CAR TALK: Sometimes you just lose your spark for unglamorous reasons

DEAR CAR TALK: Recently I drove up to Pike's Peak in Colorado (14,000-foot elevation). On the way down, I had my car in D3, 2, or 1, depending on how steep the grade was. Part way down, an attendant was stopping people to check their brakes. He said I was doing fine.

The following day, I drove 75 miles to Denver, and the car ran perfectly. But the day after that, I noticed an unusual noise when idling. I drove maybe 10 miles that day. The following day, I drove one block, and the battery light came on.

I drove back home and put the battery charger on the battery, and later went to drive it. It went 50 feet and died. It was towed to my mechanic, and he determined that I needed a new alternator. Do you think my problem was caused by the trip down Pike's Peak?

-- Faye

DEAR FAYE: In a word? No. My great uncle died that same week, and I don't think we can blame that on your trip down Pike's Peak either. The failure of the alternator can be blamed on the age of your car.

You don't say how old the car is, but if it's got 80,000-100,000 miles or more on it, your alternator is susceptible to failure. The alternator gets a ton of use. Every time you run the car, the alternator is spinning.

When it's spinning, it's pumping out electricity, which is used to power the car's electrical systems and to recharge the battery. Once the alternator starts to fail, your battery will stop getting charged -- or will get charged much more slowly than it needs to be.

That explains the low battery warning light, Faye. The battery will then continue to drain until, eventually, it gets so weak that it can't provide enough power to energize the spark plugs. No spark, no go. So, the car stalls. And once the battery is that weak, you can't restart the car, either.

And that's what happened to you, Faye. Yours is a fairly typical presentation, where you hear some increased noise, see the battery or charging light come on, and then -- kaput. But I do believe it kaputted of natural causes, Faye.

DEAR CAR TALK: My 1995 Toyota Celica has 150,000 miles on it and still runs well. I don't drive it very much anymore -- less than 1,000 miles a year.

The battery died twice in a 7-month period. What should I do to keep it charged? Run the car every week for some minimum amount of time? Attach a charger every few weeks? Disconnect it when it's not in use?

The car is otherwise in good shape and seems like it could go another 50,000 miles or more. Thanks.

-- Mark

DEAR MARK: If it goes another 50,000 miles, that'll be 50 more years for you. I hope you're on the Mediterranean diet.

The battery typically gets recharged by the car's alternator when you drive the car. But you're hardly driving. And even though the current draw is small when the car is parked, over enough weeks, the battery will run down.

So, what are your options? The cheapest option is to disconnect the battery after you drive it. You don't have to remove it from the car. Just take a wrench, loosen up the cable on the negative terminal and pull it off. That'll eliminate any power drain between trips. When you want to drive, you just reconnect and tighten the cable.

If that's too messy, or you're wrench-averse, you can get yourself a trickle charger (sometimes called a battery tender). You plug one end of the trickle charger into a wall socket and attach two small clamps to your battery terminals when you park the car. It monitors the battery level and charges it up as needed so it's always ready.

If even that is too inconvenient, Mark, then get yourself a compact jump starter. The lithium-ion ones are about the size of a small paperback book now. Look for something like the Weego 44s.

You charge it as you would your cellphone. And then, when you need it, you hook up the two clamps to your battery, and it jump-starts your car. Some even have smart clamps, so it won't work if you hook it up wrong. Then you toss it in your glove box until you need it again.

Write back in 49 years when you want my opinion on the 2073 Celica.

Ray Magliozzi dispenses advice about cars in Car Talk every Saturday. Email him by visiting


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