CarTalk.com Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

Mercury Tracer Struggles up hills

so i have a '93 1.9v mercury tracer. Its in fairly good shape, but it slows down on steep long hills. I can be driving at 65-70mph and it’ll gradually go down to 45-55mph. If i push it too hard it will sometimes spit a little black smoke out of the exhaust. i have yet to see a mechanic because i want to have an idea of whats going on.

I drive mostly in over drive because regular drive feels/sounds like its hard on my engine.

I need to get this fixed so i can leave the state of AZ, which means i’ll have to drive some big hills on the way to flagstaff.

What’s the maintenance history of this car? When was the last time it had a new fuel filter, new spark plugs, etc?

In addition to McP’s questions I’d like to know the mileage.

The '93 Tracer was never a rocket ship to begin with. It’s now 16 years old. The symptoms suggest the engine may just be dead tired. That’s a euphamism for very low compression due to wear.

Before i drove out to phoenix i had my mechanic make sure everything was ready for a trip across the us. I don’t recall what all got replaced. After a month or two living here i took my car in for an oil change and they did some addiontal services as well, once again i can’t recall all the was done. as far as mileage i’m around 135

Making sure everything is ready for a cross-country trip involves making sure the maintenance is up to date, the systems are all working properly, making sure there are no non-mechanical safety issues (like a windshield crack), and making sure the engine is running as well as it can. It does not include tests like a compression is good, the car doesn’t use oil, and things like that. An engine being just plain tired does not mean it won’t get you cross-country or that the car is unsafe.

My guess is that when you do get it to a mechanic, based upon the car’s age and mileage he’s going to want to check the compression. I would.

In addition to mountainbike’s good advice, I would like to suggest to the OP that he/she get into the habit of saving service invoices. If you don’t know what maintenance items were taken care of on a specific date or at a specific odometer mileage, then there is a very real probability of either duplicating that maintenance procedure far too soon–which wastes money, or of not having a necessary maintenance procedure done when it is next due–and that can lead to expensive repair issues.

Many years ago, after I mistakenly had the coolant replaced twice within a year, I got into the habit of recording all maintenance on a little (8.5 x 14") easily-read chart. This way, I can see at a glance what was done, when it was done, and when it is due to be done again. By doing something like this, in addition to saving all maintenance invoices, you will save a lot of money in the long run, and will have a better-running, more economical car.

The fuel pressure may be down because of a dirty fuel filter. Appearance of the fuel filter will show if it’s been there a long time (years). If questionable, change the fuel filter. Check air filter.
A black spit of smoke means that the fuel is not burning well. New spark plugs should help there.
The fuel pressure needs to be checked with the engine under load. With an automatic transmission, the engine can be loaded by running it a couple of minuets in Drive, at 1500 rpm.
A vacuum gauge test can reveal if the engine is “tight”, or worn. Here’s the link to how that is done: http://www.secondchancegarage.com/public/186.cfm Sure, show it to your mechanics.

Thank you all for your advice, i feel like i have an idea what to do now. I’ll see a mechanic here soon, give them the skinny as well as your suggestions, and will most definitely record what is done.

Thank you thank you thank you

While there are several things that could cause a problem like this, I’m kind of leaning towards a partially clogged catalytic converter based on the spit of black smoke.
A clogged converter can cause a power loss like this and rich running (the spit of smoke).

Just like determining if the engine is still in decent shape, a vacuum gauge can also be used to easily determine if a clogged converter exists.