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How to keep your car in top shape, no matter its age
As a first-time car owner, taking care of such a large and complex purchase might seem like a daunting task. But basic maintenance is actually simpler than you might think.
The good news is that some important tasks, like checking the tire pressure, polishing the car, and installing new windshield wipers, are simple and can be done in your driveway. Other jobs, like oil changes or new brakes, are better left to a pro, and for major repairs you’ll definitely need a trained mechanic. Our simple guide will walk you through the tasks you can DIY, and help you decide when to call for help.
For new and almost-new cars that are still covered by a warranty, you should bring your car to the dealership for repairs where warranty work is free. But when you’re facing an expensive out-of-pocket repair or service, it pays to phone around to several repair facilities and get more than one estimate. (Try our car repair assistant for a location-based estimate, and check out our guide to finding a trustworthy mechanic.)
Whether your car is new or used, you don’t have to bring your car to a dealer for scheduled maintenance—like tire rotations, oil changes, and tune-ups—and it won’t void your warranty if you do.
Check out the owner’s manual. Few people bother to read the owner’s manual unless they’re forced to, but this is a mistake. Owner’s manuals explain in simple language all of a car’s features, including some you probably didn’t know you had, what specific oil or fluid to use, and what maintenance schedule to follow. If the owner’s manual didn’t come with the car, you can probably find one free online.
Use your common senses. Be alert for any unusual noises, smells, or fluid leaks. Likewise, be aware of changes in performance, such as diminished braking, acceleration, or steering abilities. Nipping problems in the bud can often prevent huge repair bills that result from ignoring the warning signs.
Tire pressure. In terms of safety, keeping your tires properly inflated is one of the most important routine maintenance tasks. Under-inflated tires wear faster, waste gas, and degrade your car’s handling. Check pressure at least once a month and before any long trip. The correct inflation pressure is printed on a placard usually found inside the driver’s door jamb, and it is sometimes printed on the inside of the glove box or fuel-filler door. Keep a tire pressure gauge in the car. We prefer digital gauges with an illuminated readout. (See our tire-pressure gauge buying advice and ratings.)
Paint pampering. Regular car washing and waxing help preserve a car’s paint from corrosive salt, bug splatter, bird droppings, and road grime. Despite what the ads may say, though, no wax job lasts more than a few weeks at best. Paste wax is not necessarily better than liquid polish, either, and premium brands don’t necessarily outlast lower-priced alternatives. (See our car wax buying advice, and learn more about how to get the most out of a car wash.)
Take periodic service schedules seriously. It’s important to follow the owner’s manual recommendations for oil-change intervals and major services such as having the timing belt replaced. But you don’t need to have that work done more often than the book says, regardless of what a service shop may tell you.
Join a club. A motor club such as AAA and Better World can be a lifesaver. They supply 24-hour roadside assistance if you break down, get a flat, or need to be towed. Plus, there are often various discounts associated with membership, such as for rental cars or hotels. Your auto-insurance company or even your cell phone provider may be affiliated with a motor club, as well. In addition, some credit cards and new cars come with free roadside assistance, too.
Renew the wipers. Windshield wipers don’t last forever. Figure six months, at best, before they start leaving streaks. In addition to making it hard to see in the rain, if the wiper rubber disintegrates and flies off, the motion of the bare wiper arm on the windshield can indelibly scar the windshield in minutes. We have found that midlife, after a few months of use, wipers can often be renewed with a glass cleaner and paper towel. (See our wiper buying advice.)
Car documents to carry. It’s a good idea to keep all your car-repair receipts in the car. That way the dated service records and, perhaps, warranty cards for new tires, battery, muffler system, and so on are handy when needed. Always keep your car’s registration certificate and your insurance card in the car. But keep your car’s title certificate at home, under lock and key.
Local shop versus dealership. Local mom-and-pop repair shops are generally less costly because they have lower labor rates than franchised dealerships, and often charge less for parts. Franchised dealer service departments, though, specialize in your brand and their technicians have access to specialized tools and training. In our surveys, subscribers routinely report higher satisfaction with independent shops.
Choosing a local mechanic. Ask your network of family and friends for service-shop recommendations. Shops with well-qualified mechanics often display a sign or certificate from ASE, a national certification organization. But, that doesn’t ensure all workers have the same certifications or that the person wrenching on your car is certified. Garages affiliated with AAA are good bets. And wherever you habitually have repair work done, try to establish a relationship of trust and respect. Both dealerships and local shops often cut more slack to loyal customers.
Conduct a “tire drill.” Some day you’ll almost certainly get a flat tire. If you’ve never changed a tire, practice installing your spare, using the jack and tools that came with the car. The owner’s manual will tell you how. Ask an experienced friend to help out the first time, though. An older car’s wheel nuts can be stubborn customers. If the wrench supplied with your car is not up to the task, consider buying a cross-handled wheel-lug wrench or long torque wrench from an auto-parts store and keeping it in your trunk. Flat tires can often occur at inconvenient times, a little preparation can help get you on the road quicker and with less stress.
To learn more, visit our guide to car maintenance.
I owe my career to two fateful events: my father buying a 1965 Corvette and my purchase of an Audi A4 rather than a Chevy Tahoe. The Corvette jump-started my love of cars, and the Audi led me to automotive journalism, track days, and amateur car repair. In my free time I cycle as much as possible, no matter the season.
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