Dear Car Talk:
While pulling into our driveway this past winter, I hit one of those huge snow banks that had turned into rock-hard ice. I know, what’s wrong with my eyes, right? I took out a piece of the plastic bumper on my 2012 Subaru Impreza. The estimated cost to fix this is $700, because they have to replace the whole bumper. We are going to duct-tape the piece on until we can afford to fix it. But how necessary is it to fix this? Also, should this be done by our dealer, or could we go to an independent shop? I’ve never done anything like this before. I’m so embarrassed. — Kathy
Don’t be embarrassed, Kathy. These sorts of things happen to everybody. Trust me. I’m a guy who once dropped a costumer’s Nissan 300ZX off a lift. And you think you had some explaining to do!
It sounds like the plastic part you broke is just the bumper cover. The bumper itself, the metal bar designed to absorb the shock of a collision, is underneath that cover, and was unharmed.
The bumper cover’s purpose is 5 percent aerodynamics (for slightly improved fuel economy), and 95 percent aesthetics. So you really don’t have to fix it.
If you do decide to fix it, a well-rated independent body shop certainly can do the work. In fact, lots of dealers outsource their body work to independent shops that they trust.
And many plastic parts, like bumper covers, even come prepainted from the factory now, so it’s pretty hard to screw up. So if you want it fixed, and you’re not going to go the insurance-claim route, then shopping around makes a lot of sense.
If you don’t fix it, just make sure the broken part is secure. Duct tape is fine, but you want to be certain that the dangling piece of plastic doesn’t fall off while you’re driving and become a road hazard to someone else.
You might even consider some of that newfangled colored duct tape. Maybe you can find a roll that comes in Subaru Orange.
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BALL JOINT ROULETTE NOT A GAME YOU WANT TO PLAY
Dear Car Talk:
I’m trying to find out if I need to replace the control arm “bushing” or the control arm “ball joints” on my Mazda6. When my car is moving and I’m turning or braking, there are banging, popping, creaking sounds in the front left (driver’s side). I had a mechanic take a look at it, and he said it was the control arm ball joints, and it would be about $550, which seems reasonable. However, I found out there’s also a bushing in there, which is rubber and can dry-rot. Can the bushing make a noise (doesn’t seem likely, since it’s rubber), or is there something else I might take into consideration? Thank you in advance! I love the show and column, and everyone there is super knowledgeable! — Pam
I’ll give you the bad news first, Pam. If you’re already hearing those noises, and it is coming from a ball joint, that ball joint could be getting ready to break. And if it does break, the wheel will partially detach and fold under the car. How does that sound for exciting?
Normally, people report that this happens at low speed, like when they’re pulling out of a parking space. But that’s just because we never get reports from the people to whom this happens at high speed. They’re usually dead.
As you can imagine, once one of your wheels is lying flat on the road surface, the car really is not good for much of anything — other than long-term parking.
Now, a banging noise could be coming from a worn-out or detached control arm bushing, too. That would allow the metal control arm to bang up against the car’s subframe.
But here’s the good news: You don’t have to figure out which part is making noise. That’s because on your particular car, the control arm bushing and one ball joint come as a set. Your car is unusual in that it has two lower ball joints for each front wheel. So if your guy says you need two ball joints on the driver’s side, you’ll be getting two new ball joints, two new control arms and two new bushings — you have no choice.
Typically, when a customer at our shop complains of banging or other noises from the front end, we’ll put the car up on the lift, grab the tire and try to move the wheel around. We’ll push it and pull it and pry at it. And while we do that, we’ll watch all of the key front-end components to see if any of those parts have excessive play in them.
For instance, if we see the “ball” part of a ball joint moving around inside its socket, we’ll know the ball joint is bad, because there should be zero play in there.
If the ball joint’s good, we’ll check the control arm bushings and other components, looking for inappropriate movement. We usually can figure out pretty quickly what’s causing the noise.
But you don’t need to bother doing that, Pam. Because the only way you can get a new ball joint is by purchasing a new control arm, bushing included. So if you’re buying two ball joints on the driver’s side, you’ll automatically be the proud owner of two new bushings, too.
And $550 is the right price. Just consider yourself lucky that you don’t need the passenger side as well.
So go back today and get it taken care of. I really hate to see people play ball joint roulette.
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It’s NEVER cheaper in the long run to buy a new car. Want proof? Order Car Talk’s pamphlet “How to Buy a Great Used Car: Secrets Only Your Mechanic Knows.” Send $4.75 (check or money order) to Used Car, P.O. Box 536475, Orlando, FL 32853-6475.
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(c) 2015 by Ray Magliozzi and Doug Berman
Distributed by King Features Syndicate, Inc.