Don’t spin out this summer

Dear Car Talk: Is it good to keep the traction control switch off in summer driving? – Sean

RAY: Why would you do that, Sean?

Traction control is kind of the flip side of anti-lock brakes. The anti-lock braking system (ABS) measures the speed of each wheel. If you’re stopping the car, and one of the wheels suddenly goes slower than the others, the ABS concludes that it’s locked up – which can cause you to lose control of the car. So, it pulses the brake many times a second to give you maximum stopping power just short of locking up the wheel.

Traction control uses that same system to detect if one wheel is spinning faster than the others. If it is, the system concludes that the wheel has lost traction and is spinning, which can also lead to loss of control of the vehicle. So, it uses the ABS to slow down that wheel until it regains traction.

Neither of these systems work unless and until you need them. They’re always on standby. And that’s the way you want them.

While snow or ice would be the most obvious reasons for a wheel to spin, they’re not the only ones. A summer rain, some leaked oil or a patch of loose dirt or sand can cause a wheel to lose traction. And when that happens, you want your traction control to work.

Plus, there’s absolutely no downside to leaving it on. You’re not “wasting” anything or wearing anything out. It’s inactive until it gets a signal that a wheel is spinning. Turning it off in the summer would be like turning off your home’s fire alarm when it’s raining. Sure, you could. But why would you?

This Saturn may be up in smoke

Dear Car Talk:

I bought a Saturn Ion new in 2003, and it has been really good to me.

During one period of time, I neglected to check the oil or change it when I should have. I then noticed it running a little rough, so I started changing the oil regularly again.

Now, I notice that when I come to a stop in traffic and take off, smoke comes out of the tailpipe for a second or two. I hate to get rid of the car, because, other than the smoking, it runs well. I tried over-the-counter products that are supposed to stop it from smoking, but they have not. Are there any stop-smoking products that actually work? – Jesse

RAY: Nicorette gum?

I’m not optimistic that you’re going to find a $10-in-a-can solution for this, Jesse. It sounds like you’re burning oil. And the “miracle” products at the auto parts store are really designed more for leaks than oil burning.

When they work (which is only occasionally), they work by softening up stiff, dried-out rubber seals and – hopefully – getting them to seal again for a while.

I think it’s likely that a dozen years ago, when you ran the car out of oil, you did some damage to the piston rings. And there’s nothing you can add to the crankcase that’s going to fix those now.

Plus, the car is 16 years old. Even if you hadn’t had an oil “incident” in the past, simple old age and high mileage might have caused this by now.

So, don’t get down on yourself, Jesse. You got more years and miles out of this car than anyone at Saturn ever expected you to. In fact, it’s probably a rarity when you see another one of these on the road. When you do, flag down the driver immediately and form a support group.

If you want to keep this thing on the road as long as possible, the most important thing you can do is the exact opposite of what you did in its early years. You now want to pay extra attention to your oil level and oil changes. Check your oil regularly and top it up when it’s down half a quart. Also, change the oil every 3,000 miles or so, because newer, cleaner oil will burn less quickly than old, dirty oil.

When that puff of blue smoke eventually becomes a steady stream – like a contrail from an F16 – that’ll be your cue that the end is nigh for the Ion, Jesse.