I own a 2003 Ford Focus with a 2.3-liter engine that stalls (and sometimes shut off) only when it's raining hard so I took the car to my Ford dealer. They told me it would cost $95 an hour for diagnostics and a whole day for the technician to find the problem. Needless to say, I drove the car back home. The job would cost me several hundred dollars or more and that's not including the parts. I need your advice.
Lydia from Wilmington, Del.
Try spraying salt water on the sparkplug wires with the engine running. This should duplicate the conditions that cause the engine to stall. If it stalls, then you know the wires are bad and need to be replaced. Also, take the car to another Ford dealer or independent repair shop. The price you were quoted is way too high. Good luck.
$95 an hour and a whole day for a tech to find the problem?
If I found myself in this situation, I would question the service writer because, according to Ford's diagnostic labor outline (below), a pinpoint test of each component or circuit of a system takes only two tenths of an hour. In addition, if a repeat final quick test is performed, it takes another one tenth of an hour. And a road test only takes two tenths of an hour. These quotes are for the services of a skilled Ford tech. Sounds like Lynda better find another shop. Even if the shop charges an initial hour's worth of labor in addition to the costs quoted in the tables, the charges would still be significantly less than what she was quoted.
Why does Lynda's car stall only in the rain?
When excessive environmental moisture is present electrical problems tend to crop up because moisture provides an easy path to ground for a voltage leak. That's the reason why electrical plugs are sealed from the factory with dielectric grease or silicone, to protect against moisture. My suspicion is that Lydia's car has bad spark plug wires that are cross firing when it's wet outside.
What causes spark plug wires to go bad?
When the spark plug wire insulation gets old and worn from heat exposure, moisture is allowed to penetrate the wires and cause cross firing when it's wet outside. Wires that lay close to each other tend to exchange voltage, which results in cross or misfiring.
Can I test this theory myself?
Yes. Wait until dark and then raise the hood. With a water spray bottle filled with salt water in hand, start the engine and spray down the wires. If they're leaking voltage, you will see sparks jump between the wires. It will be quite an entertaining light show.
Can I change the spark plug wires myself?
Yes. Buy a set of wires for your vehicle/engine application. Then change one wire at a time, measuring each new wire against the old ones to make sure you have the correct length. Also make sure you only pull one wire at a time to make sure you plug into the correct voltage tower on either the distributor cap or coil.
I own a 2003 Ford Focus and when I use the brakes at high speeds, the tires and steering wheel tremble. It happens after a long ride and it is more pronounced when going downhill. Any thoughts?
Amelia from Washington
Have the brake rotors checked. It sounds like they are warped. Warpage occurs when the brake calipers stick after releasing the brake pedal. I think you'll find your problem here.
Brake pulsation is a common occurrence, so it's worth a closer look.
Why do brakes pulsate?
Brake pulsation (Amelia refers to it as "trebling") is the result of a buildup of heat and friction in the brakes. If you experience this symptom, have the brake calipers checked to see if they are sticking after the brakes are applied because this is a common cause of overheated rotors. The excess heat causes them to warp, resulting in "pedal pulsation." Why does it seem to happen more after a long ride or going downhill? Because in both cases, more heat is being produced.
What causes pedal pulsation?
Typically, rust and corrosion build up on the brake caliper slides, and this causes the brake pads to stick in the applied position after releasing the pedal. The problem occurs more frequently in salt belt states because salts are used to keep roads clear of snow and ice, and salt dissolved in water forms a corrosive mixture. Amelia lives in the state of Washington where they use calcium and magnesium chloride, rock salt and liquid sodium to clear roads during the winter months. Because the wheels, brakes, and rotors are exposed to weather elements (as well as the salt) they are more subject to rust and corrosion.
Exactly what is happening to the braking system?
Brake pads mount to the brake caliper, which is a C-clamp that straddles the disc or brake rotor. The caliper rides in either a metal slide, or a set of pins that allow it to shift left to right when the brakes are applied. When these slides or pins corrode from rust, they freeze up so that the caliper can't float when you apply or release the brake pads. So when you apply the brakes, and then release the pedal, the caliper stays locked in the applied position, causing the metal rotor to heat up and warp. When the pedal is applied again, you feel the brake pads riding on the warped rotor surface. It feels like the brakes are "trembling." The technical term for this sensation is "pedal pulsation."
What's the fix?
The fix involves freeing up the brake calipers, cleaning them of rust and corrosion, applying a specific lubricant designed for braking components, and resurfacing the rotors. Sometimes the rotors have to be replaced because there is not enough metal left on them. Finally, the brake pads must be replaced.
'Til next time ... Keep Rollin'
Tom Torbjornsen is an automotive expert of 38 years. An automotive journalist in good standing with the International Motor Press Association and Motor Press Guild, Torbjornsen has been the Repair and Maintenance editor for AOL Autos, At Home Portals, and many other websites. Hear his radio show AMERICA'S CAR SHOW, locally on AM1340 WKSN via the SSI Radio Network Saturday mornings at 8. See Tom's television show, "America's Car Show" on Buffalo's all new WBBZ TV, Channel 5 on Dish, channel 67 over-the-air and on Direct TV. The show airs weekly Wednesday nights 6:30-7. It is re-aired on Thursday mornings at 9 and Saturday mornings at 11. For more info on Tom Torbjornsen, visit AMERICA'S CAR SHOW website at: www.americascarshow.com. You can send Tom your car questions and TV show topic suggestions at: firstname.lastname@example.org. Find Tom's book, "How To Make Your Car Last Forever" in local Barnes & Nobel booksellers and online at Amazon.com.