Dear Tom and Ray:

I am a student who needs a car to get around campus. I am contemplating purchasing a Volkswagen bug, since it is a relatively cheap car that's good on gas. What is the right year to get, and what things should I look for in a used bug? - JosephRAY: Well, Joseph, our first instinct was to try to talk you out of getting a VW bug. There are much better, much safer cars you can buy, even if you just want an old puddle-jumper for getting to class and back.

TOM: But then we realized that you didn't pick a Beetle for mechanical reasons. You missed the '60s, didn't you, Joseph? And you feel that by driving a bug, you'll be able to do a little time travel and share in that experience (you'll be transported back to the days of barbaric, cheap, unsafe cars).

RAY: So if you have your heart set on a bug, the first things to look for are a body and a frame. Most unrestored bugs are literally rotting away at this point. If the body and frame check out, have the front end thoroughly inspected - the ball joints in particular. You might also look for a Super Beetle, rather than a standard Beetle. The Super Beetle, which became available after 1971, is a little bigger and has a few other modern-day conveniences (like a fan for the heater and a rear-window defroster).

RAY: I wouldn't worry too much about the engine. Old VW engines are pretty easy to come by, and aren't very expensive to buy or install.

TOM: If I were you, Joseph, I'd be most concerned about checking for the proper lineage. Bumper stickers are often the best clue. A McGovern, No-Nukes, Save-the-Whales or Mondale sticker would assure you that you're getting a purebred.

Dear Tom and Ray:

I have a 1990 Dodge Spirit with 29,000 miles. My problem is I can't get a true reading on the oil dipstick - whether the engine is hot or cold. Am I safe in waiting until the oil light comes on until worrying about adding a quart? How are those lights calibrated? - Robert

RAY: Well, Robert, the reason you can't get a good reading is probably because your dipstick is rubbing against the side of its tube. When you pull it out, I'll bet the dipstick is getting wiped clean or, more likely, smeared.

TOM: You should take it back to your dealer and see if the tube or dipstick can be adjusted or replaced. It's important to be able to get an accurate reading that way.

RAY: You should definitely NOT wait for the oil light to come on. The oil light tells you when the oil PRESSURE is low, not when the oil LEVEL is low. So by the time your oil light comes on, your engine is going to need a whole lot more than a quart of oil.

TOM: In fact, if you want some hard numbers, Paul Murky of Murky Research Inc. has calculated the average cost of operating a car under such circumstances. With the oil light off, the cost of operating a car is about 27 cents a mile, and you can expect to go about 100,000 miles. With the oil light on, the cost is more like $426.48 a mile with a mileage expectancy of 3 or less.

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