There is a lot to be learned by paying attention to the machinations of your vehicle. I thought people weren't mindful twenty or thirty years ago, but with the distractions that technology provide – navigation systems, satellite radio,cell phones…- a lot us are really asleep at the wheel these days. And cars are complicated, with many interdependent systems.
Your vehicle is always talking to you, whether you are listening or not.
Take smells, for instance. We have all encountered odd smells buzzing down the road, but unless your dashboard is on fire, you can’t smell anything emitting from your own car unless you are dead stopped. Some of the odors, you might even recognize, like burning brakes, a clutch, or even anti-freeze. Relax, that’s some other guy’s problem; you’re moving down the road.
Let me run down a few of my favorites that you should be minding:
Brake pulsation – Famously shaking the fillings out of teeth for decades now. Foot lightly on the brake, the steering wheel tries to shake your hands free. But is it the front or rear brakes? If you have the kind of emergency brake set up with a release button or handle, try to apply only the rear brakes and see if the pulsation goes away. Either way, get it looked at right away.
Tire vibration – This sometimes takes a Vibration Master to figure out. Does the steering wheel shake at about 45 mph or so? Do you feel it in the seat? Does it mitigate around 70, or get worse? Obviously, in this case, check the tire balance, check the wheels for excessive run-out, and tire conicity (round and true).
Growling noise – Hub bearings might be a good money maker for the shops, but they cause a lot of concern to car owners, as they can sound like a turboprop plane buzzing your roof. Not only is the vibration they transmit through the car is considerable, but additionally, they make a very distinct growling noise whose pitch changes with speed. Depending on how bad they are, the growl usually begins around 20 mph and continues all the way up. Changing vehicle direction will help isolate which side it is on, as well as front or rear.
Tire cupping, irregular wear – I've mounted thousands of tires, and I’m still amazed at how many are showing steel belts when owners get around to changing them.Most people cannot be bothered with bending over and having a look at their tires once in a while. When tires start to wear in an irregular fashion, that can indicate an alignment problem, suspension problem, even structural issues related to an accident, or just plain bad driving and braking habits.
Fluid leaks – Learn to recognize those mysterious little puddles in your driveway or garage, and understand what they mean. Most fluids have a certain color dye added to them – not to make them pretty – but to distinguish them from the other fluids. Most manufacturers even color code the fluid reservoir under the hood to limit the confusion. Even that doesn't always help. I can think of six different colors of coolant alone.
These are just a few of the gems I've seen repeatedly over the years. I have to add, however,that with information at our fingertips, drivers are getting savvier about the sounds, smells, and noises that their cars make, and that’s not bad.