Q. My uncle feels that just washing a car is sufficient to keep its paint OK. Sometimes he uses dishwashing detergent to wash his auto, which causes me to cringe. But he won't listen to me. Maye he'll take your advice.  -- J.S., Chicago area

A. I hope so. Dishwashing detergents remove waxes, silicones and polymers from paint, leaving it unprotected from the elements. Your uncle also should know that washing and cleaning are much different procedures. A car wash removes loose contaminants from the finish, such as dust, road grime and fresh bird droppings. Paint cleaners and clay bars remove stubborn stains, blemishes and bonded contaminants such as tree sap mist that won't flush off with washing.  Finally, there's a difference between polishing and waxing. The purpose of polishing is to create a high gloss surface, but it does nothing to protect paint. Waxing protects the finish from the elements by coating it with waxes, polymers, resins and silicones. How often to wax? There is no set time because every car and its owner are different. The environment in which a car is kept also means a lot.

Q. I'm always amazed to see the car wax commercial in which a hood is set on fire without damaging the paint finish. Of course, the commercial is for a product that "proves the protective qualities of a car wax."  -- E.R., Deerfield

A. Regardless of whether or not the paint finish is protected with a coat of some "magic formulation," it's unaffected by flaming alcohol, says Meguiar's, a car care products producer. It says that if you place a hand directly where the flame has been, the moment the flame goes out, you'll find that the surface is barely warm. The whole thing is just a demonstation of physics--and flamboyant salesmanship.

Q. I own a 2001 Honda Accord with 159,000 miles that still runs fine, unlike American  cars I had that began giving me headaches at 80,000 miles. How many more miles do you think I can go with this car? -- F.W., Chicago area

A. Probably at least another 30,000 or so, but change engine oil regularly and check for such things as worn steering and suspension components. Also prepare to replace parts here and there. The fact that you've driven your Accord that many miles indicates you haven't owned an American car for many years. Their quality has improved greatly. In fact, they've outscored popular foreign cars in recent major quality surveys.

Q. With the lousy economy, are people losing their love of sports cars and sporty cars? -- R.E., Arlington Heights

A. People tend to be more practical when times are tough, and thus opt for relatively dull autos. However, Carmax, a large used car retailer, says "online sports car searches" on carmax.com increased six percent in April from the previous month and are up eight percent over January's figures. It says the No. 1 searched car on carmax.com for April was the Ford Mustang "sports car," marking the first month this auto landed the top spot in searches in the last several years. (The latest Mustang has been restyled.) It says the Infiniti G35 took the 13th spot, with the Dodge Charger in the No. 14 slot. The Chevrolet Corvette finished 17th. The Mustang, G35 and Charger are sporty cars, which differ considerably from sports cars, such as the Corvette.

Q. The government is pushing for more fuel-efficient cars, which look as if they'll be smaller and thus less safe than larger ones. I don't look forward to that development and plan to keep my current 2007 car for as long as possible. -- J.S. Wilmette

A. Things may not be as glum as you fear they'll be. For instance, research by the Rocky Mountain Institute indicates that an ultralight vehicle that is large and better-designed can have crash safety comparable to, or better than, that of a similar-sized heavy vehicle. It says the platform of a light, large vehicle relies on stronger, lighter materials. Also, more automakers are using advanced active safety items such as side curtain air bags and collision prevention systems. For instance, Volvo's new "City Safety" feature automatically can prevent a rear-end collision.

Q. Gasoline prices are rising again, just as I expected they would. Think they'll top $4 per gallon this summer, as they did last year? Got a few economy tips? -- M.S., Westchester

A. Most experts feel we won't see $4 per gallon gas this year. As for tips, driving with underinflated tires is similar to driving with the parking brake on. Air filters clogged with dirt, dust and bugs create a "rich" fuel mixture that squanders fuel. Worn or dirty spark plugs can cause misfiring, which wastes gas. (Spark plugs fire as many as three million times every 1,000 miles, resulting in a lot of heat and electrical and chemical erosion.) Damaged, loose or missing gas caps cause gas to vaporize, sending dollars spent for fuel up in smoke.

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