Don’t give up on your car

Dear Car Talk:

I’m losing sleep over my reliable 2012 Chrysler 200 and its gas mileage. It’s got more than 80,000 miles on it, and usually gets between 20 and 23 miles per gallon on my regular drives. I think it’s gotten worse over the past couple years, but I can’t be sure.

I’m becoming more of an environmentalist by the day, so not getting good mileage really irks me. I’m at a place in my life where I could buy a new-to-me car, but my budget would not be high. And my Chrysler was inherited, so it’s got sentimental value and no payments.

The gas mileage is the main reason to look elsewhere. Is there something I can do to improve it? Am I crazy to give up on it over guilt?

— Chandler

I don’t know if you’re crazy, Chandler. I would ask a friend or neighbor. They were all quick with a “yes” when I asked that question. But I do think you should probably hang on to your Chrysler.

First of all, your mileage isn’t bad. Twenty-three mpg is about what the EPA says you should expect from this car. And their estimates often run a bit high, so you’re doing fine.

Second, if your primary concern is environmental, keeping your old car running in good condition is a pretty green thing to do. Think about all of the natural resources it takes to create a new car: the metal ores, chemicals, plastics and rubber. All of that stuff has to be removed from the earth, processed, refined, transported, molded and assembled. All of those steps use energy and create pollution. So by getting a few more years out of your existing car (unless it’s a gross polluter, which yours is not), you’re actually helping the environment.

Third, there are other things you can do to be more environmental without throwing away a perfectly good car. First, make sure your car is running well and not polluting any more than it’s supposed to. Do that by getting it serviced regularly and making sure it passes your state’s emissions test.

If there’s something wrong with it, like a bad sensor, a stuck thermostat or a sticky brake caliper, get it fixed, because things like that can lower your mileage and create more pollution. Make sure your tires are properly inflated, too, because that also effects your mileage.

And finally, you can try to drive less. Combine errands. Carpool. Walk (heaven forbid, I know!). But there’s a lot you can do to be “greener” without immediately trading in your car.

Then start saving for a serious environmental upgrade. And in a couple of years, or when the Chrysler’s transmission falls out in the middle of the road, buy an electric car. Even if you can’t buy a new one, by then there will be more used EVs on the road, and you’ll have more choices.

Then add a few solar panels on your roof and charge your new car for free every day. You can even drive your neighbors around and save their gas. Good luck, Chandler.

Dear Car Talk:

I bought a 2009 Hyundai Accent new back in the day. Today it has 77,000 miles on it. I always keep up with my maintenance schedule, and I even have a spreadsheet with dates and mileage when I perform maintenance.

Well, I knew it was time to change the timing belt, but that’s not cheap, so I put it off thinking I could wait. I was driving it the other day and the motor just quit on me. Guess what? The motor is destroyed because the timing belt broke and ruined the head and other parts.

I’ve learned a lesson. I won’t buy another car with a timing belt. But why would a car manufacture make such an important part out of rubber? I can’t be the only one who this has happened to. I’m looking forward to your response.

— David

You’re hardly the only one. And my IRA is grateful for that, David. But your question is a fair one. Why use a rubber part when its failure can be so catastrophic? Manufacturers have asked themselves that question, too. And in many cases, they’ve switched back from rubber timing belts to metal timing chains. In fact, if you buy a new Hyundai Accent to replace the one that you just lunched, it’ll have a metal timing chain in it.

The reason car makers switched from chains to rubber timings decades ago is because they’re cheap, lightweight and simple. Obviously, a rubber belt weighs a lot less and costs a helluva lot less than a metal chain. It’s also a lot simpler.

When you add a chain, you have to encase it, lubricate it, add a tensioner, an idler pulley and guides. So you’re basically replacing a simple rubber belt with an entire chain “system.”

That added complexity also applies to repairs, and repair costs, if you ever need them. And, in fact, that was one of the reasons that rubber belts became popular for several decades — because older chain systems broke down a lot and they were expensive to fix.

But modern chain systems are pretty good, as is modern engine lubrication. So most manufacturers have decided that the extra cost, weight and complexity is worth it for the extra durability and disaster prevention. And I’m guessing you would agree, David.

And modern timing chains generally last the life of the engine. Although I guess that’s not a very reassuring statement, David, since your timing belt also lasted the life of your engine. When the belt went, the engine went with it.

So let’s put it this way: In most cases, a broken timing chain won’t be what sends your next car to the boneyard.

Got a question about cars? Write to Ray in care of King Features, 628 Virginia Drive, Orlando, FL 32803, or email by visiting the Car Talk website at Send comments to [email protected].