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Understanding Car Talk: What You Need to Know

Sept. 14, 2015 at midnight

When you take a trip to Mexico, it helps to speak Spanish. You’ve got to know the basics: how to say good morning, please, where’s the bathroom, and thank you.

Likewise, when you walk into an automotive dealership or into a repair shop, it’s helpful to speak car. Otherwise, you’re at a disadvantage when the sales representative or mechanic starts talking technically. It may sound like English—but with unfamiliar words and phrases—and the overall meaning eludes you.

So if you can't tell your differential from your chassis, read on. By the time you finish this article, you should have a firmer grasp of the lingo. Learn enough to make looking under the hood an educational experience rather than a bewildering one.

What you need to know

Every car comes with a manual. Retrieve it from the glove compartment. Open it. You’ll see helpfully-labeled pictures or photos of everything in your car, from headlights to the exhaust pipe.

Pop the hood, and start dinking around the chassis, which encompasses the engine block. Not everything is going to be obvious. It may be a system inside a bigger system, but you can get the general layout.

Identifying the battery is easy. If you ever require a jumpstart, you’ll refer to the helpful + and – labels by each terminal.

Find all the reservoirs for liquids. The gas tank is usually under everything else. You already know how that’s filled. Find your windshield wiper fluid, check your oil and the level of water in your radiator. Bonus points if you check the transmission fluid. Okay, just look at it. Your car needs to be cold—not driven for a couple hours—before you do this. If important fluids are low, you need to top them off and find out why they’re low because this could damage your credit card if it’s not a one-off problem.

Locate the transmission. When you drive, it shifts to match the engine’s RPM (revolutions per minute) and torque (a fancy word for power) depending on how you’re driving. If there’s a problem with the transmission, it ’s the most expensive repair you’ll ever make.

Found the fuel pump? Think of it as a gremlin. When this part fails, your car will stop dead in its tire tracks. Unfortunately like your hearing, you don’t know it’s going to fail before it does.

What are all those hoses? Follow them with your eyes and your fingers. When one blows, sometimes a quick wrap duct tape will get you to a garage for a real repair. There’s one big belt called the Serpentine. You need to inspect this regularly—or have your mechanic do it, because if it cracks, it needs replacement. Trust me, you don’t want it to rupture.

Close the hood, and look at your tires. Some newer cars have a sensor that will let you know if the pressure ( measured in pounds per square inch or PSI) is too low, but you can also use a tire gauge. The ones at gas stations are notoriously inaccurate, so get your own; it won’t set you back more than a few bucks. You might

also like a plug-in air compressor so you can fill your tires at home when they’re cold, which is recommended. Again, the manual or the sticker inside the door will tell you the proper tire pressure. It could be different for your front and back tires.

The Anti-Lock Braking System, or ABS, keeps your brakes from locking up by lowering the braking force. You ’ll sense it working—it’s the vibration under your foot on the brake—on slick or icy roads. Don’t buy a car without ABS, as it’s a lifesaver.

Power can be expressed in a number of ways, including that zero-to-60 miles per hour acceleration statistic. What you need to know is whether you’ve got a V4 or V6 or V8 engine: how many cylinders are pumping inside the combustion engine. Higher numbers usually mean quicker acceleration.

Look inside at the dashboard dials. You probably have no idea what the tachometer's for. It measures your engine speed in RPM. Just know that if you drive your car too fast for too long, and the needle’s in the redline, your risk of engine damage is high.

Some final thoughts

Nowadays when you go to buy a car, you’re immediately confronted with a decision. Do you want a traditional gasoline-powered car? Or do you want a hybrid that works off of a lithium battery—charging it as you drive. Hybrids revert to a gasoline engine when they need more power.

Then there are the all-electric vehicles that charge overnight in your garage. If you select one of these babies, you’ll never stand at the pump again. True, you probably need to be a millionaire to afford a Tesla—Consumer Reports highest-rated car ever—but there are other makes and models available.

It’s fun to consider all your options when you’re looking to buy a car. And if you don’t understand something when the dealer is talking, ask for clarification. Dealers really do love to talk cars, and they will be happy to explain. Plus, your mechanic will understand when you tell him your car’s making a peculiar noise. You’ll impress him if you can tell him exactly where the noise is coming from.


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