Is Di's husband right to be so smug about his new Chevy Tracker?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Aug 01, 2011

Dear Tom and Ray:

My husband just bought a 2004 Chevy Tracker with a smidge over 60,000 miles on the odometer. We think the prior owner might have hauled the Tracker behind a recreational vehicle; there is a tow-hitch bracket under the Tracker's front bumper and a bunch of rock chips in the hood's paint.

So our question is this: When a vehicle is towed with four wheels on the ground like that, does the towed vehicle's odometer register all of those miles? My husband thinks most of these miles are "towed miles" and therefore he got a low-mileage vehicle with a high-mileage odometer. Is my husband's smugness justified?

-- Di

RAY: A husband's smugness is never justified, Di. Because even if he's right about something, it's only a matter of time before he's wrong about something else. If you don't believe me, ask my wife!

TOM: But you don't even have to wait for your husband to be wrong, Di. He's wrong right now. In the old days, odometers were mechanical. They were run by a cable that came up from the output shaft of the transmission. So, when the drive wheels turned, that shaft turned and the odometer turned, racking up the miles.

RAY: But on modern cars, speedometers and odometers are electronic. So unless the key is on, they're not getting powered and won't register any miles.

TOM: And no one would tow a car any kind of distance with the key on.

RAY: If the car had a stick shift, the person doing the towing would just shift it into neutral and tow it with the key off. Or, if it was an automatic, you would use the shift-lock override to put it in neutral.

TOM: And if you needed the key to be turned -- to unlock the steering wheel, for example -- you'd probably disconnect the battery to keep it from dying. Otherwise, when you got to the KOA in Winnemucca and tried to go out for some post-14-hour-drive hemorrhoid cream, your Tracker wouldn't start.

RAY: So your husband's new Tracker has 60,000 actual, honest-to-goodness driven miles on it. Plus maybe another 150,000 or 200,000 spent bouncing behind a Winnebago.

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