Do smog test before you buy the car

Dear Car Talk:

I am about to buy a 1998 Volvo S90 with 133,000 miles on it. The smog sticker is expired. The seller tells me it's only $40 to get a new one. Is it possible that it won't pass the test? What would you recommend that I check for? I am one of the sisters who's ignorant about mechanics. What a shame. Thanks! – Ati

RAY: The best way to find out if it will pass the smog test is to get a smog test, Ati – before you buy it.

It’s entirely possible that it won’t pass. That may be why it’s sitting on Goober’s lawn with grass growing up to its side-view mirrors. And in fact, you really should have the whole car checked out by your own mechanic before you buy it. It could be parked because the transmission refused to go beyond second gear, or because it burns so much oil that it was used in a community mosquito-abatement program.

You can handle your pre-purchase inspection one of two ways. You can volunteer to take the car to be inspected yourself. The seller might want some sort of deposit to make sure you come back, so you can give him a check for $100. But I’d make any deposit refundable, contingent upon it passing inspection.

If the seller doesn’t want to release the car to you, then have him take it to a mechanic of your choice to have it inspected. If you need help finding a trusted nearby mechanic, try searching at

That mechanic will be working for you, Ati. So have him start with the smog test. If the car fails the smog test, you can tell him to stop there, and you can return the car. You’ll have wasted $40 but saved yourself a lot more than that in time, money and trouble.

If it passes the smog test, then he can check out the rest of the car and tell you what else is wrong with it, what needs to be fixed right away and what can wait. That’ll give you a much better idea of what, exactly, you’re buying, and what it’s going to actually cost you in the next six months to a year.

You also can use that information to negotiate with the seller.

But by all means, get it smog-tested before you buy it. The law may require you to pay another $40 to smog-test it once you register it in your name. But at least you’ll know it’s going to pass without a new $800 catalytic converter and two $300 oxygen sensors. Good luck, sister.

If you want to go off-road, get a true SUV

Dear Car Talk:

How do the newer, lighter SUVs (crossovers) stack up against classic Jeeps, Land Rovers and Chevy Suburbans for off-road use? While many tout the safety features and traction of all-wheel drive, they are never shown being driven anywhere except on paved city streets. At my job, many of the favored field vehicles are the older ('80s-model) Suburbans and Ford Broncos, which are almost indestructible but drink gas like it's water. With fuel economy still an important consideration, we are interested in the hybrid lines of small SUVs (such as the Ford Escape or the Toyota RAV4). But do they have the features necessary for off-road use, or are we better off having a separate "excursion" vehicle for exploring backcountry byways? Thank you! – Evan

RAY: The crossovers that interest you – and interest lots of people these days – are not really designed to go off-roading. The definition of "off-road" in a Ford Escape means you've turned off into the Whole Foods parking lot.

Crossovers are designed with ground clearance and good traction, but that’s really for snow, slippery roads or modest off-road use – driving over dirt, some mud, grass, sand or gravel.

So if you’re determined to drive over tree stumps, boulders and hibernating mammals, I think you’d be better off with a second, older vehicle just for that purpose. Besides, that kind of real off-roading punishes a vehicle. And do you want to do that to the family vehicle you plan to keep for years?

What we call “crossovers” are really car-based vehicles that have an SUV-ish body style; they’re not actually trucks. And that’s great, because most people don’t enjoy driving a truck every day. Trucks handle worse, are generally less comfortable, get much poorer gas mileage, are harder to get into and out of, and tend to be less safe, in many instances (especially with on-demand four-wheel drive versus permanent all-wheel drive).

So you’ll be a lot happier driving, day to day, in a RAV4 Hybrid than in, say, a Toyota 4Runner, which is based on a pickup truck. And you’ll be happier parking your Ford Escape Hybrid in the Costco parking lot than you would be trying to fit your Ford Expedition into one of those “compact only” spaces. And you’ll be happier with either one of those every time you go to the gas station.

If driving off-road is really something you’re committed to, then do what your colleagues do: Get a used Jeep, or Bronco, or Tahoe – or keep your current SUV – and use that for your excursions. But you’ll be surprised at how wonderful it is to get back into your crossover when you get back from Kidney Crusher Trail.

Visit the Car Talk website at

About the Author