Auto Mechanic 101: Jargon to Know So You Don't Get Ripped Off
Cars are complicated pieces of machinery — more so today than ever before. Gone are the simple days when vehicle maintenance mostly consisted of adding some water to the radiator, changing the oil and adding air to your tires. New and constantly changing automotive technologies — much of it incorporating miniature computers — has turned conversations with auto mechanics into an alphabet soup of acronyms and sci-fi-like terminology that sounds completely fake.
Not understanding what your mechanic is trying to tell you could end up costing you unnecessary money. Take some time to empower yourself by learning the lingo, and you will be on your way to making smarter — and potentially less expensive — decisions about automobile maintenance.
This is one of those phrases that just sounds awful, but you may have felt it before — hopefully not at a critical time. When a mechanic says your brakes are spongy, it means you have to push your brake pedal almost to the floor before it seems to have any effect.
Little End and Big End
You may hear your "little end is gone or going." What the heck does that mean? Well, if you hear a sound like light knocking in your engine, it could be the bearing in the connecting rod attached to your piston is wearing away. That's the "little end."
Mayo Under the Oil Cap
First of all, let's call a spade a spade. This is just disgusting, and anyone would be caught off guard if they heard it. Second, the odds of there being mayonnaise salad dressing anywhere near your engine are — fingers crossed — incredibly small. So, what gives?
Kate Bush. Sugarbush. Mulberry bush. We're grasping at straws here. You may have no idea what your mechanic is referring to when she talks about your "bushes," but it sounds questionable, to say the least.
"Play" doesn't sound like anything that should be negative, right? In fact, "excessive play" sounds like it could be a lot of fun on the positive side or maybe like a type of penalty in a football or basketball game on the negative side. Is it legit?
Your mechanic may or may not have some domination/submission issues, who's to say? But that's not what is in play when he refers to your vehicle’s master and/or slave cylinder. A master cylinder is an unnecessarily odd name for a hydraulic pump that creates hydraulic pressure within your engine. It controls — surprise! — the slave cylinder.
This one actually isn’t that complicated. We're all familiar with getting a diagnosis when we go to the doctor, particularly if the doctor runs any tests. This term means something similar for your car.
If your mechanic tells you that your "tracking is out," they are referring to your tire alignment. It's obvious once you give it a bit of thought. It’s really important that your tires are all pointing in exactly the same direction.
Speaking of tires, have you noticed any messages from your TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) lately? Today's cars have a system that monitors the pressure in your tires and alerts you through a signal on your dash if tire pressure is low. It's a no-news-is-good-news scenario.
Your tires and wheels are sometimes not given the attention they need. Keep in mind that they are the four places where your vehicle actually makes contact with the road. Without them, where are you? Going nowhere fast.
Your mechanic might ask you if your car is "pulling" on you. If one or more of your tires is below optimal pressure or your tracking is off, the answer is probably "yes." Pulling is that sensation you notice when you're trying to drive straight, but your car wants to force you slightly off-course.
If your mechanic diagnoses "turbo lag," you are probably driving an older car or one that has been tweaked. A V6 engine that has been boosted with a turbocharger to act like a V8 has gas from its exhaust compressed to be fed into its cylinders. This recycling of exhaust gases boosts the vehicle's power.
If your first guess was that LOF referred to "laughing on floor," then you have spent too much time texting and not enough time considering routine vehicle maintenance. LOF stands for "lube, oil and filter."
No, we're not referring to "Absolutely!" Your mechanic's references to ABS refer to your car's "anti-lock braking system." The ABS is a computerized system that is designed to stop the tires from locking up and your car from skidding, even when you brake particularly hard.
You would be forgiven for wondering if the mechanic had you confused with a school or transit-bus driver when he threw out this term. It’s far more likely the reference to your CAN Bus is about your car's "controller area network."
How does one spinning metal part get another spinning metal part to spin if that second metal part is laying perpendicular to it? It's not a riddle, but it does involve mechanical engineering. The solution is "ball joints."
"Aftermarket" parts are automotive parts that are manufactured by someone other than your car's original manufacturer. Think Mopar. These parts are the equivalent of generic groceries — just as effective and often more economical. Home mechanics regularly purchase aftermarket parts for their own repairs and upgrades.
In the automotive context, OEM is actually the opposite of the aftermarket. OEM stands for "original equipment manufacturer." OEM parts are the original parts used to build your car as well as the replacement parts that are made by your car's manufacturer.
Brake Master Cylinder
Somehow, the pressure you put on your brake pedal is converted to a squeezing effect on your car's wheels when you want to slow down. How does that happen? At the heart of your car's braking system is the Brake Master Cylinder.
Hesitation is the not-necessarily-turbo-related cousin to turbo lag. Ever stepped on the accelerator pedal and — instead of instant G-forces — experienced a jerking sensation or a misfire? It can feel like a bit of a stumble or a lurch. That's hesitation.
Nope, it’s not an episode of Star Trek or Battlestar Galactica, and it’s not a character in Transformers — good name idea, though. The catalytic converter is an element of your car's exhaust system. It's an emission control device that reduces toxic emissions by generating an oxidation and reduction reaction.
You might also hear this one referred to as a "soot trap." If you hear either DPF or soot trap, you may be driving a truck or heavy-duty vehicle. You are certainly driving a diesel. A DPF is a "diesel particulate filter," and they have been mandatory in all diesel cars since 2009.
"Constant velocity joints" are found at each end of your car's drive axles. Their job is to transfer power generated by the engine to the wheels while allowing you to control the steering and the car to control the ride (via the suspension), all at the same time. All power without any control would be a recipe for disaster.
HVAC stands for "heating, ventilation and air conditioning." Your car's heater is a mini-radiator sometimes called a heater core. A fan in front of the core blows air over the fins. That heated air, controlled by a thermostat, then finds its way out of your vents. The core can become clogged or even leak and fill your car with steam.
The alternator charges your car's battery and supplies electrical power to all the electronics in the car while your car is running. In theory, it’s what prevents your battery from draining while you drive. The alternator constantly recharges the battery while the engine is running.
Mid-engine refers to the layout of your car's chassis and engine. You might think the engine sits in front of the front axle, but, actually, if you look from the side (or imagine stripping away the body), you realize the engine and the car’s center of gravity sit somewhere between the front and rear axles.
Oversteer and Understeer
How sensitive is your steering? Does it overreact or under-react? "Oversteer" is when your car turns more than you ask it to when you turn the steering wheel. Conversely, "understeer" is when your car steers less than you direct from the driver's seat.
Regenerative braking is the most new-fangled entry on this list, and it relates exclusively to hybrid and electric vehicles. Regenerative braking uses the motor as a generator to convert the loss of kinetic energy (slowing down) into stored energy in the battery. (It's physics!)
References to timing belts, timing chains and cambelts are all referring to the same thing: the belt or chain that links up and synchronizes the crankshaft and camshaft rotations. Synchronicity is important to make sure that the valves open and close at the right time to accommodate each cylinder's intake and exhaust strokes.
No, you didn't mishear your mechanic. They weren't waxing poetic about the musical stylings of Georgia's rock band R.E.M. When referring to RPMs, it’s all about revolutions per minute. RPMs measure how many times the engine's crankshaft spins — and how many times each piston completes a cycle in its cylinder — every 60 seconds.