There are times when you really don't have to care much about a car or car maintenance. Take, for example, the classic rental. We're betting that when you rented that nondescript, metallic gray four-door sedan you never once thought about popping the hood to check the fluids or to check the tire pressure. Auto maintenance was the last thing on your mind.
On the other hand, you have the car parked in your driveway. You know the one: It has your name (or your favorite bank's name) on the title. You're paying for it (or you've already paid for it). Cars aren't cheap today, and it just makes good sense to look after them. The day we drove home from the dealership, most of us aspired to keep our new car pristine. But plenty of folks have "memory lapses," or, more than likely, they fall back into bad habits when it comes to car maintenance.
Falling into a maintenance rut can be expensive in some situations, really expensive by causing many common car problems. Here's our top 10 list of car maintenance tips people too often don't follow:
1. Check tire pressure
Upward of 90 percent of all the vehicles on the road are driven with improperly inflated tires, and we suspect the majority are underinflated. Driving with low tire pressure can compromise cornering, braking and stability. In a worst-case scenario, incorrect tire pressure can lead to tire failure. And it should come as no surprise that underinflated tires also affect fuel economy and tire life.
Tire pressure changes constantly. This may be caused by a minor leak, but the most common factor in pressure change is ambient temperature. When tire pressure is too low, friction between the road and the tire increases, which increases tire wear. Driving with low tire pressure also can cause tires to overheat, which usually ends in catastrophic failure.
2. Check the oil
You really can't ignore some car maintenance essentials, such as checking the oil level in your vehicle's engine on a regular basis. That should be a no-brainer. Two conditions can cause drops in oil level: burning oil or leaking oil. Either way, if the oil level becomes too low, you're risking major engine damage. Often, the first thing to go – the bearings – is the worst that can happen. If they're toast, you won't go very far before the crankshaft and the connecting rods weld together (we're talking feet here, not miles, if you run out of oil).
Checking oil level (and condition) is not difficult. For the most part, it's a good idea to check the oil every time you gas up, especially if your vehicle is considered high mileage (more than 75,000 miles on the odometer). It's not difficult to check your car's oil and it doesn't even take five minutes.
3. Change the oil and filter regularly
Okay, we've mentioned checking the oil, but how many people postpone oil and filter changes (engine oil, engine oil filters and coolant as well)? Plenty, we'll bet. Maintaining a clean, adequate supply of oil within the engine is absolutely critical for the long-term life of your vehicle. Operating conditions have an effect upon how often you should do an oil and filter change. Seasons have an effect too.
Many of today's cars and light trucks are engineered so that the condition of the oil is monitored based upon your driving habits. When it's time to change the oil, a message (actually, an "electronic nag") will be displayed somewhere on the instrument cluster. If not, the owner's manual will clearly spell out when it's time for a change. Oil filters should be changed with the fluid, but at some deep-discount oil-change businesses, they use the cheapest filter they can find. When it comes to oil filters, the words "cheap" and "good" usually cannot be used in the same sentence. Ditto with coolant. Coolant does, in fact, wear out. As a result, the system should be "cleaned" and replenished on a regular basis.
4. Replace brake pads when necessary
Stop-and-go driving (including freeway travel), driving in mountainous terrain, hauling loads or pulling a trailer can severely shorten the lifespan of your brake pads. Mix all or some of them together and your brake pads (particularly the fronts, since they get the most use) will usually wear out quicker than you might imagine.
Modern cars and brake pads are virtually all equipped with audible wear sensors. Once worn, the pads will emit healthy squeals, and not only when the brake pedal is depressed. The squawking and squealing will go on continuously, which tells you it's time for a brake pad replacement. If you don't, the rotors will eventually be destroyed. A routine (and inexpensive) brake job then becomes costly.
5. Use the right tires for the season
Unlike some of the fortunate few, many of us live in snow country. Car maintenance in winter is no fun, but neither is being stranded in the cold. Living in cold country means you need the right tires for the season, particularly in the winter. Up north, you'll need appropriate rubber (usually marked "mud and snow" or with a snowflake logo on the sidewall), or you won't get far. Proper tires are mandatory. The same applies to summer driving. Tires engineered for cold weather don't last long in the summer. In fact, they'll wear out in a heartbeat. And that means wasted money.
6. Check the lights
How many times do you take a walk around your car or truck to check the lights? You're not alone. Plenty of folks neglect vehicle lamps, which should be a routine element of car maintenance. Lamps are (obviously) incredibly important, and there's no reason not to check them regularly, since it's a simple process. Turn on the headlights. Check park lamps, high- and low-beam lamps and the license plate light. If your vehicle is equipped with fog or driving lamps, inspect them. Examine the turn signals (all four corners) and follow up with an inspection of the emergency flashers. Back up against a wall where you can see the lights, apply the foot brake and check the brake lights. Place the vehicle in reverse (with the park brake on) and check the backup lights. If any bulbs are burned out, or if there is a lighting problem, it's obviously time to repair. And the repairs aren't difficult or expensive.
7. Don't overload the vehicle
Drive down any road, in any part of the country and you'll see it soon enough: An overwhelmed car or truck filled to the brim with someone's "load" and/or yanking a trailer. Most frequently, you'll see the results at the side of the road, with the hood raised. Often, it's simply a matter of an overtaxed cooling system, but in other cases, we've even examined buckled frames and broken axles.
As you can well imagine, those things cost plenty to fix. It's a lot less costly to simply figure out what load you're carrying (or towing), then cross-reference it against the load capacity decal on the door jamb of your vehicle. Keep in mind that passengers and their luggage are also included in the total "load" figure. If the load is too big, then either reduce the size or rent something more capable of handling it. This is a serious safety issue and shouldn't be taken lightly.
8. Replace worn-out wiper blades
Windshield wipers need regular inspection, because rubber (no matter the blend) deteriorates over time, due to sunlight, ozone, cold weather and other factors. Once the deterioration begins, wiper blades lose the ability to flex and flip over in use. They also crack. Additionally, normal use simply wears down the blade. Once the sharp edge is gone, the squeegee effect of the blade goes away as well. All of those factors prevent the blades from making full contact with the windshield. Wipers can chatter against the glass and, in most cases, the result is a blade that can't clear the windshield effectively. There's only one fix: replace the blades.
9. Repair windshield cracks
Driving with a cracked windshield is an invitation for trouble. Little cracks soon become big cracks and before long, visibility can be impaired. The reality is that windshields suffer damage in varying degrees. Often, car owners ignore a small crack caused by an errant stone, but this small chip can spread on a windshield, particularly in very cold weather. Manufacturers make laminated windshield glass under intense pressure. The glass has very high density, which causes cracks to widen progressively. That means the trouble increases with the extent of the damage.
It's far easier (and cheaper) to simply have stone chips and bruises fixed before they spread and become cracks. There are various techniques out there where resins are injected into the cracks with or without vacuum. This process can take a few minutes or last as long an hour, depending upon the chip size. When complete, you can't spot the repair. With cracks, you have no option but to replace the glass. They'll only get bigger with time.
10. Use the right octane fuel
Plenty of drivers overdo it on octane, usually falling for the "if some is good, more is better" line of thinking. In this case, the real rule is to supply whatever octane the engine is rated for nothing more and nothing less. Higher-than-required octane doesn't improve mileage; nor does it yield more power. It only costs you more money.
Using poor quality fuel in a vehicle that calls for high octane gas isn't a good idea either. With this approach, the engine management system will sometimes decrease ignition timing, which in turn will decrease your fuel economy (sometimes dramatically). And if it can't decrease the timing enough, there's a chance the engine will experience detonation. The result? Major engine carnage.