What the hell's going on with my car?
August 23, 2006 10:59 AM   Subscribe

CarRepairFilter: Help me figure out what's going on with my usually well-behaved car, and what, if anything, it might have to do with a letter I got from Acura back in January...

Basically, it looks like Acura made a deal with the EPA because the onboard computer in some of the '95-'97 models is not CA-emission-compatible. As a result, they're replacing (for free) the spark plugs, ignition wires, distributor cap/rotor on qualified cars with 75,000-150,000 miles.

As for my car: it's a '96 Integra, with about 140,000 miles. I'd say I put less than 10,000 miles a year on it, since I don't have much of a commute. I've been searching for a new mechanic for awhile, since the place I'd been going to went downhill fast. As a result, the car hasn't really been looked at in about a year.

There's definitely something up with the brakes, and I think the old mechanics might've had something to do with that; last time I was in, they made some comment about the back brakes being "20% on one side, and (less) on the other". For the record, their fix might've evened it out, but it also made the brakes very spongy. Right now they're very grabby, almost pulsing, and there's a ticking noise from the back brakes when I'm slowing down. This goes away when I apply more pressure to the brake pedal.

In addition to that, I think the clutch may be starting to go. But I could be wrong--this is my first standard-transmission vehicle, so I don't know what to look for. Over the past few days, the engine has been running rougher for a few seconds after upshifting, eventually kicking into a smoother ride. But it's only while accelerating; downshifting seems to be just as peachy as ever.

Long story short, I know I've neglected the poor thing and that I'm going to be dropping some money on car repairs in addition to the free fixes the letter mentions, but that's about all I know. (I'm not mechanically inclined.) Can you give me an idea of what might be going on, so I know what to ask about when I take it in?
posted by Vervain to Travel & Transportation (11 answers total)
You fail to mention where you live.. which might have a big impact on the answer to this question.

Spongey brakes can be caused by a few issues, such as air in the line, water or rust in the lines, old rotors/pads that need to be replaced, or a multitude of other issues (rusted lines, bad seals, problems with the break compressor thingy.. master cylender?)

If you haven't replaced the brakes in a while (30k miles?) it might be time for that.

As for the uneven wear, again, TONS of things can cause this.. An accident that causes the car to track funny. A siezed or partially siezed caliper (ie, the component that actuates the brake on the wheel cannot fully operate), or many of the problems above.

Pulsing is usually a sign of a warped rotor (brakes have a rotor on the wheel, a caliper with a pad that presses onto the rotor that is spinning with the wheel)

In other words -- Your car could need simply need a brake job ($300 in parts, prob $200 in labor) to fix the brake issue, or it could need more.

Acceleration issues
You basically need a 'tune up', which is mechanic speak for new wires, plugs, cap and rotor (if applicable). It usually costs ~$150. Definately get Acura to do this! It should clean up that problem.

GET YOUR OIL CHANGED I know you haven't lately!

General Maintenance
You should also goto the car parts store, and buy a new air filter for your car. It is a 10 minute job that will cost $10 (a stealership will charge you $50).

Also ask about your fuel filter, and how much it will cost to change (~$150. I did mine for $20 in parts, but its a pain to get to sometimes).
posted by SirStan at 11:57 AM on August 23, 2006

Your brakes should be attended by a shop, the clicking noise might be a damaged rotor, but I'm not exactly sure via your description.

As for your clutch, if you could describe its condition via the sound and more importantly the feel/slip-range that it has now, compared to where it was in its prime would be helpful. 140k on a clutch is good though!
posted by stratastar at 12:02 PM on August 23, 2006

So you don't actually know what the last shop did to your brakes? They just "fixed" them?

Spongy and grabby seem like opposite sensations for brakes; I would expect one or the other. Can you clarify?

