Ask Jack: Got That Maxima On Lock?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth
ask jack got that maxima on lock

This week’s episode of Ask Jack is all about the magic boxes that separate today’s cars from their predecessors — and the unintended consequences of when it all goes wrong.

Reader Eiriksmal writes:

I hope I’ve startled you with this bold introduction. There’s a question I have that only you can answer … probably. It takes a sophisticated man with all sorts of worldly experience that I lack.

You see, I drive a car without antilock brakes, traction control, or stability control. I’m a whipper snapper who’s only been driving 14 years, so I never knew an era without ABS, at the very least. My beloved sixth-generation Maxima, what with the six-speed manual, has a malfunctioning ABS module, so the ABS and TC (no yaw sensor was installed on the 6MT cars — ESC was autotragic only) are kaput. I’ve driven it sans braking assistance for 2.5 years, but today was my first heart-clenching episode caused by a lack of experience with driving an ABS-less car.

I noticed when bedding in some new brakes recently that the back end tries to come around the front in a panic stop after the wheels lock. Sometimes it just squirms a little, other times it would step the back end out a solid 6-8 inches. This confuses me. When I’m pointing in a straight line, holding the steering wheel tight, and jamming the pedal to the floor, why does the lighter back end try to rotate around the heavy nose?

Today, a jerk in an Escape lumbered out in front of me …

This sounds like trouble.

Eiriksmal goes on to tell a fairly harrowing tale of trying to keep a partially sideways car in a lane while surrounded by traffic. It’s the kind of thing that goes well beyond “funny story to tell” and well into the territory of “… and that is how I ended up in this wheelchair.” So I figured it would be a good idea to come up with a potential solution right away — and as fate would have it, I’d just experienced a similar situation at Road Atlanta.

During the Friday qualifying for our AER race, we started experiencing a cornucopia of ABS issues. Early activation, uneven activation, and a pedal that went between “high-hard” and “on the floor.” With very little time to troubleshoot, we ended up disconnecting ABS via the fuse.

This fixed all of the above problems, but it led to another one. In most close-to-modern cars, the balance of pressure between front and rear brakes is set by a proportioning valve. In a race car, it’s typically adjustable to suit conditions. In a street car, like my mother’s 1977 Cutlass or my 1990 Fox, it’s a fixed valve that represents a best-guess approximation for all possible situations.

In many modern cars, however, proportioning is done via the ABS block. And why not? The ABS block is busy doling out all sorts of brake-pressure changes, as often as ten times a second. Why shouldn’t it go ahead and set the proportioning in non-ABS situations? Why not simplify by having one device do all the jobs?

This works very well — in fact, it’s the best way to do things. Until, of course, you turn off the ABS. At which point you get a default setting. And that default setting is going to be an afterthought on pretty much every street car money can buy, because the manufacturer does NOT want you running without ABS and they are under no obligation to make your life easier if you turn it off.

In the case of our Miata, the default is pretty-semi-kinda-good. But it was biased a bit to the rear, which meant that the rear wheels would lock under hard braking and make things very interesting. It also caused a bit of rear-steer which I didn’t mind but which was unappreciated by some of our drivers. Keep in mind, however, this is a nearly new car with fresh equipment from ABS block to the brake disc. What are the chances the brake system on that old Maxima is all in tip-top shape right down to the rubber lines?

You know the answer to that. And that is why Eiriksmal‘s car is skidding under braking — because he’s got some weak-ass default proportion and one of the rear brakes is gripping slightly harder than the other. After all, uneven rear braking is how stability control operates. It can be equally unhelpful if it’s happening by accident. And that’s what I think is happening here. The question is whether it’s worth putting a thousand bucks, or more, into a sixth-generation Maxima.

My advice: Fix the car and enjoy it. For Nissan fans, there will never be another sedan with that kind of brute charm available. Certainly not brand-new. Fix the brakes, put some cash into it, enjoy your time. If not, as Perry Farrell once said:

The world is loaded,

It’s lit to pop and nobody is gonna stop…

Gimme that!

