Dear Car Talk:
While on a trip through the Smoky Mountains in my 2016 Chevrolet Equinox with 39,000 miles on it, we stopped at the Newfound Gap overlook. When preparing to depart, my car would not start. Luckily, I was in a spot where I had cellphone service, and luckily, I had OnStar -- and especially luckily, they were able to determine my location through my smartphone. My car was towed to the nearest Chevy dealership, where they determined that my battery was dead. No warning whatsoever; the car is less than two years old and is kept parked in a garage when not in use.
The dealership where the car was towed to, as well as my local dealership, both said they just don't put great batteries in cars anymore. My local dealer said they even had batteries fail on new cars freshly delivered to them. Is this true of all new cars, or just General Motors? I'm nervous that this will happen again and strand me in my new car. -- Judy
We're glad you were rescued, Judy, and didn't end up passing through the digestive system of a black bear. But I'm not aware of any big drop in quality in new-car batteries, although the dealers may notice new-car problems before we would, since we don't usually see cars until they're out of warranty. Unless a battery is defective, or there's something wrong with your car's charging system, a good battery should last an average of about five years. And even mid-range batteries should last three to four years.
So you may have gotten a normally adequate battery that had a manufacturing defect. That's not unheard of. It's also not unusual for a battery to die without warning. Sometimes you'll notice that the starter motor is cranking slower than it used to. But lots of people don't notice that because it happens gradually, or they simply don't care until the car fails to start.
Newer cars do use more power when they're just sitting -- for things like alarms, emissions computers and wireless connections. So it's more common than it used to be for a battery to die when a car sits for a couple of weeks. That may be what the dealer is referring to in regard to new cars on his lot. But in that case, you'd just recharge the battery. You don't have to replace it. Your battery presumably could not be recharged. So my guess -- and my hope -- is that it was just bad luck, Judy.
My advice would be to do your research when replacing a battery, if you have time. Sometimes you just need a battery right away -- like you did -- so you can't go to Consumer Reports online and find out which battery is best. And if the idea of a future battery failure really worries you, another thing you could do is take a jump pack with you when you travel out of town.
They now make amazing lithium ion battery packs that are the size of a small book and will fit in your glove compartment. Yet they're powerful enough to start most cars, under most conditions. They cost an average of about $100. And if you take one with you (heeding the warning about storing it in a hot place), you should be able to overcome a dead battery, even in a remote location.
As a bonus, these compact jump packs also can be used to charge up your phone or tablet. So if you don't want to jumpstart the car with it, you'll have enough power to watch an unlimited number of YouTube videos about automotive reupholstery while you're waiting for the tow truck.