Modern cars need little routine maintenance compared to the cars of two or three decades ago. But that doesn’t mean no maintenance. In addition to regular visits to your dealership or independent repair shop, you can perform some simple tasks to keep your car running well.
For instance, a car’s radiator might be filled with “lifetime” coolant that might not require changing. But that doesn’t matter much if a radiator hose leaks and the engine overheats and destroys itself for lack of the coolant. Catching the leak early can prevent an inconvenient and perhaps costly breakdown.
So roll up your sleeves and I’ll acquaint you with these important things to check on your car.
1. Check the fluids
First, as you probably know—but likely don’t often think about—your car contains a wide assortment of fluids. All should remain in the car, not drip on the garage floor. They’re a colorful bunch—red, green, yellow, orange, and brown—and if you spot one of them on the floor, note what part of the car it seems to come from and have your repair shop track down the leak and stop it. The only fluid you should see under the car is clear water—normal condensation from the car’s air-conditioner after you shut it off.
Next, with the car on a level surface and the engine turned off, pop open the hood. Can you see the engine? Good. That’s an accomplishment, given all the plastic covers and paraphernalia automakers jam into the engine compartment these days.
Find the oil dipstick. If it seems to be missing, consult your owner’s manual, because it just might be. Some cars now have an electronic oil-level gauge, which keeps you from having to dirty your hands to check the oil. It’ll notify you with a light on the instrument panel if your oil is low—and perhaps when it’s due for a change. Dipstick or sensor, if the level is down more than a quart, ask the tech at your repair shop why.
If the oil on the dipstick is a nasty black color, it’s time for an oil change. By the way, look in your owner’s manual to find out the recommended oil-change intervals. They might differ from what you think they are.
Your car also has reservoirs for radiator, transmission, brake, power steering, and windshield-washer fluids; your owner’s manual will tell you where each is and how to check them. As is the case with engine oil, these fluids should be relatively clean. Coolant that looks like dirty dishwater or transmission fluid that smells burned should be changed.
The manual will indicate what kind of fluids to add, if needed. Be sure to add them in the proper location. An oil company did a survey and discovered that car owners put fluids in the oddest places—motor oil in the radiator, transmission fluid in the engine, and water just about everywhere. Not good.
2. Check the battery
Modern car batteries are usually sealed, so you don’t have to worry about adding water to them. But check to make sure the battery terminals don’t have mosslike stuff growing on them and that the cables are tight. (If you think the battery needs attention, have your tech take care of it.)
3. Check the tires
Now examine the tires—arguably the most important safety check in this entire inspection. Do they have plenty of tread? The standard used to be 2/32 inches, but AAA testing revealed that’s not enough to let you stop safely on wet pavement; the tread depth should be at least 4/32 inches.
You can buy a tread gauge at an auto parts store for less than $10; alternatively, insert a quarter into the tread with Washington’s head facing down. If you can see George’s forehead, start shopping for tires.
Additionally, are there cracks in the sidewalls? Are there any nails or screws lodged in the tread that could cause a slow leak? Inspect the front tires closely for uneven wear that could indicate an alignment problem.
With a tire gauge (less than $10 at an auto parts store), check the pressures—including the spare—when the tires are cool. You might be surprised to find you have a flat-repair kit instead of a spare—not uncommon in cars these days.
Tires normally lose about 1–2 pounds of pressure a month; underinflated tires can result in uneven wear, poor handling, and blowouts. Correct pressures are listed in the owner’s manual, on the driver-side doorjamb, the fuel-filler door, or the glove-box door.
4. Check other things
- With the hood still open, examine any belts you see for cracks or fraying, and any hoses for cracks or odd bulges.
- Turn on the engine. Does it settle into a smooth idle? Do you hear any ominous sounds? Close the hood and turn on all the lights. Walk around the car to make sure they work. You’ll need a friend to help check the backup and brake lights.
- Make sure the windshield wiper blades are intact and flexible.
Follow this routine once a month, fix any issues you discover in your inspection, and I’ll wager that your car will last longer and you’ll avoid a lot of trouble down the road.