Tag Archives: engineering

Headlights

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.


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.


Rear-wheel-drive and rain

Slippery when wet

Slippery when wet

It rained the other night as I left work. I wasn’t expecting it to rain, but I figured it would be fun to play with the Volvo. I didn’t think the tires were that bad, but it seemed like it would break loose every time I got on the gas. It’s amazing how that little 4-cylinder can overpower the traction so easily. I did a few benign fishtailing around some corners as I went home, but nothing too crazy until I got onto the MoPac frontage road.

It’s very oddly designed intersection as it’s a T-intersection that goes under MoPac, but as it approaches the southbound frontage road, it curves slightly to the right so making that left turn is roughly a 100 degree change in direction. I usually just cut the corner to keep the racing line so I don’t lose too much speed. Yeah, too much Forza Motorsports or Gran Turismo does that to the brain. Unfortunately, unlike a video game, driving your car recklessly has much higher consequences.

As I approach the turn like I’ve done a hundred times before, I start drifting as I hit the apex of the turn. I think I might have lifted my foot off the throttle and it induced lift-off oversteer causing the rear end to come loose. In a video game, I’d let go of the gas and drift around. This is no video game. Having only owned front-wheel-drive cars since I got my license I’ve learned that punching the gas usually straightens out the car if the rear end comes loose. Bad mistake!

I instinctively punch the gas pedal and boy did that make things worse! As soon as I touched the pedal, the whole car just spun like a top! I only remember a blur of the car spinning 360 degrees around like it was on a turntable and coming to a stop facing the wrong way of the one-way frontage road. I was now staring at the grille of the Escalade that was previously behind me. Suffice to say I think everyone in this situation felt a bit awkward.

It took me a couple seconds (which felt more like minutes) to realize WTF just happened because it happened so damn fast and unexpectedly. I was also partially in awe that the little Volvo managed to do a stunt like that. I’m surprised that traffic in the other left-turn lane just kept going after seeing a car spin 540 degrees in two lanes of traffic! I’m probably sure that the person driving the Escalade was glad they didn’t get wiped out by a beater Volvo that looks like the many uninsured beaters roaming the city (don’t worry, I’m insured). I definitely drove a little more carefully the rest of the way home!

It’s amazing the technological advances in safety that have made cars safer because my other car has traction control and electronic stability control which prevents the car from spinning (it’s also front-wheel-drive so it’s less likely to spin out like this in a turn). On the other hand, because the newer technology shields the driver from danger, he won’t know what the true dangers are out there. I immediately knew the roads were slick when driving the Volvo because it spun the tires fairly easily so I knew I could get into trouble. With my other car I would drive the wet roads as aggressively as I normally do on dry roads because of the safety features. It’s funny how technology makes us safer, but act more foolish because of the hidden dangers.


Why the Prius is so slow

Excessive acceleration detected!

Excessive acceleration detected!

My coworker received a Toyota Prius for a rental car while his car was in the shop. We both agreed that the Prius is pretty boring, but it was entertaining because we both knew that it was a mind-numbingly boring little car and we decided to see how dismal it was. The gas engine makes 98 horsepower alone and 135 horsepower with the help of the electric motor.

We started out in electric mode and then romped on the gas to see what it would do. Once we hit 30 MPH, the computer displayed the message “EV Mode Deactivated, Excessive Acceleration.” The message means the electric motor is disabled and the gas engine is working full-time. So yeah, it’s a 3000 pound car being accelerated by a 98 HP/105 ft-lb engine. For reference, my worn ’92 Volvo weighs 3200 pounds and has a 4-cylinder engine that makes 114 HP/136 ft-lbs (when new) and the Volvo feels faster. Obviously, the Prius is not a race car, but when the only thing it has going for it is 51 MPG, it’s kind of a sad little car. Yes, comfort, carrying capacity, driving dynamics, and material quality all suck on this little car.

I’m also certain that given the whole unintended acceleration debacle, the demographic who buy the Prius are going to panic when the “Excessive Acceleration” message is displayed causing them to drive slower. The only excitement that it has going for it is the feeling of whether or not you’re going to be pancaked by a semi while merging onto the freeway. It’s a great for the city where you don’t have to go very fast, but otherwise it’s a dreadful little car.


Power Steering Fluid

One of the systems that is most neglected in a car is the power steering system. Almost every car sold today has power steering and was designed to have power steering from the get-go. If the system ever failed, it is extremely difficult to maneuver the vehicle. Now some old-timers might go “we didn’t have power steering back in my day and we made due without it.” Cars from the olden days were designed without power steering so they had different gearing and bigger steering wheels to allow the driver to turn the car with ease. You really don’t want the power steering to fail because you probably won’t be able to turn the wheel without some help from a buddy.

Luckily, it is extremely easy to do a fluid exchange without making a mess. All the cars I’ve performed this task on resulted in a quieter and easier to turn steering wheel (this is more true in Fords since they are notorious for loud and whiny power steering systems). You will need a soap dispenser, an empty bottle to catch old fluid, and new fluid. Some manufacturers require special power steering fluid so check your manual to what type of fluid to use. I always use transmission fluid in my cars (which is usually what the manual specs) because the red color allows me to see if the fluid is clean or dirty real easily.

Soap pump and trans fluid

Soap pump and trans fluid

All you have to do is find the power steering reservoir under the hood. It is either going to be on the engine somewhere or mounted near the fender. Your owner’s manual will usually tell you where it is. Make sure the soap dispenser pump is cleaned out well with water first. You don’t want soap in the system. Then just stick the dispenser tube in the power steering reservoir and pump all the dirty fluid into the empty bottle (Gatorade or water bottles are the best for this because they’re clear).

Pump out that old fluid

Pump out that old fluid

Icky power steering fluid

Icky power steering fluid

Try and get as much old fluid out of the reservoir as possible. The soap dispenser pump may not reach the bottom, but that’s okay. Once you pumped out as much as possible fill the reservoir with new fluid to the MAX line. Drive the car around for a week and make sure at some point you turn the wheel from one extreme to the other extreme to get the new fluid circulated.

Now doing this once only gets half the fluid out of the power steering system. The theory is that you’ll drive around and let the new and old fluids mix. This will gently rinse all the parts. Just repeat the procedure once a week until the fluid stays red (or whatever color new fluid you put in). The second time you pump out the fluid, it will be just as dark as the first time, but it should start being less dirty after the third time. When you’re done doing the entire system, just take the old fluid to any auto parts store or your mechanic to dispose of it properly. The total cost of the new fluid and the soap dispenser is usually $10 to $15 compared to a flush at a shop costing over $60. Go ahead and do it already!


I Got It Up

Window is in a bad state.

Window is in a bad state.

A couple weeks ago I put down my driver’s side window and it never went back up. I was told it would get stuck down occasionally when I bought the car and given its age I should have suspected it was time for the windows to stop working anyways. Doing some research on the internet yielded me some answers. Apparently, the power window switch goes bad in Volvos of this vintage so that’s the first place to look instead of taking the door apart to look at the motor and regulator. Lucky for me, it was just the switch. The switch can be disassembled and cleaned to make it work again! I made a video documenting the task below.