Dear Tom and Ray:
I bought my used 2000 Nissan Xterra almost three years ago. Every once in a while it did this weird thing where all the dashboard functions froze. The tachometer, speedometer, temperature gauge, fuel gauge and digital odometer all stopped working. The odometer would, at first, be random nonsense. Then it would gradually fade away. It seemed to be happening when the car got hot, so I used my windshield cover and parked it in the shade most of the time, and it stopped happening. Then, after about two years, this past winter it started happening again. Now it's happening frequently. When I went for an oil change, I asked them to check the battery, which they said is fine. On the way home from the oil change, it happened three times. It happened twice the next day, and then everything stayed frozen until I parked the car. Usually the gauges would all freeze in position, but the last time it happened, they went to zero — as if the car were shut off. Is this dangerous? Is it some sort of short in the electrical system in the dashboard or something? Should I get it fixed? And will it be expensive? Thanks. — Nancy
Tom: Yes, yes, yes and yes.
Ray: It's not dangerous in the sense that your car is going to catch fire this afternoon (I don't think). But it's dangerous in that if there is a real mechanical emergency — like low oil pressure or overheating — you might not know about it because your dashboard gauges and warning lights don't work. And that could cause you to cook your engine.
Tom: Plus, it's not a great idea to drive without knowing how fast you're going.
Ray: It sounds like you have a bad instrument cluster, Nancy.
Tom: Sometimes the printed circuit boards in these instrument clusters fail. The problem often starts out intermittently because these tiny broken connections on the circuit board can be affected by heat or by hitting bumps.
Ray: Sometimes the circuit board can be repaired. We have a place that we send them out to. If they can find the bad connection, they can solder it and send it back to us.
Tom: Of course, that takes time, and the car will be in the shop with the dashboard apart while we wait and see if the board can be fixed — and then sent back.
Ray: But the alternative is getting your dealer to put in a whole new instrument cluster for you. That'll probably cost you close to $1,000.
Tom: You can try getting one at a junkyard, Nancy. But you'll still have to pay for the labor, and there's a chance that your "new" one will have the same problem as the old one — or develop it on your way home. And would that frost you!
Ray: If you're determined not to spend any money, if you have a portable GPS unit you can use that to tell you your speed. But that small screen is hard to read. And, like I said, if your oil pressure drops or the engine overheats and your dashboard warning lights don't work, your engine would be toast.
Tom: So, see if you can find a shop that can try to help you repair your circuit board first.
Ray: If that doesn't work, and if the car is otherwise in good shape and you plan on keeping it for another year or two, then the best thing to do is bite the bullet and replace the cluster. Good luck, Nancy.
(Car Talk is a nationally syndicated column by automotive experts (and brothers) Tom and Ray Magliozzi. Write to them at the Car Talk website.)