and into college and introduced me to working on cars as a hobby. The second car took me through college with wild road trips to Vegas and starting the next chapter of my life in Austin, which has a bigger impact on my life, but I wasn’t as emotionally attached to it probably because it wasn’t as modifiable (less easily repairable) as the first car thus pushing it into the “appliance” realm. I guess the saying “You never forget your first” is true.

Now the Volvo probably has a more interesting story. It has complete records from the first ten years of ownership. The first owners who were a couple from Houston. Then the next ten years had no records until the the last two years from the second to last previous owner (which I have the history from the last owner). I can only imagine that during that ten year blank spot the Volvo was probably used for some Hollywood-style espionage story due to its unassuming appearance or it was used by some stoic blue-collar worker who used to get to a job he tolerates everyday or maybe it was some kid’s first car that was a hand-me-down and had some good times with buds. No one knows except the car and the car can’t talk. It’s unfortunate.

If you’re a gearhead, you’ll get the feels when you watch Susie the Little Blue Coupe which chronicles the life of a car. I’ll just leave this here just to remind you every car has a story to tell.

Turn on your lights in bad weather

Use your lights

Use your lights

Since people aren’t turning on their lights at night, they also don’t turn on their lights in inclement weather. A neutral colored car in the fog or pouring rain is going to blend right in. Maybe if the car was a wild color such as ruby red or emerald green then it’d probably stand out. But using your headlights when it’s foggy, raining, or snowing makes you more visible to other motorists. Yeah, turn on the lights manually so the taillights are lit, too. I’ve come into some close encounters with some of these morons that aren’t turning on their lights. Automatic headlights should be a standard feature since it’s starting to become common in most cars. Since the lights are computer controlled, it can also be turned on with the wipers. Brilliant! Until then, flash your lights at these motorists that aren’t using common sense.

The Volvo You Know

Volvo’s new ad campaign for the S60 features a comparison with the classic 240 as shown in the clips below.

I like the ad, but the S60 just doesn’t compare to the 240. The 240 is a classic because it’s a simple, stoic sedan. The S60 is a sexy-looking computer on wheels. The two cars are on opposite sides of the spectrum which appeals to two different types of people. The ones that are attracted to the 240 aren’t going to be cross shopping with the S60 and vice versa because there are different ideals with the two demographics. The 240 has an audience that values modestly-priced solid transportation while the S60 has an audience that values safety at any cost. The S60 isn’t a terrible car, but I find that Volvo has priced themselves out of the market they should be aiming for. The 240 must be the best car Volvo ever built if they’re using it as the benchmark to compare their latest offerings. Volvo needs to bring to market a car that has the same philosophy the 240 had: modestly priced, solidly built, and angular aesthetics. They don’t need to bring back the 240 as it has never left in the first place.

License plate bulbs

W5W bulb = Sylvania 2825

W5W bulb = Sylvania 2825

The license plate illumination bulbs in the Volvo burned out. You’d think it was a trivial exercise to get new bulbs, but apparently part changes happen and screw you up. Accessing the bulbs was no problem: two screws for each of the two lenses above the license plate. Easy enough. I head over to AutoZone to buy some bulbs. I would have thought they had a book with the bulb listing on there, but they didn’t have such book. Their system pulls up a round base bulb for the license plate illumination, but they are wrong! The 940 sedan uses a wedge base bulb while other Volvos of that era (240 and 740 sedans) used the round base bulbs. The owner’s manual (and the lens) indicated that the illumination bulb was a W5W. I really should have taken the bulb out and took it to the store in the first place.

I remember I bought W5W bulbs years ago, and I don’t remember these bulbs being hard to find. AutoZone didn’t have the bulbs and neither did Wal-Mart. This was not something I wanted to special order because I knew there had to be an alternative. It turns out W5W bulbs were relabeled as 2825 at some point and this bulb was available at any place that sold car parts (because this is a common light bulb for license plate illumination on foreign cars). Go figure.

Baby, it’s cold outside

Thank you, car, for telling me it's cold outside.

Thank you, car, for telling me it’s cold outside.

Ever since it’s gotten cold outside my car likes to tell me it’s cold outside every time I start the engine by flashing the temperature, a little snowflake icon, and dinging for a few seconds. It’s as if I couldn’t tell that it’s cold outside during my walk from my front door or from work to the car. It appears this feature is common on a lot of newer cars. I’m thinking, why? I already know it’s cold outside. I suppose new cars are so well insulated and contain many safety features to prevent sliding that people will get the illusion that nothing is wrong outside? That is a dumb reason, but I guess that’s why they call it an “idiot light”. I don’t mind having the temperature display on, but it really doesn’t need to ding and flash and be obnoxious every time it falls below 40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Wheel Alignment

Not a scary human-killing robot.

Not a scary human-killing robot.

A few weeks ago after I changed out the front struts and strut mounts on the Volvo, I had to go take the car in for a wheel alignment. I could have tried to do my own wheel alignment, but I was too tired and sore from the strut job to do anything with the car so I took it to a brand-name tire shop (the one that made tires that went on Ford Exploders in the late ’90s) to have them align it. Every time I’ve gotten an alignment on any of my cars in the past, the steering wheel was never set straight. You would think with their computerized alignment machine it would be done right the first time. Nope! The steering wheel was a few degrees off to the left. I figure it is probably so far out of alignment before that the tires wore in a specific way so it would take some time to sort itself out. Nope.

I went back a few days later to get the alignment fixed. I probably shouldn’t have gone an hour before closing, but it’s hard to get stuff done during the work week. An hour later, I left with the steering wheel moved further over to the left! Driving straight, the wheel was at the 11 o’clock position! This was totally unacceptable! I was definitely pissed that I had to go back a third time to get this sorted out, but luckily the alignment had a 12 month/12,000 mile warranty. I went back the next morning with a level and watched the tech perform the alignment. When he was about to do the alignment, he let me set the steering wheel straight with the level and then set the alignment. Now the car pulls slightly to the right but the steering wheel is straighter than before (at least now I have it cranked to the left proportionally to the pull to the right). It’s not right, but I wasn’t wasting my time going back a fourth time.

So what did I learn from watching the alignment being done? It pretty much depends on how the car is driven onto the alignment rack and it’s best to have the owner set the steering wheel because the tech doesn’t know how bad the steering is. The alignment machine uses cameras and flags to measure the alignment, but it’s up to the tech to adjust the toe/camber/caster into the correct range and if he doesn’t care it will be off or pull even if the alignment is in specifications. So yeah, if the alignment isn’t correct, go back and get it fixed under warranty and observe the alignment job. And if it’s still not right, look up a video on YouTube to do your own alignment at home using string and a tape measure. I’m going to have to do my own alignment because the pull is annoying me.