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Explain how a car engine works to a 6-year-old? They’ll learn nothing

Hi Baraza,

Over the past one year I have been reading your articles and have to say nowadays I find myself making smart car comments thanks to you, even though I am yet to own one. I was asked by my nephew whether cars have stomachs and the questioning deteriorated towards embarrassing as I tried to explain how cars “drink” fuel and use it to move.  Would you be so kind as to explain the working of a car engine in a way that a six-year-old would understand. Alexius M

I have wracked my mind-brain for a clean week-and-a-half concerning this matter and arrived at the following conclusion: a six-year old will never understand the working of a car engine, no matter how oversimplified the explanation gets.

The best one I can come up with is this: petrol goes into the tank, from the tank it goes to the engine, in the engine it gets burnt out of sight and this burning produces the vroom-vroom sound and makes the car move.

Anything beyond this will start involving talk of combustion cycles, crankshafts, chemical reactions, compression and whatnot, and 1. Six-year olds have no idea what these are, and 2.

Six-year olds have notoriously short attention spans and you will probably lose them long before you start explaining the role of a fuel pump

INACCURACIES

As a car enthusiast, I find your responses to queries from your readers factually accurate…most of the time.

However, your take on the debate between the Merc E240 211 and the Bima E39 had glaring inaccuracies, first of which was that the E240 is a 2600cc V6 engine, and not 2400cc as is commonly assumed.

The E39 Bima has a straight six, or inline engine if you like, that is 2500cc. The differential 100cc is in favour of the Merc.

Secondly, the Merc doesn’t have the electronic issues you mentioned. The starter regulates the cranking and automatically disengages once the motor fires, leading to almost no wear and tear.

The central locking/plipper, electrical windows, etc. are all regulated by a system called Canbas, which makes diagnostics practically kids’ play given the right tool set.

I suspect the people who have had issues have never really had their cars worked on by experts.

COMFORTABLE RIDE
Thirdly, the Merc has a more comfortable ride with excellent response. The 211 was a vast improvement on the 210 and can take on the Bima, both in straight runs and cornering.

The details are in the suspension system. I own both cars and overall, the Merc takes our road conditions well and ages very gracefully compared to the Bima.

I suspect it’s the reason you will find them, rather than Bimas, serving as VIP escorts in the presidential motorcade.

Please Countercheck my facts and revise your views accordingly.
L Khafafa

Interesting. From your response, I can tell you are a Mercedes fan (and possibly pundit), a fact that comes to light given that you have chosen to extol the virtues of the wrong car.

You are talking about a W211 while my response was in reference to the W210; the same car that you say the W211 was a vast improvement of.

The E39 BMW 5 Series was a direct rival of the W210, not the W211. The latter Merc’s BMW competitor is the rather awkward-looking E60 model.

That said, I agree with all your views about the W211, more so in comparison to the E39, but why compare fresh apples with overripe oranges? The oranges don’t stand a chance, do they?

While the E39 vs W210 showdown leaves a noticeable gap between the two Teutonic titans — a gap in favour of the blue propeller — a similar standoff between both their successors makes it harder to pick a winner.

Sure, the W211 is far prettier than the E60 (a minger, if you ask me), but the E60 is more of a driver’s car. The E60 is more responsive, the W211 is more comfortable.

GEARBOX IMPROVEMENT

The E60’s automatic gearbox could do with some improvement; the W211’s manual gearbox could do with some improvement.

The E270 CDI and E320 CDI are paragons of efficiency, the 530d can be an alternative M5 through some simple tweaks and increasing the boost pressure in the turbos.

This leaves one in a quandary. Mid-size premium German saloons are as much about status as they are about comfort, and nowhere will you find gravitas and pamper if you can’t find it in a Mercedes.

But German saloons are also about blowing cheaper machinery out of the water, both on an autobahn at 300km/h and in a twisty backroad on a Sunday morning, and the BMW is the Walther PPK you need for this exercise: it handles better and is faster than the equivalent Benz.

For a good ride, get the Merc. For a good drive, get the BMW.

Hi Baraza,
Congratulations on the good work you are doing to enlighten us about cars.

My question is related to tyres. Who or what determines the use of low- or high-profile tyres? Are there any significant benefits or differences between them?
Fred

Hello,
The use of low or high-profile tyres is determined for the most part by two factors: personal preference and application.

