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Rear drive is not all bad

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Question: Except for the most expensive cars these days, almost all cars are front-wheel drive. But unless one lives in a snowy or icy climate, I can't see any advantage to front-wheel drive — except to the repair people, who get to charge more to fix them. Am I missing something? If one lives in a warm-weather climate, is there any reason to buy a front-wheel-drive car? — Roger

Tom: Not really, Roger. As long as you can afford the payments on a Mercedes S430.

Ray: As you say, most reasonably priced cars ARE front-wheel drive. So if you choose not to buy a front-wheel-drive car, you pretty much limit your choices to little sports cars, trucks and expensive sedans.

Tom: But you're right about front-wheel drive. It has only a few real advantages. Its primary advantage is that it provides better traction in rain and snow, since the weight of the engine presses down right over the driven wheels.

Ray: And, since the front-wheel-drive design crunches all the mechanical parts up front, it also allows the overall size of a car to be smaller, which usually means improved fuel economy. Plus, placing the transmission up front leaves more room in the passenger compartment, since it eliminates the "hump" that covers the drive shaft. So front-wheel drive does have a few pluses.

Ray: But it also has one significant disadvantage: It's harder to work on. Since everything is jammed up front, you have to be Houdini to reach certain things, like water pumps, cylinder-head bolts and sometimes even spark plugs! And the longer it takes to reach things (i.e., the more parts that have to be removed first to get there), the more you pay your mechanic in labor charges.

Tom: In contrast, we had a rear-wheel-drive '79 Caprice in the shop the other day. And there was so much room up front that I was able to climb into the engine compartment, close the hood and take a nap.

Ray: Oh, is THAT where you were on Tuesday?

Tom: Yeah, until about 4 o'clock, when Craig started it up and the fan blade turned my coveralls into shorts.

Ray: Well, for that reason — among others — we don't recommend sleeping in the engine compartments of rear-wheel-drive cars. But they're great as long as rain — and more importantly, snow — is not a big issue for you, Roger.

Question: I recently bought a new 2001 Jetta GLX and drove it at 80 mph for the first 700 miles. I was told that this was not good for my new engine. Is this true? And if so, what damage have I done to my new car's engine? — Oliver

Tom: I wouldn't give it a second thought, Oliver. Just forget all about it. It's not even worth worrying about.

Ray: I mean, if you're really interested, you can read the owner's manual, where it specifically warns you not to do this because it prevents the piston rings from seating correctly and leads to oil consumption.

Tom: In case you haven't run across it yet, the owner's manual is a little book about half an inch thick — with large print — and it's probably sitting at the bottom of your glove compartment. Lots of new cars come with them.

Ray: But don't go through any trouble to read it, Oliver. It's not really important. When your Jetta is burning a quart of oil every 400 miles and your dealer says he doesn't know why, you will.

Question: I recently bought a used '98 3.0-liter Ford Taurus with no cruise control. It has about 10,000 miles on it. When driving at speeds above 40 mph, I've noticed that when I take my foot off of the accelerator to allow the car to slow down on its own, it seems to maintain its speed for up to 4/10 of a mile — and then it finally starts to slow down very gradually.

While cars ahead of me are able to slow down by coasting, I find my car rapidly closing in on them, forcing me to constantly brake hard just to keep from running into their back bumpers. Do you have any thoughts as to what might be causing this? — Frank

Tom: Well, now you know why the previous owner sold it with only 10,000 miles on it, Frank!

Ray: Actually, it's not clear to me that there's anything wrong. I haven't driven a '98 Taurus recently, but some cars are just better "coasters" than others.

Tom: My brother's a particularly good coaster. He coasted through all three of his years in eighth grade.

Ray: Actually, I was thinking of the most recent Buicks we've driven, which were particularly good coasters. That said, 4/10 of a mile is a long way to coast without any sign of slowing down.

Tom: You need to do an experiment, Frank. You probably have a tachometer in your car (if not, ask your dealer to hook up a temporary one for you). The tachometer measures your engine speed. What you want to do is take the car out on a level road and get it up to 40 or 50 mph. Then take your foot off the gas. When your foot comes off the gas, you ought to see an immediate drop in the engine speed. It won't drop all the way down to idle speed, but it should drop down to between 1,000 and 1,500 rpm.

Ray: If it DOES drop, then I'd say nothing is wrong, and your car is just a particularly accomplished coaster. But if the engine speed doesn't drop — and I suspect that's going to be the case — then something is causing your throttle to stay open, and that's what's causing you to coast for so long.

Tom: Armed with that information, your dealer should be much better able to help you, Frank. Good luck.

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. If you have a question about cars, write to Click and Clack Talk Cars c/o King Features Syndicate, 235 E. 45th St., New York, NY 10017. You can e-mail them by visiting the Car Talk section of the Web site www.cars.com.