Tag: cars

Unsolved Mysteries: Why the Car Sometimes Won’t Start

black and white round car air filter
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

We recently paid off our car, and so naturally, trouble began. It was intermittent at first. I’d go to start the car in the morning, all of the systems would come on, but the engine wouldn’t start. Eventually, I’d get the car started, either by jumping it, or trying again and again to get it started. At first this happened maybe once every other month. Then once every few weeks. More recenly, it happened 4 times in one week. I recorded it when it happened because our service people have told me that the video sometimes helps them diagnose the problem.

Now, I am troubleshooter at heart. I started at my job at the helpdesk (way back in 1994, before “I.T.” was a term) and I had an intuitive feel for troubleshooting. So I was methodical about documenting what happened when the car wouldn’t start and how I eventually got it to start. I noticed, for instance, that if I turned it and the engine didn’t start, if I waited 10 seconds, the engine would start. I had video showing this. Eventually, I took the car to the dealer, where I’ve known the service people for 12 years now.

They ran a full diagnostic and couldn’t find anything wrong. They suggested that they keep the car overnight so that they could start it cold in the morning. I agreed to this, but the next morning, when they started the car, it started fine, and all of the diagnostics checked out: battery, alternator, everything they tested was fine. It was frustrating. It reminded me of when people would ask me for help with some technical issue with their computer and then as soon as I showed up, it magically worked. It’s not that I wanted there to be something wrong with the car; it’s that I don’t want to end up stuck somewhere because the car won’t start.

As I said, we’ve worked with our service people for a long time. They don’t want to fix something that isn’t broken just to make a sale. Still, I wish I knew what was cauing the problem.

The car was fine when I started it this morning. Also, once the car is started, the problem doesn’t happen again for the rest of the day. So maybe it is a fluke. Still, my gut tells me that after having the car for five-and-a-half years without a problem, and for this suddenly to be a problem, that something has changed. We just don’t know what it is.

For now, we are just winging it. We are heading on our first ever ski trip in early March–just a weekend so the kids can experience skiing and see if they like it–and I was hoping to have this issue fixed before then. If it happens when we’re at home, it’s nothing for me to jump the car from our other car. Jumping the car always seems to get the car started instantly, even though the battery in the car passed all of its tests. But if we are at the ski resort and the car doesn’t start, it means a call to AAA to get it started.

Ah, well. We’ve been lucky with our cars overall. Our other car (which we only drive locally when our kids have to be at different places at the same time) is a 2003 model with more than 150,000 miles and is running just fine. So I probably shouldn’t complain. I just don’t like not knowing why something isn’t working. And what’s worse, all of my experimenting has not led to any clear conclusion onto why the car starts some mornings, but not others.

It’s a mystery. And I don’t like unsolved mysteries.

ETA: Since writing this post, the car has started every day. The folks at the dealer suggested that maybe I wasn’t stepping on the brake hard enough when starting the car. That didn’t make too much sense to me since I’ve been stepping on the break the same way for 5-1/2 years, but I think maybe they are onto something. I’ve stepped on the brake hard when starting the car each day, and no matter how cold it has been, it has started right away. To me that says there is a loose or frayed electronic connection somewhere, but it least the car starts normally now.

Written on February 16, 2022.

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Technology is Amazing

high angle photo of vehicles parked near building
Photo by Stephan Müller on Pexels.com

Now and then, when I find myself taking technology for granted, I try to step back for a few minutes and imagine what my grandfather would have thought about the technology advance over the last 17 years since he died. My grandfather always seemed surprised and delighted by advances in technology. He would marvel at what seemed minor things to me: coffee heated in microwave ovens, Walkman cassette players, and of course, computers. He was an auto mechanic and the technology he was most familiar with was the internal combustion engine and its associated parts, but I remember him wistfully talking about how cars were being controlled by computer more and more–and this was twenty years ago. What he would think of today’s cars, which he called automobiles?

Improvements in automobiles seem steady and constant. Every new year introduces new models that improves upon previous ones. A new car might have one or two features that your old car didn’t have. Your next new car will have one or two more new features. Since cars last longer than they used to, these incremental improvements can sometimes seem like great leaps between two or three successive cars.

I’m not sure my grandfather ever really “got” the Internet. He sent occasional emails through AOL, but I think the concept of a globally connected peer-to-peer network of computers was largely beyond him. It just wasn’t in his experience. Cars were in his wheelhouse. He could see, if not entirely understand, the technological advances cars were making from one year to the next: fuel-injected engines, air conditioning, improvements in the manufacture of motors that required less maintenance over longer periods of time.

