Maintain Your Beauty!

Whether your wheels are brand-new, a used vehicle new to you, or a ten-year-old family hand-me-down, maintaining your vehicle properly can keep it running trouble-free and looking good. Taking a few minutes and a few dollars to treat your ride right can save you lots of money and hassle down the road—not to mention extending the useful life of the vehicle and potentially strengthening its resale value.

Know your vehicle.
Smart owners start by learning the basics about their vehicles, beginning with reading the owner's manual. The manual indicates recommended service, intervals of service, appropriate replacement parts, the locations of important equipment (such as oil dipstick and filler cap, fuse panel, transmission fluid dipstick, etc), and important facts (such as correct tire inflation pressures).

If your used vehicle's manual has disappeared, you should be able to purchase a replacement online from a number of vendors. (Enter "buy [your model] auto owner's manual" in an Internet search engine to locate vendors.) If you can't locate a manual, a reputable repair guide for your model and year (such as Chiltons guides) will provide lots of information, though it may not have the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule.

Check your vehicle's "vital signs" regularly.
Getting in the habit of making the following regular checks can ensure that your vehicle stays in shape. These simple checks can also alert you to little problems before they become big problems like a breakdown. (A cell phone may get you off the side of the road but it won't restore an engine damaged for lack of oil or coolant.)

  • Check the oil level
    Every time or every other time you gas up.
  • Check the coolant level
    Glance at/in the plastic reservoir when you check the oil.
  • Check brake fluid
    Glance at the brake fluid reservoir when you check the oil.
  • Check the windshield washer fluid
    Glance at the reservoir when you check the oil.
  • Check the transmission fluid
    About once a month or every two months; the engine should be warm and running.
  • Visually inspect belts and hoses
    Every couple of months. It doesn't hurt to glance at them as you check the oil.

Keep tires properly inflated.
Improperly inflated tires lead to excessive tire wear, poor gas mileage, poor handling, and poor safety. Surveys have found that most vehicles have at least one underinflated tire. Memorize the appropriate tire pressures for your vehicle (you can find those on the door jamb or in the owner's manual), and check the pressure at least once a month. Twice a month is better. Keep a pressure gauge (they're cheap) in the glove compartment. Don't use the psi (pounds per square inch) on the sidewall of the tire—that's the maximum allowable pressure, not the best pressure for handling, safety and tire wear.

Change the oil regularly.
According to many expert automotive technicians, the single best thing that you can do to keep an engine healthy long-term is to change the oil at regular intervals of 3,000 - 7,500 miles. Manufacturers of most new cars recommend changing at intervals of approximately 7500 (some may suggest even longer periods), but many mechanics still insist that changing it every 3,000 - 4,000 miles is even better insurance. Why? Oil is critical to engine health—it lubricates all the moving parts to reduce wear, and it helps cool the engine. It also picks up dirt, contaminants, and tiny debris as it's used and breaks down-all factors that lower it's protective ability. So have the oil changed regularly being sure to use the right grade and viscosity for your engine.

For the life of your car - perform tune-ups and other regular maintenance at the intervals recommended by the manufacturer.
You'll find the recommended maintenance schedule in the owner's manual. For vehicles under warranty, skipping any scheduled maintenance can void the warranty. For older cars, continuing to perform such service as tune-ups, check of emission systems, brake inspection, replacement of timing chains and various sensors at recommended mileage intervals can keep the vehicle running like new for literally thousands of miles.

Change coolant and flush cooling system at recommended intervals—usually at least every other year.
We pulled this regular maintenance out of the pack because excess heat is a major enemy of engines. Your vehicle's coolant not only helps the engine run at appropriate temperatures, it is also an antifreeze that protects the engine from extreme cold. Finally, coolant contains inhibitors that protect the radiator and other elements of the cooling system against corrosion. Over time coolant's protective properties break down. Fall is a good time to check the protective levels of your coolant and to change it as necessary.

Drive smart.
Leave aggressive driving for the video game screen. On the road, avoid jack-rabbit starts, gunning the engine, racing up to a stop then jamming on the brakes. Such abrupt maneuvers stress the engine, burn extra oil and gas, increase wear on tires and brakes, and generally waste money.

Keep it clean—outside and in.
A regular wash and an occasional wax job keep your vehicle looking sharp and help protect it from environmental pollutants and sun (UV) damage. Touch up little scratches before they become larger rust spots. Matching paint is available from dealerships or from any automotive supply store. Set up a cleaning routine for the inside—vacuum regularly, clean the dash and treat it with a protective product, clean and protect leather seats, clean spills on upholstery and carpet promptly (before they attract more dirt).

Stay alert for your vehicle's state of well-being.
If something smells funny or sounds funny have it checked out promptly—don't wait, for instance, for a little squeal or click to become a major brake job. With a friend or family member occasionally take time to check all lights and signals. Stay alert for any puddles of liquid (other than air-conditioner condensation) under or around the car. Most of all, remember that nobody knows a car like its regular driver, so if something doesn't seem right, describe the problem as clearly as you can and have it checked out.

Go to the AAA Website for more tips.

Read more info on car care and maintenance:

  • Be Car Care Aware
    offers definitions and information on all components of a vehicle and aspects of their maintenance. Also check out tips for cold weather and hot weather care.