One of the reassuring qualities of contemporary cars is that they need much less-frequent service to keep them running well. Changing the spark plugs, breaker points, and condenser used to be a seasonal exercise, and body rust was accepted as a normal if unfortunate hazard of aging. Now many spark plugs can go 100,000 miles between changes. Electronic ignition has done away with the points and condenser. Chassis, suspensions, and even some transmissions are lubed for life. And factory rust-through warranties typically run six years or longer. What’s more, reliability has improved significantly. The result is that most late-model cars and trucks should be able to go 200,000 miles with regular upkeep. Here are a few simple, periodic checks and procedures you can do that will help you get there.
Three key tasks
Check the engine oil
Do it regularly—monthly for a vehicle in good condition; more often if you notice an oil leak or find you need to add oil routinely. The car should be parked on level ground so you can get an accurate dipstick reading. Don’t overfill. And if you do have a leak, find and fix it soon.
Check tire air pressure
Once a month and before any extended road trips, use an accurate tire-pressure gauge to check the inflation pressure in each tire, including the spare. Do this when the tires are cold (before the vehicle has been driven or after no more than a couple of miles of driving). Use the inflation pressure recommended by the vehicle’s manufacturer, not the maximum pressure embossed on the tire’s sidewall. The recommended pressure is usually found on a placard on a front doorjamb, in the glove compartment, or in the owner’s manual. Also be sure to inspect tires for abnormal or uneven wear, cuts, and any sidewall bulges you can see.
CR advises that digital tire-pressure gauges (which cost about $15 to $25) are probably the best bet overall because they will give an accurate reading or none at all. Many pencil-type gauges (typically $10 to $15) are good as well. Note that to check the pressure in a temporary spare tire, which is often 60 psi, you will need a gauge that goes higher than that—say from 0 up to 90 pounds.
Give it a wash
Try to wash the car every week, if you can. Wash the body and, if necessary, hose out the fender wells and undercarriage to remove dirt and road salt. It’s time to wax the finish when water beads become larger than a quarter.
Other checks at each oil change
For normal driving, many automakers recommend changing the engine oil and filter every 7,500 miles or six months, whichever comes first. This is sufficient for the majority of motorists. For “severe” driving—with frequent, very cold starts and short trips, dusty conditions, or trailer towing—the change interval should be shortened to every 3,000 miles or three months. (Check your owner’s manual for the specific intervals recommended for your vehicle.) Special engines such as diesels and turbocharged engines may need more-frequent oil changes.
Check the air filter
Remove the air-filter element and hold it up to a strong light. If you don’t see light, replace it. Regardless, follow the recommended service intervals.
Check the constant-velocity-joint boots
On front-wheel-drive and some four-wheel-drive vehicles, examine these bellows like rubber boots, also known as CV boots, on the drive axles. Immediately replace any that are cut, cracked, or leaking. If dirt contaminates the CV joint it can quickly lead to an expensive fix.
Inspect the exhaust system
If you’re willing to make under-car inspections, check for rusted-through exhaust parts that need replacing. Also tighten loose clamps. Do this while the car is up on ramps. If a shop changes your oil, have them make these checks. Listen for changes in the exhaust sound while driving. It’s usually advisable to replace the entire exhaust system all at once rather than to repair sections at different times.
Look at the brakes
For most people it makes sense to have a shop check and service the brakes. If you handle your own brake work, remove all wheels and examine the brake system. Replace excessively worn pads or linings, and have badly scored rotors or drums machined or replaced. The brakes should be checked at least twice per year; more often if you drive a lot of miles.
Check the fluids
On many newer cars, the automatic transmission is sealed. On cars where it is not sealed, check the transmission dipstick with the engine warmed up and running (see the owner’s manual for details). Also check the power-steering-pump dipstick (it’s usually attached to the fluid-reservoir cap) and the level in the brake-fluid reservoir. If the brake-fluid level is low, top it up and have the system checked for leaks.
Clean the radiator
Prevent overheating by removing debris with a soft brush and washing the outside of the radiator with a detergent solution.
Check the battery
Check the battery’s terminals and cables to make sure they are securely attached, with no corrosion. If the battery has removable caps, check its fluid level every few months—especially in warmer climates.
Regular maintenance every two to four years
Drain and flush the cooling system
Considering the hassle of collecting and safely disposing of old antifreeze, you may want to leave this to a shop.
Change the automatic-transmission fluid
Many models require that you replace the fluid and filter every 36,000 miles—sooner if the normally pink fluid takes on a brownish tint. With some cars the fluid and, if applicable, the filter can go 100,000 miles or more. With other late models, the transmission fluid never needs to be changed. Check your owner’s manual for this information.
Replace the drive belts and hoses
Do this every two to three years, even if they don’t show any wear. If a belt becomes noisy, have it adjusted.
Change the timing belt
If your vehicle has a belt instead of a chain, stick to the manufacturer’s recommended replacement interval—usually every 60,000 to 80,000 miles. Check the owner’s manual or consult a dealer. Failure to change the timing belt can result in a very expensive engine repair if the belt should break.