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April 29, 2011

Car Talk

Brake-line problems probably not the only problems with their older car

Syndicated columnists

Dear Tom and Ray:

We have a 1996 Plymouth Voyager with more than 130,000 miles on it that I use to transport our kids everywhere. On four separate occasions, the brakes have failed completely with absolutely NO warning ... no warning light, no gradual diminution of brake function, just "Now you have 'em, now you don't." Each time, it was revealed that a brake line had snapped (and each time, the offending line was replaced). This also happened once with a steering line (the steering wheel locked in traffic). I feel the van is unsafe to drive, and would like to replace it with another vehicle. My husband insists that as long as the brake lines are replaced, it's safe to drive. What do you think? Have you ever heard of this problem before with this make of vehicle? PLEASE ANSWER!
-- Alexis

Ray: We replace miles of rusted-out brake lines and fuel lines every year.

Tom: And your husband technically is correct -- once all of those lines are replaced, they shouldn't break again for a long time. So the car CAN be made safe.

Ray: But here's the mistake he made -- and why you're driving around in terror: Once one of the brake lines failed, he should have insisted that all of them be checked and replaced immediately.

Tom: The car is a decade and a half old. If one brake line has rotted away due to age, weather and road conditions, don't you think the other brake lines are in approximately the same condition? After all, they've spent the past 15 years under the same car!

Ray: In fact, because we work in an area where the roads are salted during winter snowstorms, we pre-emptively check our customers' brake and fuel lines as their cars get older.

Tom: So it sounds like your husband is not big on pre-emptive maintenance. But because it's your life and the lives of your kids at stake, you have to insist that he get religion.

Ray: You need to have a mechanic check all the brake lines and fuel lines. Now that the power-steering line has been replaced, that shouldn't be a problem for a while. But the mechanic also needs to check everything else that wears out on an old car: the ball joints, the other steering components, the shocks and springs, the brakes, the tires, the amount of rust on the frame, mildew on the fuzzy dice -- everything.

Tom: And you need to get a list from him of everything that needs to be replaced in order to make the car safe, along with an estimate of what it'll cost.

Ray: Then you and your husband can sit down with that number, and decide whether you'd rather put that money into making your old van safe, or whether it's time to put it into a newer, more reliable car.

Tom: And if you want to make your opinion clear, Alexis, be sure to slip a brochure for a 2012 Honda Odyssey under the last page of the repair estimate.

(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)

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