One of the reassuring qualities of contemporary cars is that they need much less-frequent service to keep them running well. Changing the spark plugs, breaker points, and condenser used to be a seasonal exercise, and body rust were accepted as a normal if unfortunate hazard of aging. Now many spark plugs can go 100,000 miles between changes. Electronic ignition has done away with the points and condenser. Chassis, suspensions, and even some transmissions are lubed for life. And factory rust-through warranties typically run six years or longer. What’s more, reliability has improved significantly. The result is that most late-model cars and trucks should be able to go 200,000 miles with regular upkeep.
Every Other Fill-up, Do These Three Things
Instead of standing at the gas pump and reading the advertisements for a credit card while you wait for your tank to fill, use that time to give your car a quick check-up (and cleaning) by performing three simple tasks:
1. Clean windshield. A dirty, bug-splattered windshield is a safety hazard, as it obscures your view of the road. So give it a regular cleaning. Using the spongy part of the gas station squeegee, soak the whole windshield with the cleaning fluid. Then pull the squeegee tightly from the middle of the windshield to the sides, finishing off the remaining streaks by pulling it top to bottom. This is especially important after an extended drive on the highway when your windshield is littered with insect carcasses and using your car’s washing fluid and wipers to remove them only creates a big, smeary mess that obscures your line of sight even more.
If your headlights are dirty, give them a squeegeeing as well.
Your wipers have a role to play in keeping the windshield clean too, but we’ll talk about them later this week.
2. Check tire pressure. Maintaining proper tire pressure will keep you safe and even save you a little dough. Improperly inflated tires — and this may mean over-inflated or under-inflated — don’t handle or stop as well as tires with the correct pressure. They also increase your chance of a blowout. Plus, tires with the correct pressure have a longer life and increase your fuel efficiency.
Tire pressure is something you have to keep your eye on, as it constantly changes as the tires log miles and the temperature fluctuates. That’s why it’s so important to check it regularly and add air when needed. Some experts say you should do this at every gas fill-up, but just as with the oil check, every other fill-up should be enough to catch any deficiencies before they become big problems.
Checking your tire pressure takes less than two minutes. Here’s how to do it:
- For an accurate reading, always check tire pressure when your tires are “cold,” that is before you’ve driven around on them. I only check my tires’ pressure at a gas station when I fill up at the one less than a mile from my house, first thing in the morning. If you’ve already been driving around for a while, let the tires “rest” for at least four hours before checking the pressure.
- Find out the tire pressure recommended for your car (it’s in your owner’s manual and on a panel inside the driver’s side door, as pictured above). Always fill the tires to this recommended level, regardless of tire brand, and not to the max PSI found on the tire sidewall – that number indicates the maximum pressure the tire needs to carry its heaviest load, not the tire’s ideal PSI.
- Check tire pressure with tire pressure gauge
- Fill when needed
3. Check the oil level and top off as needed. Motor oil is essential to your car’s performance. Its most important job is to lubricate all the moving parts in your engine so they don’t grind and tear themselves into dysfunction. It also transfers heat away from the combustion cycle and traps and holds all the nasty byproducts of combustion, sending it to the oil filter. If your engine doesn’t have enough oil, your car is at risk of going kaput.
To ensure your car always has enough oil, it’s important to get in the habit of regularly checking it. Your owner’s manual probably recommends that you do this at every gas fill-up, but every other is typically sufficient. Checking your car’s oil level is super easy. All you need is a clean paper towel, adequate light, and about three minutes. You should save this job for last because you need to wait about five minutes after you turn the engine off for the oil to drain back into the pan:
Most cars are designed to consume a bit of oil between changes, and many manufacturers consider a consumption rate of one quart every 1,000 miles to be normal. Some cars lose more than that because of leaks or because the engine is burning oil along with the gasoline. If you’re needing to add a quart of oil every 500 miles or so, you should take your car in ASAP to get it checked for external and internal leaks.
