Help me pick a fun, safe car

Saturday, April 24, 1999

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Dear Al:

I am looking to purchase a new sedan, possibly the Acura TL, Audi A4, or VW Passat. I would like a car that is fun to drive, handles well and that I can feel safe driving in all conditions. What engine and options do you suggest and should I lease or buy?

- Bryan K.
via the Internet

Dear Bryan:

You have done all the work for me when you say "that I can feel safe driving in all conditions."

To me, that mandates the A4 with the full-time all-wheel-drive quattro treatment. For about $1,650, it's the best safety enhancement going. As for options, I'd be inclined to get the V-6 over the turbo. Transmission choice is dependent on your taste and needs I'd be happy with the five-speed manual. In the nonfunctional area, leather seats are nice ($1,320), a power moonroof is worth $1,000 and the audio package, consisting of a premium Bose system plus CD changer is highly desirable, even for $1,200.

The Passat is much the same car, without AWD availability. The Acura's fine, but front-wheel-drive.

Dear Al:

Could you please give me a satisfactory explanation as to why manufacturers are now installing electric fuel pumps inside the fuel tanks of automobiles?

I feel that locating the fuel pumps in such a manner causes unnecessary work and expense when it becomes necessary to have them replaced. Also, I'm not particularly fond of the concept of having an electric motor operating in such a volatile environment.

- S.N.
Boise, Idaho

Dear S.:

It does sound nuts, doesn't it? I must admit I was extremely dubious when I first heard of this practice, what, decades ago? But since you don't see cars blowing up all over the place, I guess we can go back to worrying about world hunger.

Despite the bad luck you describe in the full text of your letter, fuel pumps are very reliable, generally lasting the life of the car. Unfortunately, as you pointed out, replacing one involves draining and dropping the gas tank and some pretty heavy labor charges.

There are several reasons manufacturers like to immerse the pump in the fuel tank.

One, believe it or not, is safety. Should there be some malfunction while the pump is submerged in petrol, an explosion is much less likely than if it were mounted externally, where the fuel could find the oxygen it needs to combust. Mounted inside the tank, the pump is also less prone to vibration and collision damage.

Another reason hinges on reliability and emissions considerations. With the pump in the tank, there's less chance of an air bubble in the fuel line causing a blockage cardiologists call this an air embolism and it's even more serious in folks than in cars.

Dear Al:

I am in the process of buying a BMW 323ia. I read where it requires premium gasoline. Is this necessary? Will I be looking for trouble down the road if I use regular unleaded fuel?

- Deborah H.
via the Internet

Dear Deborah:

One way BMW gets 168 horsepower out of that 2.5-liter six is by running a very high (10.5:1) compression ratio. The higher the compression ratio a measure of how much the piston compresses the air-fuel charge inside the cylinder the greater the thirst for octane, which is essentially a measure of how resistant fuel is to uncontrolled ignition.

The engine's computer can deal with substandard fuel by retarding the ignition, but that increases the heat load and reduces the output.

That car deserves the best, as I'm sure you'll soon come to appreciate.

Alan Vonderhaar welcomes email at and snail mail c/o The Cincinnati Enquirer, 312 Elm St., Cincinnati OH 45202.