Many of the improvements I see cars these days are in areas of comfort and safety, and I suspect it is these improvements that would delight my grandfather more than anything else. I’m not sure that he ever drove in a GPS-equipped car, but I think he would have been tickled by the car displaying a realtime map of his location, and telling him when to make a turn. (“Backseat driver,” he would have said.) Still, imagining him driving with me in our own GPS-equipped car, I can hear him saying “Technology is amazing! It’s incredible that a bunch of satellites in space are beaming precisely timed signals to the car. I couldn’t have dreamed of such a thing!”

When I think about it, many, of not most, of the tedious parts of driving can be handled automatically these days. GPS plots your course, accounts for traffic, and can even provide data to self-driving cars to get them where they need to go. Cruise control has been improved so that the car will automatically keep distance with the car in front of you. Safety systems tell you when someone is in your blind spot, or when your car begins to drift from a lane. If someone suddenly slows down in front of you, your car will automatically slow down to avoid a collision. Cars can even park themselves.

If there was one feature that would blow my grandfather’s mind if he could see it, it would be the car camera view. In our car, when putting the car into drive or reverse and staying below 10 MPH, the four cameras on the car work in concert to generated a bird’s eye view of the car in its current location. You can see if you are inside the lines of your parking spot. You can see if anyone is passing behind you, or one to one side. It’s an impressive bit of mathematical interpolation that would delight my grandfather. I sometimes imagine him sitting in the passenger seat when I put the car into reverse. Up pops a live video of the car from directly overhead.

The "satellite" view in our current car.
The “satellite” view in our current car.

“Where is that picture coming from?” my grandfather would ask, his mouth forming an O like surprised child.

I’d point up to the sky. “Satellite overhead,” I’d say. I’d wait for his stunned reaction, and then I’d confess the truth. I’d point out the cameras, and explain how the computer in the car can take those images and translate them into the overhead view.

He’d recite his mantra: “Technology is amazing!” Grinning, he’d add, “We never had anything like this.”

Well, it’s fairly common these days, and I tend to take it for granted. Every now and then, I try to remind myself just how amazing technology is by trying to imagine what my grandfather would make of it.

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Car Trouble

Cars used to break down a lot more in the past than they do today. I take this as a clear sign of progress in quality improvement. Parts are made better and last longer than they used to. I read recently in Scientific American that cars last 12-15 years these days. I often hear someone talking about how they’ve had their car for 20 years and its running just fine.

Incidentlly, our CR-V is coming up on 18-years old and is running just fine. Soon it will be eligible to vote.

I was thinking about break-downs when I pulled into the driveway the other day, driving our Kia minivan. The Honda was parked there, covered in snow, and I wondered if it would start, or if it would need a jump. We don’t drive it often and during the first few months of the pandemic, I didn’t start it at all–and found that the battery had drained and needed a jump.

Getting out the Kia, I was reminded that not everything is perfect. The sliding door on the driver’s side doesn’t always close all the way and you have to give it a little extra shove. I’ve sprayed WD-40 on the mechanism and that seems to help for a time. It’s on my list to ask the mechanic about it the next time I take the car in for its regular service.

Anyway, we’ve had Kias for over 10 years now and they have been great cars, with great service, never a problem.

Yesterday morning I went to start the car, pushed the start button, and nothing happened. At least, the engine didn’t turn over. It is always an unsettling feeling when a car doesn’t start when expected. It’s not unlike a smoke detector chirping in the middle of the night.

The electronics in the car came on so the battery wasn’t completely dead. I looked at the side door, and noted it hadn’t quite shut all the way the previous night. I wondered if that somehow drained the battery enough that it wouldn’t start the car. Kelly was dubious. But I decided to jump the car to see for myself.

Fortunately, the CR-V was already parked facing the Kia (we have a kind of horse-shoe driveway). Unfortunately, it was completely covered in several inches of hard snow. I removed the snow, pulled the car closer, opened hoods, attched jumper cables, started the Honda, and then started the Kia.


I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve jumped batteries. Whatever that count it, it seems like I never get it right the first time. I get the postive and negative leads in the right spot on both cars. But for some reason, the car being jumped never starts on the first try. I have to jiggle the connections and make sure they are solid at least once each time. I got out of the Kia,adjusted things, got back in, and pushed the start button.

The car roared to life.

It has been fine ever since. Kelly is still dubious that it had anything whatsoever to do with the sliding side door. While it would be nice to know exactly what caused the problem, it was just a relief that it wasn’t anything more serious than a discharged battery. We have enough headaches as parents navigating a global pandemic without throwing car trouble into the mix.