Check the Engine Oil
Do it regularly—monthly for a vehicle in good condition; more often if you notice an oil leak or find you need to add oil routinely. The car should be parked on level ground so you can get an accurate dipstick reading. Don’t overfill. And if you do leak, find and fix it soon.
Change your oil every 5,000 to 7,500 miles and use a reliable brand.
Why It’s Important: Every car maker has different things to say when it comes to oil, but most experts agree that it’s good to change it out regularly. If you’re confused about what to use, most cars work well with synthetic oil like Mobil 1, and it’s usually easier to get your oil replaced at a shop versus doing it yourself.
The Cost Of Not Doing It: Your car needs oil to lubricate your engine and stop detergents, so make sure you follow these steps to check your oil every other month or so. If your car doesn’t have fresh oil, dirt will build up and eventually kill your engine, which will cost thousands of dollars and your happiness.
Check Tire Air Pressure
Once a month and before any extended road trips, use an accurate tire-pressure gauge to check the inflation pressure in each tire, including the spare. Do this when the tires are cold (before the vehicle has been driven or after no more than a couple of miles of driving). Use the inflation pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, not the maximum pressure embossed on the tire’s sidewall. The recommended pressure is usually found on a placard on a front doorjamb, in the glove compartment, or the owner’s manual. Also be sure to inspect tires for abnormal or uneven wear, cuts, and any sidewall bulges you can see.
CR advises that digital tire-pressure gauges (which cost about $15 to $25) are probably the best bet overall because they will give an accurate reading or none at all. Many pencil-type gauges (typically $10 to $15) are good as well. Note that to check the pressure in a temporary spare tire, which is often 60 psi, you will need a gauge that goes higher than that—say from 0 up to 90 pounds.
Wash the Car
Try to wash the car every week, if you can. Wash the body and, if necessary, hose out the fender wells and undercarriage to remove dirt and road salt. It’s time to wax the finish when water beads become larger than a quarter.
Clean the inside and outside of your car every month. Seriously.
Why It’s Important: Keeping your car clean is like keeping your room clean, except everyone can see your car and gauge how dirty (or clean) you are. Grab ArmorAll’s cheap but awesome vacuum, to clean the inside of your car, a bottle of Optimum’s car wash for the outside of your car, and make your car look brand new.
The Cost Of Not Doing It: An unclean car will eventually attract dirt and grime that can damage your interior and exterior, and probably won’t earn you any extra props from that person you like.
Check your tire pressure every month and rotate your tires every 7,500 miles.
Why It’s Important: Incorrect tire pressure can lead to a ton of problems, including poor breaking, instability, less gas mileage, and of course, a flat tire, so check your tire pressure with a gauge. Also, rotate your tires often to make sure that they wear evenly, making sure you get the most before replacing them.
The Cost Of Not Doing It: Replacing your tires will cost anywhere from $350 to $700, while a tire pressure gauge and rotation cost about $10 and $50, respectively. If your tires need to be rotated, simply take them in to a dealer or auto body shop.
Get your brake pads replaced every 25,000 miles or sooner if your brakes are wearing down.
Why It’s Important: It’s always a good idea to have your brakes checked out every so often by a professional, as a nasty grinding noise can bring an unpleasant worry. A big part of this is the brake pads, which resist loss of brake power at high temperatures and can be replaced by a mechanic if needed.
The Cost Of Not Doing It: Neglecting your brake pads will eventually lead to your brake rotors failing, leading to a $300 to $600 replacement and at worst, an emergency you don’t want to deal with.
Make sure your mirrors are always good to go.
Why It’s Important: Having eyes in the back of your head would be the driving advantage, but unfortunately we’re only human and the next best thing we have are mirrors. A good, clean set of front and rearview mirrors can save you from a lot of trouble on the road.
The Cost Of Not Doing It: Driving with dirty or no mirrors at all makes you everyone’s least favorite driver on the road, and that’s probably the last thing you want to be.