In this article we will look at some general service hints that apply to any car whether you buy it new or used. In most cases, these maintenance costs are not covered by your factory and extended warranty, but are important considerations in getting the best and most reliable service from your car.
The first consideration is where you take it for service. Many people simply take it back to the dealer where they bought it. The advantage there is that if they discover anything that needs fixing under the warranty, they will fix it for you when you take it in for service. But be aware that you pay a premium for dealer service in most things, and you can often cut the cost of that routine maintenance by 30% or more by using a good independent repair shop. And the independent shop may be a bit more observant in pointing out other problems with your car that you can have fixed under warranty back at the dealership.
Check with friends or business associates to see where they get their car serviced. Many shops offer free shuttle transportation when you drop off or pick up your car. If you have a more exotic car, be sure they specialize in that kind of car. Since the cost of parts can often be more than the cost of labor, you should realize that OEM parts from a dealer usually cost 50% more than the same parts from a good after market supplier, when available. But your dealer always uses OEM factory parts. And items like tires, brakes, filters and routine maintenance parts are inevitably a good bit more expensive from the dealership.
Once you decide where you want to have your car serviced, stick with them if they do a good job for you. There’s no substitute for a good relationship with a repair shop when it comes time for major work or diagnostics. And many a shop will take a one time customer for a “ride”, and take the easy route to fixing your problem rather than the most cost effective one. A little story…
I had a girlfriend once with an old Ford Mustang. Her turn signals were not working and she took it into the Ford dealership for repair. They wanted to charge her $220 to replace the whole turn sign mechanism and wiring harness, a big job as it involves dismantling the whole steering column. She couldn’t afford it and came to me asking what she should do.
I had a hunch and picked up a new blinker relay from the auto parts store for $3. I reached under the dash, popped out the old one and stuck the new one in there.
Presto… the problem was fixed. I was outraged that the dealer was going to charge her $220 when a simple $3 part fixed the problem. I went down there and complained bitterly and they refunded her diagnostic charges anyhow.
In general, car repair shops are notorious for fixing things that don’t need fixing, and not always because they are completely dishonest… but because it’s faster than trying to figure out where the exact cause of the problem really lies. It’s the old analogy of fixing a loose nail with a sledgehammer. So finding a good reliable service shop can save you a lot of money over the years.
I recommend you keep a log of your maintenance. It will help you do it regularly and that will prolong the life of your car. And it also looks good when it comes time to sell the car.
Here are some service issues that are critical and some hints that not everyone is aware of.
The average new car recommends an oil change every 7500 miles. I like to change mine twice during that period. Motor oil is cheap and nothing wears an engine out faster than dirty motor oil. The simple process of combustion produces a lot of by-products, acid, carbon, and contamination from the air. And that contaminates your motor oil pretty quickly. I change it at 4000 but not the oil filter, and then again at 7500 and change the oil filter at that time. I maintain the same schedule through 7500, 15,000, 22,500, 30,000 and so on.
I use a high grade of motor oil… I have always liked Valvoline. But Quaker State, Pennzoil and other top brands are probably equally good. Stay away from the bargain brands. Quality lubrication is essential to your engine’s longevity. In general you want it to look clear and green on the oil dipstick… when it starts getting dark, it’s time to change it, and when it gets black it’s way overdue.
The exception to this rule is that some synthetic oils which are black in appearance when new. And unlike foods, where “synthetic” is a dirty word, in motor oils, the synthetic variety offers better lubrication than the petroleum based “natural” oils and costs a good bit more as well. If you have an expensive car, it’s probably well worth the extra cost for the higher quality motor oil.
People who ignore things like routine oil changes because they are too busy are very foolish. Dirty motor oil wears out an engine very quickly and failure to keep it clean may very likely void your warranty.
Transmission oil is another item. Factory service often doesn’t require it be changed more than every 30,000 miles. But depending on how and where you drive it can get dirty and worn a lot quicker than than that. In general you want the fluid to appear cherry red and have almost no smell when you pull the transmission oil dipstick. When it is reddish brown and has a burnt smell, then your transmission is suffering. Many cars do not allow an easy change of the transmission fluid. It is often necessary to drop the pan of transmission to drain it, and then that usually holds 3-4 quarts and does not change the majority of the fluid which is in the torque converter.
Some cars like my Mercury Mountaineer, have a separate drain plug for the torque converter and allow a change of fluid to be relatively complete. But many others do not. My old Ford Explorer was that way. Changing the fluid by dropping the pan only changed 1/3 the transmission fluid, so if I waited til it was brown and burnt, one change did not do it. I installed a drain plug in my transmission pan, and changed it 5 times running it a few miles after each change, until I figured I had diluted the old burnt fluid adequately enough. So keep an eye on that fluid and change it often.
Manual transmissions don’t use transmission fluid… they use a 90W gear oil which generally doesn’t need to be changed very often. But keep your clutch adjusted properly with a little bit of freeplay at the top, and don’t “ride the clutch”. Be very careful about resting your foot on the clutch pedal as the weight of the foot can partially depress the pedal, and start to reach the edge of engagement, and this will wear out your clutch’s throw-out bearing very quickly.
