Question: I recently had to pay several hundred dollars for a new starter on my Japanese import. Is this typical?--B.B
Answer: A lot of auto owners are having rude awakenings when the gloss wears off their imported pride and joy and it comes time for a repair. Replacement parts on many Japanese and European cars can hit such outrageous amounts that they make the Pentagon's $400 hammers look like a good deal.
An alternator on a Volkswagen Quantum, for example, costs $551 to replace. I can remember not too many years ago when you could rebuild an entire engine for that much money. It's not just the German cars, either. An alternator on a Toyota Camry costs $366, and that was a quote from several months ago, before the Japanese currency began skyrocketing. By comparison, an alternator on a Chrysler Le Baron can be replaced for $152.
If you need a pair of front struts on a Toyota Celica, you can say goodby to $407, just about what a washing machine costs. Struts for a Buick Skylark almost seem like a bargain at $184.
The point of all this is that repairs on some imported cars can be a nightmare. A lot of motorists bought Japanese cars because they considered them more reliable than American cars, and there is plenty of evidence that they are more reliable. But just one alternator or starter on some of these cars can pay for about four or five major repairs on an American car.
Q: I own a 1977 Ford Maverick with 63,000 miles on it. When I accelerate, it vibrates. I have new tires, which were balanced. The front end was aligned. I also had checked the motor mounts, fly wheel and universal joints. Would you have a suggestion?--V.L.
A: It sounds as though you have gone through the list of the most common causes of vibration. One other possibility that you did not mention, however, is to have the drive shaft balanced. On rear-wheel-drive cars, the drive shaft can become out of balance or even bent, which can cause a significant amount of vibration at different speeds.
A mechanic should be able to test the drive shaft for an out-of-balance condition. Radiator hose clamps are typically used to restore the balance. Also, alignment and especially the wheel balancing often are done incorrectly. You should specifically ask for spin balancing.
Q: My 1985 Mazda 626 exhibits a form of hesitation when I let up on the accelerator and then resume acceleration. The condition gets worse during cold, damp weather. The mechanics at the dealership claim this is called carburetor lag, and there is nothing they can do about it. Are they correct or are they just giving up?--D.P.
A: It depends on how much hesitation you are experiencing. A certain amount of hesitation is normal in such a situation. With all of the engine controls on the newer cars, hesitation is getting worse.
Typically, a performance problem that manifests itself in cold, damp weather could be traced to condensation inside the distributor cap, worn ignition wires or a possible short in the ignition circuits. If you feel the hesitation is not basic to the engine, I would certainly suggest replacing these low-cost items first, before you have a mechanic replacing expensive electronic parts.
Ralph Vartabedian cannot answer mail personally but will respond in this column to automotive questions of general interest. Do not telephone. Write to Your Wheels, You section, The Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles 90053.