If there's a pulsing feeling when you slow down, generally I would say your rotors are warped and need to be replaced. Rear rotors do a lot less work than front rotors, so it's common for them to be kept on the car for a pretty long time. My Integra had original rear rotors until around 110k miles. If yours are original too, I'd say it's time for new ones.

Do you have any idea how old your front rotors are? What about age of the pads, front and rear? I ask because it would be nice to avoid having all of that stuff changed if you don't need it. Most mechanics charge an arm and a leg for brake work. I would expect you to pay $500-$800 depending on how much work, front and back, they have to do on the brakes.

I'm also not sure what you mean by the engine running "rougher" after upshifting. Do you mean that the rpms stay high and then settle down a bit after a few seconds? If so, definitely sounds like your clutch is wearing out. Again, if it's original, I would say 140k is a good long life for an Integra clutch. $400-$500 maybe to get that replaced.

Really all you need to say when you take it in is, look at the brakes and look at the clutch. Both sound like they're worn out.
posted by autojack at 12:06 PM on August 23, 2006

Btw -- Clutchjob is probably $500-$1000,depending on the shop/complexity.

I would *not* get it fixed at the stealership. Look for a shop with a few acura's in the parking lot and go there.
posted by SirStan at 12:08 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: I live about an hour south of Seattle. The Northwest tends to be a pretty good place for cars, since the winters are rainy, not snowy, and they don't use salt on the roads. I don't know a whole lot about the early life of the car--I bought it used, four or five years ago, and it had more miles on it than usual--94,000 or so. (The Carfax report indicated that it was probably a daily driver for someone who worked at one of the military bases in...Georgia, I think.) And I can't say for certain when the last time I had brake maintenance or a tune-up was without digging up my car maintenance file, which probably means it's time to do that anyway.

The brakes: basically, they were spongy after the old shop did whatever they did (and no, they never did go into detail about it, which is one of the reasons why I'm switching). If they still are, I can't tell; the pulsing/ticking is now more noticeable by far. It's something like: brakes engage->tick->brakes lessen, repeat. Only for a certain range of braking, though; very light or very heavy braking doesn't result in ticking. The pulsing's still there, though. They're definitely overdue for some love.

Clutch, shifting and acceleration: This really started within the past few days. It seems to shift into gear just fine, then...it's almost like the car is less responsive for a few seconds, maybe a little shuddery, then something kicks over and the acceleration's back to normal. I've heard that Honda clutches are very forgiving in comparison to other cars, and this recent bout of touchiness is definitely out of character. I know it's not kosher to drive in 5th gear at 30mph, but it will do that/has done that with no apparent ill effects. I figured I'd have to replace the clutch at some point, if only because it was the car I learned to drive stick on. Oh, and I put in a K&N air filter a few years ago, which is the kind you're supposed to clean yourself...uh, which I will be doing when I get home, since I don't think I have yet.

SirStan, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were my dad. :)

Thanks to all for the advice. I hate taking my car in with no idea what might be going wrong--I might BE a clueless chick, but I don't want them to know that. The free work provided by the dealer includes an oil change, so that's a plus. I figure when I take it in I can at least have them give me an estimate on what else needs to be done, then find an independent mechanic who won't try to gouge me as badly. It's a great car, recent problems notwithstanding, and I really do want to keep it going as long as I can, even if my car care track record says otherwise.
posted by Vervain at 1:03 PM on August 23, 2006

You are actually putting close to 15K a year on it (unless you bought it used, and the previous owner was putting quite a bit more than that on it: 140K / 10 yrs old).

I just re-read your last paragraph, and it's a good thing I did, because otherwise I'd have been advising you to do some serious comparison shopping for cars to replace it. All old cars, unless they're meticulously maintained, reach a knee in their maintenance expense curve, where the amount of money you are about to have to spend places them in the category of "not economic to repair".