Older cars all used carburetors to mix gas and air and squirt it into the engine for combustion. Newer cars mostly use fuel injection, and while this often works really well and controls emissions, you need to keep those fuel injectors clean. Your local auto parts shop sells a number of brands of fuel injector cleaner and I recommend adding it to a full tank of gas at least with every oil change. It’s a lot cheaper than having your fuel injection system overhauled. And change that air filter regularly or whenever it starts to appear dirty. Nothing slows performance more quickly and gunks up your carburetor or fuel injectors than a dirty air filter.
Tires, Brakes and Shock Absorbers
Other items like tires, brakes and shock absorbers are generally not covered by warranties… they are considered routine maintenance items. Choose your tires carefully… there are a wide range of tire grades, priced accordingly. Invariably those bargain prices you see advertised are junk tires and not worth your time unless you are just fixing the car up to sell. Many tires will offer long mileage warranties, but read the fine print… often that’s “pro-rated” and applied to the “list” price of a new one, not the highly discounted price you bought them for. This is an old scam. Put 20,000 miles on those 50,000 mile tires and you may find the adjusted price of a new pair under warranty is higher than what you can buy them or a comparable set for outright.
In general, always buy tires at least in pairs. Never put one new tire on one wheel when the other has considerable wear. Generally, it’s best to put your new tires on the front to take advantage of better steering and handling with a new tire. But if your car is rear wheel drive, be aware that badly worn tires in the back will cause your car to skid and lose control quickly in wet or slippery conditions. If you rotate your tires regularly, say every 7500 or 10,000 miles at least, then your tires should all wear out around the same time and it’s best to replace all four as a set.
When putting on new tires, you should have them balanced and the front end aligned. Bad alignment or balance will wear out new tires much more quickly and can severely impact the handling and ride quality. Often, balancing tries when they are new, does not mean they will still be in balance after 5-10,000 miles. I like to buy my tires from a tire dealer that offers free rotation and rebalancing for the life of the tire. I look for tires which handle well in wet conditions and avoid aquaplaning. Those are usually high end steel belted all-weather radials which also work pretty well in snow as well.
Remember you life and that of your family is riding on your tires. Invest in good quality tires… it’s a sound investment. And one more thing, these new “low profile” tires that look so cool on these sport sedans. The low profile means a short sidewall, which means little give and flex there which, while it can contribute to better handling, also means a stiffer less comfortable ride, and more wear on your suspension, since the tires are not absorbing the road irregularities as well, leaving it all up to the more expensive suspension parts.
Shock absorbers are another important and often overlooked component. Worn shocks mean faster tire and suspension wear, particularly the ball joints in the front end. It’s relatively easy to check a shock’s performance. Push down swiftly on the fender of your car over each of the four wheels. New shocks should be pretty stiff and recover from a hard shove with only a single rebound. If the car bounces up and down several times above the wheel, the shocks are worn and should be replaced. These are not expensive and a good tire dealer can stick in a quality set like Monroe Shocks for little more than $100 for all four on many models of cars.
Also not covered by most warranties, the brakes should be checked regularly (whenever you rotate your tires and replaced when they get low. Driving with worn brakes (typically they squeal badly when you come to a stop) will quickly score your brake rotors or drums and make replacing them essential as well as brake pads or brake shoes. Front brakes usually wear out first, and again depending on how you drive, you can probably expect to replace them every 30,000 miles or so. A good brake shop will turn the rotors or drums, replace the pads or brake shoes, and rebuilt the calipers or wheel cylinders as needed. If you replace them often and the rotors/drums look good, sometimes you can get away with just a new pair of shoes or pads.
Also keep an eye on your brake fluid under the hood. As the brakes pads or shoes wear, the fluid level will drop. That is normal, and you will need to add a bit of brake fluid from time to time. Be casrely not to spill any on the car’s paint as it is highly corrosive and will eat through the paint in a matter of moments.
Car Paint and Interior
In order to preserve the value of your investment, you also want to maintain your car’s finish and interior. Keep the car washed and clean. Be careful about automatic car washes. Many news ones do a fine job, but some of the older ones with stiff brushes can scratch your paint badly. If you can keep your car in a garage or under cover, do it. That old junk you have piled up in the garage while your $35,000 car sits out in weather is a poor investment decision. Remove bird droppings and tree
sap as quickly as you possibly can. I keep a plastic bottle with water and a soft rag in my trunk and wipe off bird droppings as soon as I notice them. The acid in there will eat into your paint very quickly and cause a blemish to that paint job. But blot don’t rub. Bird droppings typically have sand in them and that can easily scratch your paint.
You can remove tree sap and road tar with turpentine or paint thinner from your hardware store. It won’t hurt the paint and will quickly dissolve the sap or tar. But is also removes car wax so use it sparingly, and if you do it often, treat your car to a fresh turtle wax a few times a year. A freshly waxed car will cause water to bead up in little round beads on the surface. When those beads start to disappear it’s time for another coat of wax. Wax will protect your car’s paint, keep it from becoming porous and weathered and making the removal of things like bird droppings and sap much easier.
Remember factory paints are baked on and are in general much more durable than repaints. So it pays to keep up that factory paint job.
I like to use Armorall on the car’s interior vinyl… it keeps it soft and pliable and prevents cracking and it looks sharp. I also highly recommend using some kind of a windshield protection screen in hot weather if you park out in the sun all day. It will keep the car’s interior cooler and also protect the car’s dash from cracking. And if your car has leather seats, treat them to a quality leather preservative on a regular basis. Nothing makes a car harder to sell than cracked worn leather seats.
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