You might suspect that I want to do the Happy-Happy Joy-Joy dance over the successful landing of NASA's Mars “Curiosity" rover earlier this week. The technology spirits, however, have frowned on me. I'm stranded by a problematic car that's running a fever. So forget flying to Mars, I can't even drive to get a hamburger. If I had to name the system most likely to ruin a car, I'd say it's the cooling system. Let's ponder this earthly situation.
If you think gas is expensive, try a blown head gasket or even a toasted engine block. It's a risk factor in any climate. But the tropics are, of course, unusually harsh.
Modern cars, in order to save weight and get better mileage, are built using lightweight materials and intricate electronics. Aluminum, plastic, and transistors have supplanted cast iron, brass, and comparative simplicity.
Although I'm sure alloys are used instead of just the pure metal, I'll note that aluminum has a melting point of 1220 F or so. By contrast, for perspective, iron's melting point is 2797 F or so. I say “or so” because the few sites I checked varied by a few degrees on this note, not that I care, because the overall point is that I'm cautious with aluminum around heat. It is not a forgiving metal.
In fact, it's not a particularly friendly metal. Heat or no heat, aluminum doesn't always play well with others materials and fluids. Unhappy chemical reactions can result from old, degraded coolant, or so I am told. As for radiators, they are often made of plastic and aluminum, as opposed to the solid old brass of yesteryear.
Meanwhile, the fans that blow air over the radiator are often electrical, which is just one more system that can fail. Sure, old cars used fan belt driven fans (hence the name “fan” belt), but newer cars also use belts since that's how the water pump is driven. So, while a belt failure will strand any car, new or old, the additional cooling system vulnerability from electrical issues is largely a more modern thing. So I see more net risk here.
Overall, from my experience, it is a lot harder for a normal slob like me to maintain modern cooling systems. It used to be a 20-minute job to replace a thermostat. Replace a water pump? An hour or so, back in the day. But now? It's largely a job for professionals. There's just too much intricate and delicate stuff packed under the hood, all of it intermingled like a plate of spaghetti having a bad hair day.
Incidentally, modern is a subjective term. But I won't bother to argue it. And, also incidentally, aluminum components have been around a long time, but I'm talking about the general market tends here, not niches, so I won't argue that, either.
Still, here's how I see it: Modern cars have vulnerable cooling systems, and their engines are not forgiving of any resulting problems.
OK, so what's the solution?
One obvious priority is to ensure that a car has enough coolant in it, that the coolant is of the right type, that it has been mixed with the right proportion of water, and that it has been changed at the right intervals. And, of course, the bigger picture is to keep a hairy eyeball on the entire cooling system. This isn't general, no-brainer stuff anymore. Don't let the Village Idiot service your cooling system.
Unfortunately, not even the best maintenance can ensure success. I've had two cars with cooling system problems this year. In each case, little bitty electrical parts failed. There's no way to prevent that.
This leads to our last line of defense: the dashboard temperature gauge. Most of us know what it reads in normal conditions. Well, you can do what you want, but as for me, if the temp gets any higher than normal, I deal with it right away. I'm not one to try to nurse a hot car down the road. I've never played brinksmanship with aluminum.
Some people do, though. I've heard people lament, as their cars are junked, “But it only overheated a little bit.” That's like saying, “But I only dropped the vase onto the stone floor a little bit.” Hey, look on the bright side: You're getting a new car! And you'll pay for it a “little bit” at a time for 60 months.
But there is hope. One of my relatives has over 400,000 miles on a Honda. Another relative got over 340,000 miles out of his Nissan. Modern engines are machined to wonderfully tight tolerances, so if they are kept cool and are otherwise well-maintained, they can log impressive histories.
Still, for now at least, I can sound like a true curmudgeon. As I wait for my car to get fixed, I can mutter to random strangers, “They can put a man on the moon, and a rover on Mars, but they can't make a car that can get me to McDonald's."
Visit Ed Stephens Jr. at EdStephensJr.com. His column runs every Friday.