Help for a gummed-up seat belt latch

Dear Car Talk:

Our kids admitted that they spilled soda on the passenger-side belt buckle of the car they use. Now it doesn't latch in cold weather – not a good thing in Minnesota. My son's solution is to pour water on it and park it in the garage until it dries out. Not only would that make a mess, but one guess whose car would sit outside in the meantime? I'm also concerned that that would screw up whatever electrical sensors tell the car that the belt is buckled. My husband says to spray it with WD-40. I know from working with locks that that will eventually gum up the works. I'd wager that the graphite I would use on a lock would mix with the pop and gum things up, too. Given that it's essential safety equipment and I don't want the kids to die, I think it should go to the dealer to be fixed. Any support for any of our solutions? – Lisa

RAY: Hm, what dissolves sugar? I know! Hot coffee!

No, don’t pour black coffee on it, Lisa. What you need is a solvent – something to dissolve the sugar that’s gumming up the latch mechanism. And you have little to lose by trying to fix this yourself. If it doesn’t work, the worst that’ll happen is that you’ll then have to take the car to the dealer and have the seat belt latch replaced.

So my suggestion would be to try a product called Contact Cleaner, made by CRC. That’s a fast-evaporating spray-on solvent that’s designed to be used on sensitive electronics. So it’s very unlikely to damage anything.

Since you don’t want the kids to die, I’d have your husband apply this stuff, since it might dissolve brain cells, too. And since he’s obviously already lost most of his already, let him take the risk. The kids might still need theirs.

I would get a few rags and cover up the surrounding area, because gunk might drip out. Then spray Contact Cleaner liberally inside the latching mechanism. Then work it – latch and unlatch the seat belt a number of times. If it seems to be helping at all, keep doing it. I’d do it in the garage and leave the car’s windows open.

If it doesn’t work, you can try a stronger solvent – something like Brakleen, which dissolves even more stuff, including more brain cells.

And if nothing works, then you’ll need to put yourself at the mercy of the dealer, and deduct the cost from the kids’ soda allowance. Good luck, Lisa.

Hard to tell if dual warning lights spell doom

Dear Car Talk:

After 55-plus years of marriage, I have learned a thing or two about cars. But I don't know the answer to this question: Can a check engine light and a flashing cruise control light mean imminent doom? I love driving my '07 Subaru Outback, and find that it handles well and is easy to get into and out of (if you hold the door open with the toe of your shoe). I read something on the internet suggesting that this is a common thing for the Subaru, and that it will heal itself in a few hundred miles. Should we go happily down the "it'll fix itself" trail, or should we think about trading it for a newer model? – Belinda

RAY: Wouldn't it be great if the check engine light also displayed the dollar amount it's going to cost you? I'm going to work on that invention.

The answer to your question depends on your definition of “imminent doom,” Belinda. Is a few hundred bucks imminent doom for you? No? OK, how about $1,500?

These two lights could be caused by a single problem. For instance, if your vehicle speed sensor or your throttle position sensor is bad, the check engine light will come on, and the cruise control probably won’t work. Either of those likely would cost you a few hundred bucks to replace. And if that’s all you need, that hardly seems like imminent doom.

On the other hand, your Subaru is about at the age where we often see catalytic converters failing. If the converter is failing, then you’re looking at $1,500 – plus whatever is wrong with the cruise control (because the catalytic converter won’t affect the cruise control).

Incidentally, when a catalytic converter is failing, sometimes the check engine light will come on and go off intermittently, until the efficiency reading is consistently low enough to keep the light on all the time. That may be the “fix itself” miracle you’ve read about. But eventually, the light will come on and stay on.

So here’s what you need to do, Belinda. Take your Outback to your favorite mechanic, and ask him to scan it. When a check engine light comes on, the car’s computer stores a code to tell the mechanic what component tripped the light. Isn’t that handy?

If it’s a sensor or a broken wire, click your heels together and say, “There’s no place like home” (isn’t Belinda the good witch from “The Wizard of Oz”?).

If it’s the catalytic converter, ask the mechanic whether he thinks the rest of the car is in good shape. If it is, and the mileage on the car isn’t in the stratosphere, then it’s probably worth putting in a new converter and driving it for a few more years.

On the other hand, if he says the failing converter is the best thing on the car, then it’s time to look at the 2018s. Good luck, Belinda.

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