Personal preference: The biggest difference in these tyre types is felt most by the driver/owner. Low-profile tyres trade mostly on looks and appearance, while high-profile tyres offer greater comfort.

More often than not, the low-profile tyres you see fitted on cars are put there because they simply look good, while thicker sidewalls are normally used where a plushy ride is the desired effect.

Application: There is the 10 per cent or so of drivers who install tyres according to exactly how they intend to use them. Low-profile tyres are good for handling and road-holding, which is why any vehicle with sporty pretensions has them.

The thinner sidewalls resist flex to a higher degree compared to taller rubbers, thus eliminating understeer and/or oversteer, and also sharpen the handling.

In a vast majority of cases, tyres with thin sidewalls tend to have a wider tread, which in turn means increased grip levels.

OFF-ROADING
High-profile tyres are ideal for off-roading. The chunky doughnuts allow for a more detailed and deeply grooved tread pattern and also give allowance for regulated tyre pressures (different off-road conditions call for different tyre pressures).

The fatter air cushion also filters out the bumps, holes and surface imperfections that define off-road conditions.

There is also reduced risk of damage to the rims and/or the tyres themselves peeling off the rim in extreme conditions.

Hi Baraza,
I have used Xado Revitalizant and trust me, it works! I used the 1 Stage Engine Revitalisant in my 2005 Nissan Wingroad and there is a significant difference, especially with power output. I read that you also want to use Revitalisant for automatic transmissions in your Mazda Demio (Haha!)… It’s strange since you never tell us the things you use in your car. Do you also run on V-Power?

Hello,
Interesting. So the Russian juice works, eh? I’m almost at the end of the research stage with the Xado gearbox oil and my results will be out sooner rather than later.

One question, though: the power jump you refer to, is it an actual increase in power or is it better engine response? I don’t think an oil additive would contribute anything to the power output of an engine unless there was compression leakage originally which has since been cured.

Now, to my Demio. It has a manual transmission (Duh!), not automatic, and it is the guinea pig in use for the experiment mentioned above. I sometimes run on V Power but have no particular formula.

I put about 20 litres of V Power every now and then, the now and then in question being 1: when I can afford it and 2: if I can afford it and the pump attendant asks, “Premium or V Power?”

Hi,
There is no turning back once you go Prado. I bought a 2006 VVT- I and keeping to the speed limits and below 2500rpm, it uses less fuel to Kisumu than my Noah. Now I find excuses to travel upcountry often. You are right.

Of course I’m right: a 5-door Landcruiser Prado is about all the car you will ever need if your driving covers a wide range of conditions and includes an equally wide range of loads, both human and nonhuman; and your situation precludes the ownership/operation of more than one motor vehicle.

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If you have driven the J90 Prado, you have set the bar quite high

Hi Baraza,

You are doing a great job to demystify cars for us, lay people. I’m in a bit of a quandary; I have been driving a superb, go-anywhere-anytime Toyota Prado with an indestructible 1KZ power plant.

In the seven years I have driven “the beast”, it has never let me down! Unfortunately, with 250,000km on the clock, the beast is showing signs of old age and I feel it’s time for an upgrade.

I’m torn between upgrading within the Prado family to a 2007 to 2009 model with the D4D power plant, getting a Land Rover Discovery 3, or a 2009 to 2010 Mitsubishi Pajero.

I’m a simple guy, and here’s what I’m looking for in a car:

  1. It’s got to be able to haul the clan there and back, so the third row of seats is non-negotiable.
  2. It must be capable of, and always be ready to, tackle some serious off-road for those days when the heart fancies that impromptu run to the Mara, or shamba-searching in the back of beyond.
  3. I’m not too sure what kind of economy and/or service the propellant options give but I’ve always been partial to diesel, perhaps because old-faithful gives good testimony to the “dirty” fuel. It’s consumed the sludge we have here masquerading as diesel with nary a complaint all these years.
  4. Being your typical Kenyan, I also have an eye on resale value (the beast, as an example, has actually appreciated in shilling value these many years later!).

I’ve heard diverse things said about the three cars I’m considering, ranging from “unreliable” regarding the D4D, “cancerous” regarding the Disco, to “lazy” regarding the Mitsu! I’d really appreciate your wise counsel as I fumble through this decision-making maze.

