Starting problem likely has the easy solution of a loose cable

Dear Car Talk:

Buzz, our 2011 Toyota RAV4, let us down. Following a 65th wedding anniversary celebration, Buzz refused to start. As I beckoned to my favorite nephew with my crooked finger, he came over, smiled, popped the hood and said he would jump-start Buzz. Alas, after three attempts, Buzz did nothing. Favorite Nephew then looked more carefully, popped open a small cover next to the battery, pulled a wrench from his toolbox … smiled again and announced that he would restart the computer. It worked! He sent me on my 200-mile drive home with the wrench just in case! When I called the Toyota service department the next day, I was told that Favorite Nephew did the right thing. So I reset the clock and radio, and will mail the wrench back to Favorite Nephew – after I purchase a replacement to carry in the glove box. The question: Is it normal for a car to act like this? Are there precautions I should take, other than purchasing my own wrench that fits? – Claire

RAY: You should consider forcing Favorite Nephew into indentured servitude, Claire. Tell him if he plays his cards right, he might inherit a 2011 RAV4 someday.

I’m actually confused by his use of the phrase “restarting the computer.” But here’s what I’m guessing happened: The car wouldn’t start because there was a loose connection coming off the battery.

There are two cables attached to the battery. One is a ground cable that goes to the chassis, and the other cable goes to the power distribution box. If either cable doesn’t have a good, tight connection, the battery’s power will be unable to get to the rest of the car. So a jump-start, which just boosts the battery, might not help either.

So, what your favorite nephew probably did was remove the little black plastic cover on the battery terminal and tighten up the loose cable with his wrench. That reconnected the battery to the rest of the car, and everything worked fine.

You had to reset your clock and radio presets because the battery had effectively been disconnected while you were boozing it up at the anniversary party, Claire.

The connection simply may have shaken itself loose over the six years you’ve been driving the car. Or corrosion may have built up to the point that it was interfering in the transfer of electricity. Or maybe you had the battery changed at some point more recently, and the mechanic just didn’t tighten everything up correctly.

In any case, unless the terminals are badly corroded, I doubt you’ll need to perform the same procedure again anytime soon. But keep the wrench in your car anyway. Maybe you’ll be able to help another damsel in distress in a 2011 RAV4, Claire.

Pinging noises could point to a bad knock sensor

Dear Car Talk:

I have a 2015 Kia Sportage with 25,000 miles on it that I purchased new. At about 15,000 miles, I noticed a slight ping when slowly climbing hills. I tried changing gas, to no avail. Then I noticed that when I parked the car on a slight hill, facing either up or down, I got a loud noise for about a second or two when I started the car. It sounds like the bearings are starving for oil. I made a recording of this and took it to the dealer. They said it's a normal sound for newer vehicles. Pinging and bearing noise is the new normal? What's the next stage of normal – oil leaks and blue smoke? What do you think? – Dennis

RAY: That's the old normal, Dennis. Cars shouldn't ping at all these days. They all have knock sensors that automatically adjust the timing if you happen to get gasoline that has too low of an octane rating. So it's possible you have a bad knock sensor. But that would trigger a check engine light, and you didn't mention that.

It also may be something other than pinging that you’re hearing. Try putting a tank of the highest-octane fuel you can find in the car. If you still hear the noise at the same intensity, then it’s not pinging, it’s something else.

At that point, your dealer will need to hear it to figure it out. It could be a loose heat shield, or a loose or broken exhaust manifold bolt. Or almost anything.

As for the starting noises, car engines, especially smaller ones, do make more noise when they first start up these days, usually as the hydraulic lifters get pressurized. If it goes away in less than 15 seconds – which you say it does – I wouldn’t worry too much about it, as long as your oil level is correct.

But in any case, it’s good that you reported it to the dealer, and that it’s noted on your repair order. That way, if it does get markedly worse over time, and something really is wrong, you’ll have a record that you complained about it while the car was under warranty.

The other thing you can do is ask to drive a used, 2015 Sportage that the dealer has on the lot. See if it makes the same noises. The dealer is telling you that, essentially, “they all do that.” So drive another 2015 and see for yourself if they do.

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