Kia is the new Saturn


We’ve had our 2011 Kia Sorento for nearly three months now and I have not a single complaint about the vehicle, but universal praise. And Kia as a company is at least Saturn’s equal in customer service. Yesterday, among the various junk mail that fills the mail box on a Tuesday, was a $20 MasterCard gift card from Kia, as a thank you for completing the customer satisfaction survey they asked me to fill out a month or two ago. I had no idea at the time I complete the survey that I was going to be rewarded with the gift card, and I was happy to complete the survey anyway, and rank Kia very highly indeed. It was a pleasant surprise, therefore, to find the debit card in the mail yesterday, but it is also typical of my experience with Kia thus far. I loved my Saturn, and I thought Saturn was a great company and I was sat to see them go. But I have to say that so far, I love my Kia even more, and I have been very impressed by their company and especially their customer service, and I would have no hesitation in recommending them to others.

Addendum to the new car post

Yesterday, I posted about how we like the new car after two weeks of driving it.  In that post, I said:

One thing I don’t like about the car is that it doesn’t warn you when you leave the headlights on the way both of our old cars did.  But I suspect it shuts them off automatically if you forget, I just haven’t tested it yet.

This morning, when we dropped the Little Man off at school, I tested this out.  I left the lights on, shut off the car and locked it remotely, thinking maybe that would turn the lights off.  Nope.  We went into the school with the lights still on, and when we came out… the lights were off.  Apparently there is a timer in play that shuts them off after a minute or two after the car has been shut down. This would explain why there is no need for a little alarm to remind you the lights are on, and of course, this also makes moot the minor complaint I made yesterday.

The new car, 2 weeks later


We’ve been driving our new 2011 Kia Sorento for just over 2 weeks now and I figured it was time to summarize my thoughts on the experience so far.  Keep in mind that prior to this, I drove a 1997 Saturn SL1, which I bought new in late 1996 and on which put more than 120,000 miles.  It had power Nothing but overall I was happy with it.

If I was happy with the Saturn, I have been absolutely delighted by our new Kia.

Week took the Kia on a long weekend road trip to New York last weekend and it performed flawlessly.  I had the opportunity to make use of the cruise control, which made the long drive a lot easier on my knees and which also improves the gas mileage.

The car is bigger and roomier than what I am used to.  On Thanksgiving, our friends, with whom we were having dinner, asked us if we could bring an extra table.  We happened to have a spare dining room table and I was able to fit it easily into the cargo area of the car without having to move the rear seats.  It fit perfectly.  Having a lot of space back there makes life easier.  In the past, we’ve stuffed our Christmas trees awkwardly into one or another of our smaller cars and drove precariously back to the house, squished into the drivers seat being poked and prodded by branches.  I’m looking forward to this weekend when we can fit it in much more easily.

I’m still getting used to parking the car, as it is bigger than what I am used to, but the integrated rear-facing camera and backup warning system made parallel parking up in New York so easy.  I really like that system.

Kelly’s favorite feature so far are the driver and passenger seat-warmers.  And I must admit, they come in handy on cold mornings like this morning when I had to scrape ice from the car.  The defrost feature works fast, too, and apparently is integrated into the side-view mirrors, a touch for which I am extremely grateful.  One thing I don’t like about the car is that it doesn’t warn you when you leave the headlights on the way both of our old cars did.  But I suspect it shuts them off automatically if you forget, I just haven’t tested it yet.

It’s been doing pretty well on gas mileage, averaging about 25 MPG so far, but we’ve done roughly equal amounts of highway and city driving.  Actually, we’ve been using the car quite a bit, probably because it’s new and that’s what you do with a new car.  We typically drive 4,000 miles in  a year, but already we’ve put just over 1,000 miles on the car.

I really like it and I look forward to driving it.  As a car company, Kia has completely charmed me and I’ve been impressed by their cars and their salespeople.  And just today I got an email outlining our first maintenance, which, of course, is free.  My guess is that the service people will impress me just as much as the car and sales.

New car weekend

Our new addition

We bought a new car this weekend and after 14 years of driving my 1997 Saturn SL1 (which I bought new from Saturn of the Valley on October 22, 1996), I traded in that car as part of the deal.  The new car (pictured above) is a 2011 Kia Sorento.  The color, I am told by the folks as the dealership, is called “North Korean Green”.

Last week we test drove three different cars and over the course of the week, I contacted the various dealerships to negotiate pricing.  As it turns out, Kia was by far the best car for the money.  We paid well under invoice for the car and the car included a nice convenience package with stuff like heated seats, tinted windows, a roof rail, a rear-facing camera and backup system, and several other nice little options.  The folks at Honda pressed me pretty hard to MAKE A DEAL.  What can they do to close the deal, they asked me repeatedly.  I told them they were close on price but could they match Kia’s warranty and service:

  • 10 years/100,000 miles
  • 5 years of free roadside assistance
  • Free lifetime oil changes
  • Free lifetime tire replacement

No, Honda could not match that but they kept pressing anyway.  I finally told them so long and we decided that the Kia was what we wanted.