PS: I’m not ashamed to say that I’ll miss the beast. Sob, sob!

Robert Macharia

Hello Bwana Macharia,

This might sound like marketing parlance, but it isn’t. Now, if something ain’t broken, don’t fix it. The 1KZ-equipped (I presume J90) Prado is unstoppable, I know, and so is the J120.

The car ticks all the above boxes convincingly, whereas numbers 3 and 4 might prove to be problematic for the other two in one way or another.

Over and above that, as a follower of this column, you must by now know that the Discovery 3 is like a holiday romance: achingly beautiful, impeccable first impression, does everything right and causes a stirring in the soul — the kind of stirring not entirely dissimilar to raw desire.

But, like a holiday romance, it only works in the interim; get into a long-term relationship and the dark side of the moon unveils itself and that achingly beautiful shell becomes nothing but a fancy frock for a fickle filly, the character does not match the looks, or the implications thereof.

They are horrendously expensive to maintain and, in the long run, they might end up causing more pain than satisfying a seven-year itch… just like a holiday romance. Careful who you hook up with this Christmas, bro!

Where the Discovery is unreliable, the Pajero is weak; and not just under the bonnet. The frame, too, is not exactly what you’d call Hercules-class.

Structural rigidity is below par to the point where extended off-road use twists the chassis. A close friend who works in a government ministry says he has been through two or three of these cars and all suffered the same problem: the shell cracked and started splitting along the B-pillar.

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Hello Baraza,

My childhood dream was to drive a Land Rover in the muddy, red soil of Murang’a, thanks to the inspiration I got from seeing our local priest roaring through the village in one. As altar boys, we enjoyed the ride, especially during the rainy season.

What is your take on buying a Land Rover Defender for town driving and travel to the rural areas, as well as the occasional adventure? And which alternative is comparable to the Defender?

Hello,
Don’t buy a Defender for town driving. The ride is extremely hard and punishing to the human frame, which might explain why the policemen you encounter at night are always in a bad mood.

The seats, too, are hard. You might need it for adventure, though, such as the upcoming Great Run 6, because the Defender is damn near unbeatable when it comes to extreme off-road driving.

The Defender’s direct rival is the 70 Series Toyota Landcruiser. Both are available in the exact same permutations: 3-door estate, 5-door estate, single-cab pick-up, double cab pick-up and the extended-chassis tourist vans. Both are very uncomfortable, which might explain why those policemen are still in a bad mood even after switching from Land Rovers to Landcruisers.

However, the 70 Series is a little less jarring than the Defender. Both share the same iconic, never-gets-old, designed-using-a-ruler-only breeze-block, aerodynamically unsound square shape, and both have elementary interiors and rudimentary drivetrains.

The Land Rover carries the advantage slightly, in that the latest version contains contemporary electro-trickery such as ABS, EBD, traction control and such. The Toyota is still the same car that was on sale 20 years ago. The Defender is also available with a wider range of engines, starting with an ultra-modern, super-smooth and economical 2.2 litre turbodiesel all the way to a huge, stonking 4.4 litre petrol V8. The Toyota, for this market, can only be had with straight-6 engines: a 4.2 litre diesel (no turbo) or a 4.5 litre petrol.

One other option is the Russian UAZ jeep, but no, you wouldn’t want that. It is crude to the point of being absurd: interior lighting is by the kind of onion bulb people had in their houses back when the 70 Series was new (30 years ago). It is an unfathomably hostile environment to sit in for longer than two minutes and the massive panel gaps mean one can almost enter the vehicle without opening the doors. It is that bad. I don’t know if they are still on sale locally.

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Dear Baraza

In one of you previous articles you mentioned why it would not be advisable to buy a VW Touareg diesel since Kenyan fuel has its challenges.

I am a Kenyan living in the UK and in a year or two I will ship a car home. Does this diesel challenge apply to all VW models like the Tiguan, Passat, and Jetta?

I am asking this because of the European love for diesel cars. You will notice most of the larger VWs are currently diesel and the proportion using petrol is relatively small. Does this mean I change the brand, or is the diesel problem unique to the Touareg? I await your feedback with bated breath.
ML

Hello ML,

Play it safe and stick to petrol engines whenever you come around.

