Next to buying a house, buying a car is generally the second biggest purchase most people will make in their lives. With the economy limping along to slow recovery, most people are keeping cars longer and putting off service as much as possible. Ultimately, that’s a bad idea; like the saying goes, “you can pay me now or you can pay me later”. If you’re one of the millions currently unemployed or underemployed, you want to know how you can make your car last. Sadly, there’s no such thing as a free lunch, but following the tips below will help you keep your car running without having to shell out for major repairs.
I’ll start by assuming that you’re driving a car in good shape. If you’ve been putting off service for years, it’s already too late. Sooner or later, something will fail, and it will probably be expensive. Those are the odds you’re playing when you try to avoid basic upkeep on a vehicle.
In no particular order of importance (since they’re all important), here are eight things you should do to ensure that your car has a long and happy lifespan:
Buy name brand gas
This tip will probably piss off some people who shop for the cheapest gas they can find, usually at “Grumpy Gus’ Gas & Guzzle” or another similar roadside abomination. Why is this a bad idea? Primarily due to inconsistent supply. Resellers like this typically buy their gas from anyone who’ll sell it to them. You may get different brands with far different levels of quality control; worse, you’ll be putting all sorts of things in you fuel system that you hadn’t planned on. Paying for a name brand gas is a lot cheaper than replacing clogged fuel filters and cleaning fuel injectors on a regular basis.
Not all discount gasoline resellers follow this practice, but I can’t tell you how to find out who does and who doesn’t. My suggestion? Find whatever national or regional retailer is cheapest in your area and run a tank of their gas through your car. If you have no problems, stick with them. Always use the proper gasoline for your car: if it has a high compression engine, you need to run premium. If it doesn’t there’s no advantage to running mid-grade or premium, so you can save a few dollars per tank.
Change the oil regularly
This is probably the most important step in ensuring your car lasts longer than the powertrain warranty. Always change your oil at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals, but no less than every six months if you don’t drive that many miles. Change the oil filter every time you change the oil as well.
You don’t need to run synthetic oil (unless your car calls for it), but I’m a big fan of the synthetic stuff. Sure, it costs more up front, but it will give you better fuel mileage and longer service intervals. If you drive your car hard, or if you’ve got a forced induction motor, synthetic oil will resist breakdown more than the dinosaur based stuff. If you can afford it, use it.
Check your tire pressure and alignment regularly
Under-inflated tires not only rob fuel mileage, but are more prone to blowouts than properly inflated tires. Remember that most vehicles have different air pressure requirements based on load. If you’re carrying a car full of passengers and luggage, you’ll need to air up per your manufacturer’s recommendations. Likewise, if you’re hauling a pickup full of gravel, don’t do it on tires you deflated to drive on the beach.
Checking tire pressure also allows you to check tire wear regularly. If you see uneven wear on your tires, it’s time to get your ride in for an alignment. Spending $75 or so on an alignment is a lot cheaper than blowing it off, then having to spend serious money on tires and worn suspension components in six months. If you hit a pothole, particularly a bad one, you need an alignment.
Change fluids at recommended intervals
Most automakers are using “lifetime” coolant these days, which means that you’ll probably not have to change it under normal conditions for ten years or so. There is no such thing as lifetime brake fluid or lifetime transmission fluid; all need to be changed regularly, according to manufacturer’s specifications. Regular brake fluid absorbs moisture as it gets older, so it doesn’t work as well. Dirty brake fluid can also clog brake components, leading to a loss in braking ability. Is this really somewhere you want to be saving money?
Pay attention to the little things your car is telling you
Whether you know it or not, your car talks to you every time you drive it. Hear that high pitched squeal when you step on the brakes? It could be accumulated brake dust, or it could be the pad wear indicators scraping on the rotors. Hear that screech when you accelerate? It could mean that a fan belt is improperly tensioned or beyond its service life. Smell something sweet from under your dash (that isn’t your air freshener or the remnants of a Cinnabon, long forgotten)? It could mean a coolant leak from your heater core.
By paying attention to the little things that are out of the ordinary, you can help avoid expensive and major repairs down the line. If you don’t know your ass from your alternator when it comes to cars, hit up a buddy who does. When it comes to car maintenance, there’s no such thing as a stupid question, but there are plenty of expensive mistakes.
Check belts regularly
Just because you don’t hear belts squealing doesn’t mean they’re in good condition. A broken belt can leave you stranded in the worst possible location at the worst possible time. If you’re heading on along trip, check them in advance to see if they’ll make it. Look for dry rotting, cracking or obvious wear. If they look worn, replace them before your trip; it’ll be much cheaper than the towing bill to a garage in Possum Holler, Arkansas, assuming the tow truck driver doesn’t opt to turn you into sausage patties first.
Change timing belt at recommended interval
A timing belt ensures that your camshafts open and close your intake and exhaust valves at the right time. Should your timing belt break, the camshafts and valves stop moving; your pistons, on the other hand, do not. The result ranges from “bad” to “very, very bad”, depending on what type of motor is in your car.
There are two types of motors used in automobiles: interference and non-interference. In an interference type motor, there is insufficient clearance to allow a piston to reach top dead center without striking a valve. When pistons strike valves, bad things happen. At best, you’re looking at a major engine rebuild; at worst, you’re looking at a new motor. A quick internet search (or a phone call to your trusted mechanic) should tell you if your car has an interference type motor or not.
As you can probably guess, a non-interference motor has ample clearance between valves and pistons to eliminate the chance of a piston striking a valve should the timing belt break. If your timing belt breaks with a non-interference motor, the motor stops running. Right there, right now, and God help you if you’re driving in left lane, rush hour traffic.
It’s important to know what the service interval is on the timing belt in your car. Change it when the manufacturer tells you to, in terms of years or mileage. If they say 60,000 miles, get it done at 60,000 miles. Maybe you’ll make 70k, maybe you’ll make 80k (hell, maybe you’ll make 100k), but you’re living on borrowed time. When you least expect it, your car will leave you stranded.
Does your car use a timing chain instead of a timing belt? The service interval may be longer, but the same rules apply. Get it changed when the manufacturer tells you to.
Change filters regularly
Air filters, fuel filters and automatic transmission filters may be the most neglected parts on your car. Change them when the automaker tells you to, and you’ll avoid a lot of drama and expense down the line.
So there’s my advice on how to keep your car running for a long, long time. Ignore it at your own risk, because the only alternative to regular maintenance is expensive repair. It isn’t a matter of “if”, only a matter of “when”.