Your engine won’t care if it turns off – but you might

Dear Car Talk:

We have a 2017 Ford F-150. It has a gas-saving feature that turns the engine off when we stop at a traffic light for more than a couple seconds. My husband turns the switch for this feature to “off” every time he starts the truck. He thinks it’s hard on the engine to stop and start over and over.

If that's true, why is it offered as a feature? I agree that what he thinks makes sense, but I'm confused as to why it came with the truck then (I always leave the feature on, mostly because I forget about it until I stop). What is the answer? Thank you. – Cathy

RAY: The reason almost all new cars come with automatic stop-start systems is because they save fuel and cut down on pollution.

They’re especially useful in cities, where cars spend an inordinate amount of time sitting still, like 4,000-pound mobile air conditioners. But even in suburban and rural areas, there’s no good reason to waste fuel and pollute the air while you sit, doing nothing, for 60 or 90 seconds at a traffic light.

The reason they offer an “off” switch for this feature is because, depending on how well it’s executed, the stopping and starting of the car can be annoying to the driver. We drove one SUV where the stop-start system was practically undetectable. The next week, we drove a different SUV in which it drove us bonkers and made the whole vehicle shudder every time it restarted.

To answer your husband’s concern, the engine really couldn’t care less how many times you start and stop it. In fact, the less it runs, the longer it lasts. So arguably, you’re prolonging the life of the engine by allowing it to shut off regularly.

There was some concern that these systems might lead to early failure of starter motors. In reality, we just haven’t seen those problems yet. It’s possible they’ll develop in the coming years. And, in fact, if your husband is really convinced they will, he might want to put your IRA in starter-motor futures. But, given the big picture, and the positive effect these things have on the air we breathe, my advice to your husband would be to use the system, unless it drives him crazy.

Of course, he won’t take my advice, so that’ll be my advice to you, Cathy. We’ll make you a bumper sticker. “Save the planet: Don’t turn off the stop-start feature.

You won’t get too far with only a car’s VIN

Dear Car Talk:

I'm in the market for a new (to me) truck. I'm looking for a 2015-2017 Chevy Silverado or GMC Sierra 1500. Is there a way that I can tell the bed size, engine, etc., from the VIN? – Bill

RAY: Yes. The Vehicle Identification Number (VIN), usually seen from outside the car just inside the windshield, is a code that provides access to a wealth of information.

You can read some of the information yourself. For instance, the first few digits tell you the country the car was manufactured in and which company sold it. The rest, unfortunately, is in code that is created by each manufacturer.

That’s the information you want. And what you really want is called a “build sheet.”

By entering the VIN, a dealer can get a build sheet, which is a printout of how the car is equipped. That includes engine size, transmission, bed size, interior specifications and even factory options.

If you have a friendly dealer nearby (perhaps they’ll be interested in servicing your new truck and be willing to help you out now?), they can put a VIN in their computer and print you out a build sheet in a few seconds.

There’s some information on the web that can help you decode your specific VIN. If you’re willing to do some research, you may be able to tease out the information you want on your own.

But most of the online services that will decode your VIN for you will charge you something for it. And not all of them will even offer you a build sheet.

CarFax is the most famous of the companies that uses VINs to provide potential buyers with reports about the history of the car’s title. That’s not a bad idea when you’re buying a used car, but the sample reports we’ve seen from CarFax don’t provide a lot of build data. What you want will come most readily from a dealer, Bill. So, bring some donuts and a few VINs, and see if you can make a friend in the parts department.

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