Caring For Your Car: Maintaining A Smooth Ride For Years To Come
If you drive a car, there's a good chance you only think about two things when operating your vehicle.
What's traffic going to be like on the way to my destination?
Will I need to stop and fill up with gas on the way?
Beyond that, not much else enters most people's minds when thinking about their primary source of transportation. Until, of course, something goes wrong.
Why Car Care Matters
Which is why knowing what it takes to keep your car running is so important.
Ignoring the health of your vehicle can result in thousands of dollars worth of repairs. Worse, it could lead to a break down at the worst possible time.
Don't worry if you know little about spark plugs and oil changes, wheel alignment and tire pressure, or brakes and the battery. It doesn't take much to learn fundamental car care.
Even if you pay someone else to do it, having the underlying knowledge to keep your vehicle running makes driving all the more enjoyable. Not only that, you'll save money, encounter fewer issues, and extend the life of the car while also maintaining its value.
So let's buckle up, take a little drive, and see what it takes to keep your ride running.
The Owner's Manual
First and foremost, read your owner's manual.
Okay, maybe not cover to cover, but if you're ever in need of information specific to your car, in all likelihood, it's detailed within the owner's manual.
The car's regular maintenance schedule.
How often you should change the oil.
The proper gas and fluids to use.
The car manual is also a fantastic first point of reference when you need a quick answer to an important question. What a particular warning light means, what will and won't void your warranty, how to work all of the comfort systems, or how to change your tire (seriously, some cars can be more complicated than others).
Buy a used car that was missing its manual? You can probably download it here.
Even though you may rarely need it, always keep it close by. It could come in very handy one day.
The Basics of Car Care
Keeping your car in good condition ultimately comes down to one major factor - preventative maintenance.
Yes, things sometimes go wrong. Even the most well cared for automobiles can break down suddenly and without warning. However, a lot of what does go wrong with a car often stems from owner neglect.
Much of it can be avoided with a little due diligence on your part, whether its a regular inspection on your part or keeping up with the car's maintenance schedule. In either case, it requires only a nominal amount of money and even less of your time.
Here are eight areas where paying attention now can avoid more significant problems later.
1. Visual Inspection
How recently have you given your vehicle a good look? Not just a glance, either, but a real visual inspection. As if you were buying it for the first time or avoiding potential charges on a rental. It doesn't take long and helps you spot minor problems long before they become major concerns.
A simple visual inspection should look for:
- Deep nicks, scratches, or dents on the body that could lead to corrosion or a loss of structural integrity.
- Chips in any of the glass. Even a tiny imperfection can quickly spread with a bump in the road or temperature change.
- Lights and turn signals that are out or dimmed.
- Tires that appear to have low pressure (this also includes your spare) or if the tread is wearing thin. For the latter, use the penny test.
When performing a visual inspection, turn your car on and listen for anything unusual or out of the ordinary.
We place our vehicles under a lot of daily stress. We often don't consider their exposure to outside elements, and what that can do to the exterior. Keeping a car clean and fixing a small imperfection now is much easier than replacing a windshield or body panel later on.
2. Checking Fluids
Even if your interest in or knowledge of your car never moves beyond its getting you from point A to point B, everyone should at least know how to check fluid levels.
Your vehicle's fluids include oil, brake, power steering, coolant, and wiper fluid.
Topping off the wiper fluid is something everyone should know. Novices can quickly learn to look at the oil dipstick and tell the difference between it being clean or dirty.
For the other fluids, while you may never be comfortable changing them, knowing how to identify low levels and spot leaks, will keep you ahead of potentially costly repairs.
3. Changing Your Oil
Sure, having your oil changed a few times a year may be an inconvenience, but engine failure and replacement is a far more taxing concern. Besides, oil changes are not the burden they once were.
Many modern vehicles require an oil change every 5,000 miles. For some, they can run even longer between services (remember to check your owner's manual for the exact requirement). In either case, oil changes are vital to lubricating your car's engine and protecting it from wear and tear.
Many reputable oil change shops charge as little as $20 for a basic service, although the average cost will run around $50 to $75 for oil and a new filter. You could also learn to change it yourself and save even more.
Considering most people will only need three oil changes a year, that $150 to $225 range is a small price to pay versus $1000 or more should your engine fail.
4. Tire Care and Wheel Alignment
As we noted, a visual inspection can usually tell you if a tire seems low or is losing its tread. But there's more to it.
Check tire pressure regularly (either with a manual gauge or your car's sensors) to keep them in optimal range. It will make your ride smoother and your vehicle more fuel-efficient.
Having your tires rotated will help them wear more evenly, thereby prolonging their life. Many tire and auto shops will rotate the tires for free as part of a more extensive service or if you purchased them there. The rule of thumb is a rotation every 5,000 to 8,000 miles, but check with the tire manufacturer to be sure.
Balanced tires reduce vibration and help a vehicle drive and handle better. If your car drifts or its a battle to keep it straight, then your wheels may be out of alignment. Having this checked as part of your tire and wheel care translates to improved fuel economy and a vehicle that's easier to operate.
Brake pads and shoes are components that wear slowly over time, meaning that without regular checks, problems can arise suddenly and without warning. Inspections are often done as part of broader services and are either free or nominal in cost.
When driving, always pay attention for grinding or squealing or if you feel vibrations when applying the brake pedal. These can be signs of potential issues that may cost less to repair the sooner they're identified.
6. Spark Plugs
Though they may be small, spark plugs are vital to your car's performance. As spark plugs deteriorate, fuel consumption increases as your car's efficiency decreases.
If your engine starts to vibrate or your car's performance is sluggish - slow acceleration, slow start, poor fuel economy - then a faulty spark plug may be the culprit. Spark plugs typically last upwards of 100,000 miles but can falter at any time for many reasons.
Check your manufacturer's manual to determine when yours might be nearing their usable life.
7. Car Battery
Your car's battery is the equivalent of a human heart - when it's beating, everything gets the power it needs to operate normally. When it's not pumping, nothing works. For those unforeseen times when your car's battery loses its charge, it's wise to keep jumper cables or a starter in your trunk.
When taking preventative measures, look to make sure the batteries contacts are free of build-up, and there are no visible leaks or damage to the casing. Specific battery brushes can help keep them clean.
If you do need to change your battery, they are relatively simple to replace yourself and can save you the cost of labor on top of an already expensive component.
8. Safety and Comfort
Finally, there are few items related to safety and comfort that, that are easy to check and maintain.
Depending on the climate where you drive, your wiper blades may get used a lot, or not at all. In either case, they can wear out quickly from overuse in wet areas, or cracking and deterioration in hot, dry climates.
There's no specific rule to when to replace your blades, but the first sign of streaking or an inability to completely wipe clean a windshield is a good time to do so. In almost every case, wipers are easy to swap out yourself.
While many times part of a routine service, a fresh cabin air filter can keep you and your passengers comfy if you replace them regularly. They are cheap and easy to replace.
For safety, it also never hurts to double-check your car's seat belts. Look for tears in the fabric, that the buckles latch correctly, and the belt extends and retracts comfortably and safely. If there is an issue, have it repaired immediately.
Similar to seat belts, if you have a small child still using a car seat, check to make sure it remains snugly installed and all fabrics have not deteriorated.
It's not necessary to be a gearhead to care about or for your car. A small commitment and regular diligence on your part go a long way to maintaining your vehicle in its best possible condition and potentially saving you a considerable amount of money.
Written by Anna Kučírková, August 19, 2019.