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Car talk: Automatic means just that — duh!

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Question — I have a 1993 Toyota Camry four-cylinder with an automatic transmission and overdrive. My girlfriend uses it occasionally and feels it's ridiculous to manually engage/disengage the overdrive when I tell her it's necessary to. Her point is, what's the use of having an automatic transmission if you have to shift it? She will soon be driving the car regularly, and I'm wondering if her leaving it in overdrive all the time will cause strain or worse problems for the transmission? — Mike

TOM: Mike, pay attention, because we're going to ask you a very important question: Would you rather be right, or would you rather be happy?

RAY: Actually, it's not a terribly important question for you, Mike, since you're not going to be EITHER this time. But it's a good question to keep in mind when future "relational" disputes arise.

TOM: In this case, your girlfriend is right. The automatic transmission shifts into the appropriate gear all by itself. Hence the name "automatic."

RAY: When the car gets going above a certain speed, and you're not accelerating hard or climbing a hill, it shifts into overdrive to slow the engine and save gas.

TOM: And there's only one very specific condition under which you might want to take the transmission out of overdrive. If you're driving right at the speed where the transmission shifts from third gear to overdrive, you may find the transmission is "hunting."

RAY: That's the same thing baseball players do in the off-season. Only in this case, it refers to the transmission shifting back and forth a lot, looking for the right gear to be in.

TOM: And it doesn't hurt the transmission. It just has the capacity to be annoying to the driver. So if it bothers you, you can temporarily take the transmission out of overdrive until the road conditions change.

RAY: But if it doesn't bother you — and clearly, it doesn't bother your girlfriend as much as YOU'RE bothering her — you can just follow Bobby McFerrin's famous advice: Don't be shifty, be happy.

Question — I have a '96 Cadillac Seville SLS. The problem is smoke coming out of the steering column. I've had the car back to the dealer about three times, and the mechanics still can't fix it. Smoke comes out around the steering wheel, and the column gets hot near the hazard-light switch. The dealer said there was too much grease on the turn-signal switch, causing the smoke. Does that sound plausible to you? I worry about the car catching fire. — Clete

RAY: I'd worry, too, Clete. Smoke from the steering column is not a problem you'd expect to have on a $45,000 car. I mean, if my brother's '52 MG smoked from the steering wheel, I wouldn't be too concerned.

TOM: Concerned? I'd have heat!

RAY: Unfortunately, the "too much grease" story smells of bull feathers. Of all the customers' cars I've set fire to over the years, none of them went up in smoke because I used too much grease. Grease can't cause a fire. It has to be ignited by something else.

TOM: And my guess, in your case, is that it's the directional switch. We had a customer with a similar vintage Chevy Lumina, and his directional switch had to be replaced three times (for free) by the dealer because it was causing the same problem.

RAY: Take it back to your dealer — or another dealer — and ask him to try a new directional switch. Tell him there ARE things you enjoy smoked like salmon . . . but your steering column is not one of them.

The Magliozzi brothers' radio show, "Car Talk," can be heard Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Sundays at noon on KUER FM 90.1, and on KCPW 88.3/105.1 FM Saturdays at 9 a.m. and Sundays at 10 a.m. Write to Click and Clack Talk Cars c/o King Features Syndicate, 235 E. 45th St., New York, N.Y. 10017. Or visit cartalk.com.