Gimme that – your automobile,

Turn off that smokestack

And that goddamn radio

Hum… along with me…

Hum along with the t.v.

No one’s



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2 of 66 comments
  • Northeaster Northeaster on Mar 28, 2017

    It could be a lot worse. When I was 14 just after getting a learner's permit, my dad thought it would be a really good idea to teach me about what could happen during panic braking. He did this just after sunset in an early 60's Olds 98 (with 4 wheel drums) he was about to retire. On his instruction, I entered a slightly tight uphill turn to the right, modestly fast, and was told to push on the brake pedal hard. Really hard. In retrospect, probably not a terribly smart idea as a car with what should have been beyond-terminal-understeer ended up rotating the rear out about 135 degrees clockwise and ended up pointed partly downhill, ass end of the car in the wrong lane and with an unintended stall to boot. I was lucky enough not to have been T-boned by someone coming around the blind curve in the dark, but the rapidly ensuing stream of obscenities from him about getting the car started and in the proper lane still introduced me to the idea that bad things can happen if you don't do threshold braking.

  • Cognoscenti Cognoscenti on Mar 29, 2017

    Nice Jane's Addiction reference! Damn, I can't believe that was way back in 1986...

  • 56m65711446 Well, I had a suburban auto repair shop in those days.
  • Dukeisduke Yikes - reading the recall info from NHTSA, this sounds like the Hyundai/Kia 2.4l Theta II "engine fire" recall, since it involves an engine block or oil pan "breach", so basically, throwing a rod:"Description of the Safety Risk : Engine oil and/or fuel vapor that accumulates near a sufficiently hot surface, below the combustion initiation flame speed, may ignite resulting in an under hood fire, and increasing the risk of injury. Description of the Cause :Isolated engine manufacturing issues have resulted in 2.5L HEV/PHEV engine failures involving engine block or oil pan breach. In the event of an engine block or oil pan breach, the HEV/PHEV system continues to propel the vehicle allowing the customer to continue to drive the vehicle. As the customer continues to drive after a block breach, oil and/or fuel vapor continues to be expelled and accumulates near ignition sources, primarily expected to be the exhaust system. Identification of Any Warning that can Occur :Engine failure is expected to produce loud noises (example: metal-to-metal clank) audible to the vehicle’s occupants. An engine failure will also result in a reduction in engine torque. In Owner Letters mailed to customers, Ford will advise customers to safely park and shut off the engine as promptly as possible upon hearing unexpected engine noises, after experiencing an unexpected torque reduction, or if smoke is observed emanating from the engine compartment."
  • Dukeisduke In an ideal world, cars would be inspected in the way the MoT in the UK does it, or the TÜV in Germany. But realistically, a lot of people can't afford to keep their cars to such a high standard since they need them for work, and widespread public transit isn't a thing here.I would like the inspections to stick around (I've lived in Texas all my life, and annual inspections have always been a thing), but there's so much cheating going on (and more and more people don't bother to get their cars inspected or registration renewed), so without rigorous enforcement (which is basically a cop noticing your windshield sticker is out of date, or pulling you over for an equipment violation), there's no real point anymore.
  • Zipper69 Arriving in Florida from Europe and finding ZERO inspection procedures I envisioned roads crawling with wrecks held together with baling wire, duct tape and prayer.Such proved NOT to be the case, plenty of 20-30 year old cars and trucks around but clearly "unsafe at any speed" vehicles are few and far between.Could this be because the median age here is 95, so a lot of low mileage vehicles keep entering the market as the owners expire?
  • Zipper69 At the heart of GM’s resistance to improving the safety of its fuel systems was a cost benefit analysis done by Edward Ivey which concluded that it was not cost effective for GM to spend more than $2.20 per vehicle to prevent a fire death. When deposed about his cost benefit analysis, Mr. Ivey was asked whether he could identify a more hazardous location for the fuel tank on a GM pickup than outside the frame. Mr. Ivey responded, “Well yes…You could put in on the front bumper.”