Fix It Before It Breaks: A Guide To Preventive Maintenance
By Suzanne Walters

Today's cars and trucks demand much less attention than those of the yesteryear. In the old days, a car's systems had to be fiddled with regularly just to keep the machine from breaking down. But with the advent of fuel injection, advanced spark plugs, and elaborate computer control systems, the traditional tune-up is a thing of the past-- many new cars run for 100,000 miles without a major tune-up. But there is a down side to these advances: high-tech engines can intimidate would-be tinkerers, and since performance and fuel efficiency decline so gradually, owners tend to avoid looking under the hood until something goes wrong. They pay for this neglect in decreased mileage, poor handling, and surprise breakdowns. This doesn't have to necessarily be the case. A simple routine of preventive maintenance can forestall many automotive woes, keeping you and your car safer and happier. The amount of work your car needs depends on how hard you drive it-- most owner's manuals list separate recommendations for normal and severe driving conditions. But what is severe? Practically everything-- cars don't like short trips, stop and go traffic, off-roading, hauling heavy loads, extreme temperatures, humidity, dust, pollution...actually, more than 75 percent of cars are driven under "severe" conditions. All this means is that your car may need a little extra attention and more frequent maintenance. The first step in establishing a car-care routine is to dig out the owner's manual and read the maintenance recommendations. If your car is under warranty, pay special attention to the minimum requirements needed to keep the warranty in effect. An unexpected benefit of reading the manual: schedule savvy makes you hard to rip off at the service shop.

Following are some tips on establishing a basic maintenance routine. Remember, these are just guidelines-- consult your owner's manual for specific instructions.

Spark Plugs
A tune-up is like a physical for your car-- someone examines all the systems to make sure all the parts are doing their jobs. During a tune-up, a technician will focus on the spark plugs, which are a vital determinant of a vehicle's performance. Worn or dirty plugs change the fuel/air mixture in the engine, which affects gas mileage. Also, because of their central role in the engine, the condition of the spark plugs can alert the technician to potential problems in other parts of the car. Tune-up intervals vary from brand to brand, so check the owner's manual to see how often your car needs this service.

Only a few square inches of rubber connect your vehicle to the road. Therefore, the condition of this rubber is crucial to your car's safety. Worn or deflated tires make for bad mileage and dangerous driving. Check the tire pressure every week (don't forget the spare!) and examine the wear patterns on the treads-- unusual patterns mean the tires need to be rotated. Rotate the tires every 6,000 miles to ensure even wear. Also have the wheel alignment and balance checked once a year. If you follow these guidelines, steel-belted radial tires should last for 70,000 miles.

Intimidated by a high-tech engine? Get to know your car by checking the fluid levels. Even the most mechanically disinclined person can look at a dipstick. Every month, check the oil, radiator, battery, power steering, brake and transmission fluid, and top off those that are low. (The owner's manual will tell you where to find the dipsticks.) A few fluids need special attention:

  • The oil (and oil filter) should be changed every three months or 3,000 miles.
  • Radiator fluid should be replaced every two years. Use a solution of 50 % water and 50% antifreeze to keep the radiator running smoothly in extreme temperatures.
  • The transmission fluid should be replaced about every two years. If the fluid is brown, not red, and smells like a dead skunk, it's time for a change.
  • Some batteries require fluid, some don't. Check to see if your battery is maintenance free. If not, fill to recommended level with odorless tap water.

Belts, Hoses, and Wipers
These are more easy maintenance tasks that you can do at home. Every month, poke around under the hood and note any cracks, frays, leaks, or bulges in the belts and hoses. These flaws indicate that the part will soon snap or rupture; have faulty parts replaced as soon as possible. Belts and hoses will wear out sooner or later, so to avoid the stress of a roadside emergency, have them all replaced every two years. While you're at it, check the windshield wipers for cracks and brittleness. Wipers should be replaced each year; don't wait for them to start smearing or chattering before you replace them.

Air Filter and Battery
Check the air filter every two months, or when you change the oil. Replace it if it is clogged or damaged. During your monthly maintenance routine, check the battery for loose cables and corrosion. Scrub off any corrosion or dirt with a wire brush. Batteries only last about three and a half years; when your battery gets old, have it replaced before it dies. This will save you from otherwise inevitable stress and expense. Although your high-tech car probably won't complain if it's neglected, preventive maintenance is just as important today as it was thirty years ago. Your car's elaborate systems may be intimidating, but they're not invincible; don't let a seemingly smooth performance lull you into neglecting regular maintenance. These simple tasks will save you time, trouble and expense by decreasing the chance of emergencies and major repairs and increasing your car's fuel efficiency, lifespan, and dollar value.