At that point, unless they have great sentimental or scarcity value, it's time to start looking around, because your car is about to turn into a boat, and start... well, go see the houseboat thread from Monday. :-)

If you ask around *enough*, it is likely you will be able to find an independent mechanic (mine is retired from 23 years running the local Monkey Ward's auto center) who charges a reasonable rate ($25/hr) and will let you bring your own parts if you want. They're out there; the problem is getting someone who knows one to *admit* to it. :-)
posted by baylink at 1:09 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: I did buy it used; the car had about 95,000 miles on it when I got it. 45,000 miles over 5-ish years...I'm putting more on per year than the 8000 I estimated for the insurance folks, but not that many more. Apart from the occasional trip to Tacoma or Seattle, I just use it to get to work (less than 5 miles away) and jaunt around town.

The last paragraph of my last post should probably be amended to "keep it going as long as it's practical". The car's paid off, which is a biggie for me. But while I do love the Integra, it's not the kind of crazy-fix-it love that my late lamented Rambler inspired. (Damn, I miss that car.)
posted by Vervain at 1:34 PM on August 23, 2006

The K&N filters are recommended to be cleaned every 50k miles. If yours is the sort that cleans with solvent and oil that they give you, just don't do it TOO often. If they are too heavily oiled, the oil can coat up sensors in your exhaust system and make them sad.

Definitely sounds like your clutch is getting ready to go. As I said, if it's an original clutch 140k is a nice long life for it. They aren't intended to last forever.

The pulsing definitely sounds like the rotors are worn. If the old shop told you the rotors were at 20% life or something, and they didn't actually replace them, then it's DEFINITELY time for that.

I love my 98 Integra too, and they ARE great cars. A new clutch and brake work aren't going to be cheap, but these are normal things to need at this point in the car's life. I don't see anything wrong with you wanting to do them and keep the car on the road.

One other thing you might want to do, whenever you get the work done, is ask them to do a compression test on the engine. At 10 years and 140k miles, the car isn't that old, but this will give you a general idea of the condition of the motor internally. It's as simple as hooking up a pressure guage in place of the spark plug in each cylinder and cranking the engine a few times, so they shouldn't charge you much for this at all. You want the compression to be even in all four cylinders. If it's not, you may be in for some more drivetrain work in the future :-/

What sort of Integra is this? LS? RS?

Do you have any idea if the radiator is original or not? If it's original, it has lived a VERY long life and may die on you soon. Integra radiators tend to last in the 100-120k range. Mine is happy currently with 119k, but I'm expecting it'll go before the year is out. Should cost you $300-400 for a new one.
posted by autojack at 1:52 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: I'm pretty sure it's an LS. Hatchback, nice enough to have the extras like A/C and a sunroof, but not nice enough for leather seats or a spoiler. (It did have an in-dash phone, which was later replaced with a CD player.)

I have no idea about the radiator's age, unfortunately. Guess that's part of the adventure of buying used. I had my old mechanic inspect the car after I first bought it--this was before they sucked--and they didn't say anything about it. Now you've got me thinking I should get it reinspected at the dealer's, just to figure out where I stand.
posted by Vervain at 3:20 PM on August 23, 2006

Yeah, sunroof but no spoiler is an LS. Right on.

Taking a look at the radiator should be easy enough. If there are no cracks along the top inside edge of it, and it's generally holding coolant, it should be fine for now, but be aware that it'll need likely replacing sooner rather than later. Mine in my old Civic looked fine until the day it came apart just as I got into the parking lot at work :) It's just one of those things.
posted by autojack at 3:39 PM on August 23, 2006

Response by poster: Update: Well, it looks like part of it might be the imminent demise of the timing belt, if today's jerking/shuddering and "check engine" light are anything to go by. (This was semi-determined after a frantic call to a more mechanically inclined relative.) On the plus side, the car's mini-freakout happened relatively close to home, and tomorrow I'm taking it to a mechanic recommended by another friend who drives an Integra. Thanks again, everyone!
posted by Vervain at 2:28 PM on August 24, 2006

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