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Hello Baraza,

Thanks for your great work. You won’t believe how many Wednesday Daily Nations I have bought since I “discovered” you. Here are my questions:
Suppose I want to get an automatic Subaru Forester, years 2000 to 2002:

  1. What are some of the red flags to look out for?
  2. Do you think I can find a reliable one from those years?
  3. On average (I know these things fluctuate a lot), how much do you think I need to service the car every year?
  4. How significant a factor is mileage when buying a used car?
  5. Anything else you think I should know?

Andy

Hello Andy,

  1. Watch out for a Check Engine light; this could be a symptom of failed oxygen sensors and was a problem endemic to the first-generation Foresters. Also, make sure that the automatic transmission works right: no jerking, hill-holding, quick, decisive gear changes and such. If you get a turbocharged version, look out for signs of abuse, especially with the tyres, brakes, suspension and transmission. Also, make sure the turbo is boosting properly.
  2. Yes you can, but you will need to search really hard. There are a few good examples circulating, but not for long.
  3. It’s hard to tell, what with the various consumables covering a wide range of prices (and quality). For a minor service, Sh10,000 should see you through per session.
  4. A big one. A very big one. The more miles covered, the more likely the car is nearer its deathbed and the higher the odds of making major (read costly) systems replacements.
  5. Not really. Look for an article I wrote back in 2010 about how to buy a used car. It is very informative.**************

Hello Baraza,

Great stuff you do, and quite informative. I’m about to purchase an executive saloon car and I am debating between a 2005, 2,400cc Mercedes Benz W211, and a 2005, 2,500cc BMW E39. Which would you go for, objectively, were you the one buying?

Is it true the BMW has more issues than the Benzo and costs an arm and a leg to sort out? What are the drawbacks of a panoromic roof? Please touch on electronic issues, handling, safety, performance and, mostly, reliability.

JM Bob.

Hello “JM Bob”

Of the two, I’d go for the E39. It is quite a looker; I think it is one of the most handsome of all BMW cars to date. It handles superbly, far better than the Merc, and of course there is the matter of having 100 extra cc.

It is not cast in stone that the BMW has more issues than the Benz; get a well-maintained example and regrets will be few and far between. Of course, it will cost an arm and a leg to sort out “more issues” (where they exist); after all, this is a premium German marque and the car in question is not only one of their best sellers, but also the most scrutinised.

It has to be built with the best engineering and materials in mind. Putting this engineering and the materials right when it all goes south will cost you, naturally.

I doubt if a panoramic roof has any drawbacks apart from inflating the asking price as a selectable option.

Electronic issues: a few isolated cases with interior lighting is about as far as these go with the BMW. The Merc’s electronic issues are a bit more extensive, stretching to ignition, central locking/plipper, electric windows and the starter.

Handling: both will handle nicely, but the BMW is just that much sharper, responds better and will get slidey around the rear on demand. It also gives better driver feel and feedback compared to the Mercedes.

Performance: With its superior handling, better response, lighter body and 100 extra cc, the BMW, of course, rules.
Reliability: I think I answered that earlier.

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Hello Baraza,

I read your article on a revitalising gel and could not help wondering how you bring Jesus into this. Anyway, I am eagerly waiting for the outcome of your research. Now, I have a car that I mostly drive around the city on weekends.

During the week, I park it in the sun. So my question is, can this practice have a negative effect, given that I consider it a way of preserving the car and prolonging its life. It’s a 98 Impreza hatchback.

Roben

Hello Roben,

The story on the revitalising gel was an analogy and had nothing to do with religion or faith. It was used to stress a point. No offence was intended and I hope none was taken. Speaking of research, I have dipped my foot into the water and acquired the XADO paste… comes in a small tube with, of all things, a SYRINGE! It makes me look like some mad scientist about to inject something organic in a movie. Anyway, once it goes into my gearbox, there will be reports at 500km and 1,000km.

There is nothing really wrong with parking your car through the week then driving it on weekends, a lot of people do that (including yours truly).

However, parking it under direct sunlight could raise some issues: there is the risk of the paint fading, especially if the lacquer is thin or scraped off (that is why it is always a good idea to polish/wax your car every now and then); some components might deteriorate, depending on their quality: glass gets stained, dashboards cracking under the extreme heat, rubber seals peeling or crumbling away, etc.

These problems were more pronounced in older cars, but modern cars are a lot more tolerant. Park in the shade, or get a car cover if you can.