I went in on Saturday morning and met with Carlos, the salesman who showed us the car last week.  He sped me through the process of purchasing the vehicle.  I negotiated a good financing rate and after 2 hours at the dealership, I was driving home with the new car and leaving the old Saturn behind.

And can I just say: Buying from Fairfax Kia was a wonderful experience.  Our salesman never pressured us.  He gave us all of the rebates and discounts up front.  He was patient with us while we made our decision and he made the purchase almost effortless.  It was very different from my experience with Landmark Honda, where the salesman and managers were aggressive, virtually spamming me with email and who, although asking what they could do to MAKE THE DEAL, never seemed to listen to what I was saying.  If there is anyone nearby considering a Kia, go to Fairfax Kia and ask for Carlos.  He is outstanding.

And now a brief encomium for the Saturn.

I bought my Saturn brand new in the fall of 1996 after my previous car died suddenly and I never had a single complaint about the car or Saturn’s service.  Had Saturn as a company survived, I would most certainly have considered buying another.  When I traded the car into the dealer on Saturday, it had 126,300 miles.  I never had a major mechanical issue with the car, but I could tell it was getting old and straining.  Part of the reason we decided to get a new car now was so that we didn’t end up in a situation where one of our cars died and we had to rush into a decision.  Despite how much I like our new car, I will miss my old Saturn.  The picture above is how I last saw her, just before leaving the dealership.

Goodbye, old friend

But we are happy with our new car and we took it for a 300 mile round-trip drive today.  Here’s the family in Staunton, VA with our newest member:

Our new car


In a few days, my Saturn SL1 will turn 11 years old. And it’s still going strong. I don’t drive it nearly as much since moving to the D.C. area five years ago, but at 112,000+ miles, the car still impresses me.

Yesterday, for instance, I filled it up with gas having driven it further than ever before on a single tank of gas. My previous recorded distance on a single tank was 340 miles. Yesterday, when I filled the car up, I had driven 353 miles. I put 9.8 gallons of gas in the car, and if you do the math, that’s 36 miles to the gallon I am getting in my 11 year old car. That seems far better than most cars being made today.

I’m proud of my Saturn. It may not have all of the fancy bells and whistles of more contemporary automobiles (I have neither power windows, nor power locks, for instance), but what it lacks character it makes up for in reliability and mileage economy. If I ever need to get another car, Saturn would be the first place I looked.

110,000 miles

Yesterday, my 1997 Saturn passed the 110,000 mile mark. Today, as I pulled into the driveway after work, the odometer read exactly 110,011, which has a nice symmetry to it, and also happens to be the number 51 if you convert it from binary to decimal.

It amounts to about 9,400 miles/year. Keep in mind, however, that I had about 85,000 miles when I moved out to Washington. So in the first six year, I averaged about 14,000 miles/year. In the last 5 years I’ve averaged 5,000 miles/year.

And as a side note, I have the first stomach ache I’ve had in a couple of months.

Hypocritical bumpstickers

strausmouse will recall “existential bumper stickers” from high school. Yesterday, I ran into a new breed of bumper sticker, the hypocritical bumper sticker. The car in front of me had a large bumper sticker that read something like “Keep Earth Green”. There may even have been a reference to Kyoto on it. The car itself was a white Mercedes 190D. The “D” stands for Diesel and the exhaust pipes of this car were emitting a grayish-black smoke that smelled strongly of the aforementioned diesel.

Some might call this irony. I call it hypocricy.

Miles and miles and miles

My Saturn is ten years old today! It has 106,587 miles on it and it has never given me any signifcant trouble. When I first got the car ten years ago, it was my first new car ever. Here is what I had to say about it in my diary from October 22, 1996:

Yes, I am yet the latest member of the Saturn familuy. I now own a 1997 Saturn SL1 4-door, dark green automatic.

I drove the car for 69 months living in Los Angeles and I’ve been driving the car 51 months living in Maryland. When I moved from L.A., I had 86,000 miles on the car. That amounts to 1,246 miles/month worth of driving while living in Los Angeles, or a hair under 15,000 miles per year. Since I’ve moved to Maryland, I’ve driving the car an additional 20,600 miles. That amounts to 400 miles/month worth of driving while living in Maryland, or 4,800 miles per year. It’s pretty amazing that the amount which I drive the car since coming to Maryland has been cut by 66%.

It has been a good car, and has never given me any major trouble. The radio in the car has been stolen twice: once in L.A. and once out here. I haven’t replaced it since the last time it was stolen, well over a year ago. There are a few small scratches in the paint from wear and tear over the years, but for the most part, the car is in great condition and has served me well.