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Want To Make Your Car Last? Here’s How.

Posted in Car Care, DIY, Featured, General, How To, Maintenance, Repair, Safety, Tips by Kurt Ernst | June 11th, 2010 | 17 Responses |

Odometer from a first generation Miata; that's a lot of sunscreen.

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

BG? That almost sounds familiar...

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

Bad things happen when you don't change the engine oil.

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

An alignment is cheaper than new tires.

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

Brake fluid should look like water, not iced tea.

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

'I wonder what that dragging noise is?' Photo: Failblog

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

No, you can't wait another month to change this belt.

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

Mr. Valve? Meet Mr. Piston.

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

Those pleats should be pink, not black.

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”.

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17 Responses

  1. 68SportFury says:

    All good advice. I’ve gotten 221,000 miles out of a Chrysler 2.5 4-cylinder, primarily by changing the oil every 3,000 miles for the last nine years. Prior to that, 3K took less time to run up, so I did it at three-month intervals.

    I always get the alignment policy when I buy tires and I get the alignment checked at each rotation. As a result, that same high-mileage Mopar is only on its fourth set of tires. The second and third sets went well over 60,000 miles each!

  2. a says:

    how often should i change fluids and filters?

  3. Kurt says:

    a, check for specific information in the maintenance schedule book that comes with your car. If you don’t have one (or can’t find it), check in your owner’s manual. If you still can’t find it, change them every two to three years as your budget allows.

  4. diesel benz says:

    Just get an older diesel, they have mileage of a prius, affordable fuel, and the only fluid you really ‘need’ to worry about it motor oil. Stick to that rule and they will run for over a million miles before a rebuild. Stupid internal combustion engines, very inefficient.

  5. Mr E says:

    I use Amsoil, best oil because its built from ground up not like commercial grade oil which is all the same with minor differences.

  6. Hendo says:

    218k miles on my 96 saturn sc1, i change the oil about every 10k-20k miles and it still runs like a champ =p Still gets 35mpg XD

  7. Great article. most is obvious but i guess most people don’t know jack about their car.

  8. Hutch says:

    The BIGGEST THING to take from this article is: CHANGE YOUR FLUIDS AND FILTERS!!!!! Oil and Filter every 3,000 miles or 3 months, and Air Filter every 10,000 miles. If you don’t know how to change your oil…please please please learn how to do it. In all honesty, mechanics don’t make any extra for doing oil changes and most hate doing it when it’s something simple that everyone can do.

  9. Phreqd says:

    Follow your manual on oil changes. Most modern cars they tell you at 5-6k miles. 3k is just killing your wallet if it doesn’t call for it. Manual people! Read it…

  10. Amsoil says:

    Like the guy in the other post said… just use Amsoil. Change the oil once per year and 400,000 miles will seem like a joke. It’s not uncommon for a vehicle running on Amsoil doing once-per-year oil changes to go over 1,000,000 miles and still run great. It costs a little more than conventional oil, but the money you save at the pump will pay for the oil, making it free.

  11. aleph0aaa says:

    The recommendations about oil changing has been shown by testing (and technical common sense) to be non-sense. Race cars subject their engines to MUCHO extreme environments and do NOT suffer oil-related failures. How many incidents of oil related engine failure have you heard about? I have over the years driven most of my cars to high mileage limits (350k Jetta, 250k Montero, 200k Miata, 150k 318i, etc.) and (1) never did the 3k oil changes, even when I followed manufacturer schedule [Mercedes, VW, BMW did not have such short intervals – makes no sense really, oil is barely used and engine wear is not that significant after the first few], and (2) and after the warranty period, I change at MOST every year [~30k miles] Your cars are going to fail due to many other factors LONG before it is oil related!

  12. Set says:

    Diesel benz, while I agree with what you’re saying, I think you mean spark-plug based engines. Diesel is still internal combustion, just auto-ignition.

  13. Kurt says:

    aleph, I knew a guy that chain-smoked Camels, drank nothing but Coca Cola and ate only red meat. Seriously, this guy never ate a green vegetable in his life, yet lived to be 90+ years old. Based on this one person, can we assume that cigarettes, Coca Cola and red meat are the ticket to a long life? I don’t think so.

    You may not have had any failures with your 30k oil change intervals, but I wouldn’t want to see what one of those motors looked like inside. If changing the oil every 30k works for you, rock on. I just wouldn’t recommend this to anyone else.

  14. JL says:

    Nice! Love the article and printing it out for my wife right now. So I can say I was right! With this kind of maintenance on a car religiously, I have seen Honda’s break the 500k mark. So do what you can to do your regular maintenance on your baby.

  15. Nephilim says:

    A few years ago while working at a tire and lube shop I remember a fellow bringing in a very nice two year old Volvo S60 – not a cheap car. The exterior and interior were absolutely immaculate so I was giving this guy points for taking such good care of his ride. Until I remover the oil filler cap. Nothing but clay-like sludge. I remember wondering how big a wad of cash this guy probably spent on detailing while consistently ignoring a $20 oil change every three grand. I wish I could be there when the genius tries to sell or trade the car in – looks awesome, sounds like death!

  16. Kurt says:

    Nephilim, I used to work with a woman who drove a high end Volvo. In the five years we worked together, she never washed the car – black brake dust was caked about an eigth of an inch thick on the wheels.

    I get the fact that she wasn’t into cars, but you’d think her husband / son / daughter would have the common sense to run the car through an automatic wash from time to time.

  17. Trystan says:

    Kurt, this was another amazing article. I just wanted to add that not only should you buy name brand gas, but you should switch brands every few weeks. This is because each brand has different additives to prevent buildup. You want to change brands to get a combination of the additives working together.