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Xterra’s gauges on the fritz

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DEAR TOM AND RAY: I bought my used 2000 Nissan Xterra almost three years ago.

Every once in a while it did this weird thing where all the dashboard functions froze. The gauges and digital odometer all stopped working. The odometer would, at first, be random nonsense.

Then it would gradually fade away. It seemed to be happening when the car got hot, so I used my windshield cover and parked it in the shade most of the time, and it stopped happening.

Then this past winter it started happening again. When I went for an oil change, I asked them to check the battery, which they said is fine. On the way home from the oil change, it happened three times and twice the next day, and then everything stayed frozen until I parked the car. Is it some sort of short in the electrical system in the dashboard or something? Will it be expensive to fix? Thanks. – Nancy

TOM: Yes and yes.

RAY: It’s not dangerous in the sense that your car is going to catch fire this afternoon (I don’t think). But it’s dangerous in that if there is a real mechanical emergency – like low oil pressure or overheating – you might not know about it because your dashboard gauges and warning lights don’t work. And that could cause you to cook your engine.

TOM: Plus, it’s not a great idea to drive without knowing how fast you’re going.

RAY: It sounds like you have a bad instrument cluster, Nancy.

TOM: Sometimes the printed circuit boards in these instrument clusters fail. The problem often starts out intermittently because these tiny broken connections on the circuit board can be affected by heat or by hitting bumps.

RAY: Sometimes the circuit board can be repaired. We have a place that we send them out to. If they can find the bad connection, they can solder it and send it back to us. But the alternative is getting your dealer to put in a whole new instrument cluster for you. That’ll probably cost you close to $1,000.

TOM: You can try getting one at a junkyard, Nancy. But you’ll still have to pay for the labor, and there’s a chance that your “new” one will have the same problem as the old one – or develop it on your way home. So, see if you can find a shop that can try to help you repair your circuit board first.

RAY: If that doesn’t work, the best thing to do is bite the bullet and replace the cluster. Good luck, Nancy.

Got a question about cars? Email Click and Clack by visiting the Car Talk website at cartalk.com.

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