I apologize for missing a few weeks of columns. On August 20, I lost my home, shop, boats, project vehicles _ basically, everything _ to the CZU Lightning Complex fire in California's Santa Cruz Mountains. My wife and I were in Alaska, which is probably a good thing, as I would have been one of those renegades who stayed to the end with fire hose in hand, as there were zero fire trucks to be found. Based on reports of how ferociously the fire advanced, it likely wouldn't have ended well.

My time has been consumed with issues such as finding a place to reside, acquiring essentials, creating endless lists of personal property, negotiations with the insurance company, coordinating with the EPA for hazardous cleanup, and doing what I can to keep the surviving part of my orchard and berry patch alive.

After 28 years of receiving questions and doing what I could to write helpful answers, I'm thinking that, due to time constraints, it's best if I hang up my keyboard and perhaps just review a few interesting vehicles on an occasional basis.

What intrigues me most about vehicles these days is how well the amazing new technology gets along with the human behind the wheel ... or not. Don't get me started on how awful the GM navigation interface is in our Denali! The thought of these folks someday steering us safely through the real world is frightening! I don't feel right about rushing out answers without spending time researching, consulting others and doing the right things for the best possible reply.

I started out doing this by writing a letter to the automotive editor at my local paper, critical of the somewhat shallow answers from the gent that was writing the auto advice column at the time. To my surprise, the editor responded, telling me he was retiring, and if I knew so much about this, perhaps I could send in some sample Q&As. I did so and, surprisingly enough, was offered the position.

My reward has always been when I'd receive a follow up message saying my advice worked and the tough-to-fix problem was resolved! I've also met and enjoyed many talented folks who have helped me deliver a viable answer. And I've made friends with more than a few readers, such as Dianne, a local. My students quickly nailed a tricky electrical problem that had baffled her dealer over many visits!

Times have sure changed. What was once a mechanical world, with questions about packing wheel bearings and why replacing struts requires an alignment, evolved into pulling codes, viewing the misfire monitor or checking for an applicable reflash. It takes some of the fun out of it when almost every issue requires the use of a scan tool, and renewing the cabin air filter is one of the few remaining easy DIY projects.

So, some parting advice:

When it comes to buying and living with all this technology, I'm not as fearful of the electronic gadgets as I am some of the mechanical ones, when it comes to possible issues down the road. The really complex powertrains are magnificent to drive, but I don't think I'd want to own them much beyond 100,000 miles. I'm thinking take the hit on depreciation and trade up not long after the powertrain warranty expires.

Seeking service for a tricky or intermittent problem requires the very best communication possible. I recommend a smart phone movie of symptoms, sounds and instruments, along with the most detailed possible compilation of when, where and how the fault surfaces, as well as road testing with the technician.

And always keep up on maintenance; be tuned in to small problems before they turn ugly. Change fluids and filters on a timely basis. Be proactive with belt and hose replacements. If well cared for, a modern car or truck can be very reliable. It's the neglected ones that seem to have the most trouble.

Happy motoring, my friends!

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