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When buying a car, safety should come first

If you are in the market for a new car, here are some life-saving questions to ask: How did the vehicle perform in crash tests? And does it have the latest safety equipment? By ConsumerMan Herb Weisbaum.
/ Source: contributor

Buying a new vehicle means making a lot of decisions: color, style and options. From my point of view, safety is the most important factor you should consider. How did this vehicle perform in crash tests? And does it have the latest safety equipment? That would include Electronic Stability Control and state-of-the-art side air bags.

Electronic Stability Control, or ESC, uses computer sensors to monitor the motion of your car. If it detects that your vehicle is about go out of control it will automatically reduce the speed and brake individual wheels as needed. That lets you concentrate on steering.

A study by the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety found that ESC reduces your risk of dying in a single-vehicle crash by more than 50 percent and lowers the likelihood of a rollover accident by 80 percent.

It's estimated that 10,000 fatal crashes would be prevented each year if every vehicle on the road had ESC. But this is still pretty new technology that comes standard on fewer than half the new models. It is an option on others. So if you want this important and revolutionary safety feature, you'll need to ask about it.

All air bags are not the same
There are two types of side impact air bags. Some protect the chest and abdomen. Other, more advanced systems also cushion your head. Both are good, but those with head protection are better.

The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety examined real life crashes and found that a vehicle with side air bags without head protection reduces your risk of dying in a side impact crash by 26 percent. With side bags that also offer head protection, your chances of being killed in that same type of crash drops by 37 percent.

“Most manufacturers are moving to curtain-style side air bags,” says Russ Rader, a spokesman for the institute. “They protect the driver and the front seat passenger as well as the passengers in the rear seat."

If you're buying a big, high-riding sport utility vehicle, you may think you don't need side bags. According to this study, you do. The devices save lives in both cars and SUVs.

By the way, you don't have to buy a luxury vehicle to get side air bags with head protection. Side curtain air bags are standard on the 2007 Honda Fit. They're an option on the new Toyota Yaris. Both are subcompacts that sell for less than $20,000.

Costco uses nitrogen to inflate tires. Is that hype or improvement? Is nitrogen really better than using normal air?
— Robert S., Renton, Wash.

Nitrogen is “a safe alternative” to normal air, says Dan Zielinksi, a spokesman for the Rubber Manufacturers Association. Because it’s an inert gas, it won’t catch fire. That’s why it’s used in airplane and race car tires.

Nitrogen does appear to have a genuine user benefit for passenger car tires — it does not seep out as quickly as compressed air. Robert Moyer, who heads Costco’s tire division, tells me their tests show air migrates out of tires “three to four times faster than nitrogen.”

Remember, to maintain this benefit these tires must only be topped off with nitrogen. Jennifer Stockburger, a senior automotive engineer at Consumer Reports, points out that once you add any air “you have essentially contaminated the nitrogen inside and reduced its benefits.” That’s why nitrogen-filled tires have a green valve cap.

Having your tires filled with nitrogen does not mean you can skip the monthly check to make sure they are properly inflated. A slow leak can drop the pressure 50 percent, and you wouldn’t know it by just looking at the tire.

Is there any truth to the claim that some expensive spark plugs make? They claim to give you more bang for your buck – dramatically better gas mileage than regular spark plugs?
— Dareld C., Marysville, Wash.

Save your money. Platinum-tipped plugs will probably last longer, but the automotive experts I spoke with say there’s little chance they can significantly boost your mileage. According to John Ibbotson, a technician with the Consumer Reports auto test division, these so-called “high performance” aftermarket plugs “will not result in enough change (in fuel savings) to justify the cost.” If your spark plugs are worn, a new set of regular plugs is all you need to improve your gas mileage.

What do you think about the 30K, 60K and 100K suggested service for cars? I change my oil every 5,000 miles at the dealer. Do I still need to spend the money on these expensive suggested services?
— Jeff M., Beaverton, Ore.

These major service checks aren’t really suggestions; they’re necessary to keep your car running properly and to avoid a major breakdown that could really cost you. Every car has a set maintenance schedule. You’ll find this information listed in your owner’s manual.

“Yes, you could miss these service visits and save some money,” says Phil Reed, consumer advice editor at, “but your car would not continue to operate without problems for as long a time.” Ignoring the maintenance schedule could also void your warranty.

Beware of the service schedule recommended by the dealer. There’s a good chance it does not match up to what’s in your owner’s manual. Reed says that in many cases these dealer suggestions are “unnecessary” and sometimes “a complete rip-off.”  When in doubt, do what the manufacturer says to do.

By the way, you don’t have to go to the dealer for this service. Any qualified mechanic can do it. Just make sure you keep the receipt showing the work done.

We own older models of the Chevrolet Tahoe and Cavalier. How will these vehicles run on the new E85 fuel?  Is there something I should do to insure maximum efficiency for the new E85 fuel?
— Clarence H., Glencoe, Ark.

Don’t use it! E85, which is 85 percent ethyl alcohol (ethanol) and just 15 percent gasoline, is designed for use in flexible-fuel vehicles. Their engines are built to run on a variety of different fuels. Using E85 in any other vehicle, such as yours, will cause problems.