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Old car comfort versus new car safety: Tom and Ray help Judith make the call.

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Dear Tom and Ray:



My 1985 Honda Civic Wagon, with a standard transmission and four-wheel drive, looks terrible but still drives beautifully and gets 30 miles per gallon on the highway (I'm elderly and rarely drive faster than 55 mph). My children don't think the car is safe to drive anymore. But I love the way it handles (even though the windows must be rolled up and down, and it has no power steering or whatever), and I feel quite comfortable driving it. Seriously, what kind of checks can and should be done to know whether a car is safe to drive? OK, we do know that the driver must be "with it" to be driving. If a psychologist vouches for my driving ability, can you suggest how I can check for car safety? Thank you very much for a reply. -- Judith

TOM: What nice kids you have, Judith. My kids keep loosening my lug nuts, greasing my brakes and encouraging me to go for nice, long rides on the highway.

RAY: Well, let's start by answering your actual question (that's thoughtful of us, isn't it?). Any good mechanic can do a thorough safety check of your car, Judith. If you don't have a mechanic you like or trust, check out the Mechanics Files at our Web site (www.cartalk.com) for personal recommendations that come from our listeners and readers.

TOM: Your mechanic can check the frame for rust, the front end for steering components that are wearing out, and the suspension parts to make sure nothing is about to fall off. He can assess the condition of your tires and brakes. And he can check your belts and hoses to lessen the likelihood that you'll break down on a deserted road at night and end up passing through the digestive system of a feral carnivore.

RAY: So that's the answer to the question you asked. But here's the more difficult question: How do you balance your comfort level in this car versus the advanced safety features you would get in a newer car?

TOM: For instance, your '85 Civic has no front air bags, no side air bags, no head air bags, no anti-lock brakes, no electronic stability control, no reinforced door beams ... you get the idea. By buying a new car or a newer used car, you could avail yourself of many or all of these safety features. Would that make you safer in an accident and more able to avoid an accident? Absolutely.

RAY: But you'd be giving up the comfort level you feel behind the wheel of your old heap. And your comfort and confidence there probably make you a safer driver.

TOM: Here's what I'd suggest. Have your old Honda checked out, just so you know it's safe to drive. But when you have a chance, drive a few new cars that are roughly the same size. See how comfortable you feel behind the wheel. You might be surprised.

RAY: If you don't really need all-wheel drive, try a Honda Fit, Toyota Yaris or Chevy Aveo, which are similar in size to your Civic and easy to drive. If you do live where it snows and want all-wheel drive, you can look at a Subaru Impreza, or a new car we both loved, the Suzuki SX4. It's a small, all-wheel-drive, four-door hatchback that has an excellent warranty, a bunch of air bags and sells for about $16,000. It's a deal, Judith. Try it. You might like it.

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