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Getting the most from your car’s owner’s manual

Photo by Francesco83/stock.adobe.com Photo by Francesco83/stock.adobe.com

You’ve probably never been bored enough to read your car’s owner’s manual. But there are good reasons for taking the time to do so, including keeping yourself and your family safe on the road, making day-to-day driving more enjoyable, and keeping your car in top condition. Reading your car’s owner’s manual will save you time, frustration, and money.

Understanding a complicated machine

In a perfect world, products would be so intuitive to use that you wouldn’t need an owner’s manual. But this isn’t that world: Automobiles are the most complicated machines most people use on a daily basis. Over the years, they’ve become more and more complex, and owner’s manuals have kept pace: These days, it’s not unusual to find a 400- or 500-page manual in your car’s glove box. (Just the table of contents for the Ford F-150 pickup is 17 pages long, and even navigation-system manuals can run 175 pages.) If you’ve misplaced your owner’s manual, you can usually download a copy online by typing the year, make, and model of your vehicle plus the words owner’s manual into the search box.

The good news: Some sections of the manual are more important than others, and you don’t have to read it from cover to cover. But how you read your car owner’s manual can make a big difference. As you locate an important section, have a pen and some sticky notes available to flag the parts you’re most likely to revisit.

Start with the quick reference guide

If diving directly into a 500-page manual feels daunting, take baby steps by first checking your vehicle’s quick reference guide. It’s typically about 20 to 50 pages long and provides good, basic information on your vehicle’s infotainment system, Bluetooth setup, advanced safety features, seat and seat belt adjustment, climate-control system, and so on. Familiarizing yourself with the information in the quick reference guide will prepare you for the more detailed approach of your owner’s manual.

Read up on the basics

Many of your car’s features—such as how to adjust the seats, fasten the seat belts, and set the climate-control system—should be familiar to you. But that’s not always the case: In some newer cars, knobs and dials have been replaced by icons on a touch screen, and it pays to know how to work them before you get on the road.

Also, there are features on your car you don’t use every day but that you won’t want to figure out when you really need them—because it’s not safe or you don’t have the time. Examples include setting the adaptive cruise control, turning on the window defoggers, popping open the fuel-filler door, and activating the hazard flashers.

Likewise, refer to the manual ahead of time if you see a knob or switch on your dashboard or a door panel and don’t know what it does. The function of many controls isn’t immediately apparent, and you don’t want to inadvertently disable important safety features like, say, electronic stability control, while randomly poking about.

Two important pieces of basic information you’ll get from the car owner’s manual are the type of oil your engine needs and the grade of gasoline it takes. Check to see whether your car uses premium fuel (most cars don’t) and, if so, note the difference between the words recommended (it’s a good idea) and required (it’s a must-have). On some cars, you’ll also find this information on the inside of the fuel-filler door. If you’re unsure of which grade of fuel to use, check with the technicians at your dealership or repair shop.

You’ll also want to find and flag the section on correct tire pressure. The owner’s manual has complete details, but you can also find a quick-reference sticker on the driver’s doorjamb.

Finally, look for details that are unique to your car model and the ways you’ll use it every day. Pay attention to controls for headlights and daytime running lights, the array of buttons on the steering wheel, how to open the hood, 12-volt and USB power receptacles, and child safety-seat installation directions.

Learn to customize your car

Next comes the fun part: personalizing your car to suit your own tastes. Virtually all modern cars have myriad customization settings, usually accessed via the central infotainment screen, the smaller display in the gauge cluster behind the steering wheel, or both.

Settings include everything from automatic door-lock activation to smartphone integration via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. Your car owner’s manual can clue you in on the full range of features and how to set or adjust each.

Examples to look for include:

  • How to set the following distance from the car in front of you for the adaptive cruise control
  • How to find the pressure in each of your car’s tires
  • How to use voice commands for the radio
  • How to choose the color of the cabin’s ambient lighting.

If something bothers or mystifies you about how your car behaves, there’s a good chance that you can change it—and learn how in the owner’s manual.

Understand your car’s safety features

Modern cars come with a long list of safety features, and while they’re generally designed to work whether or not you understand them, a little knowledge goes a long way.

Take anti-lock brakes, for example. They can be a tremendous help in panic stops or dicey road conditions. But you need to know how to apply them (use maximum constant pressure, not a pumping action) and what response to expect (a pulsing sensation) to obtain maximum stopping power.

The same goes for the latest advanced safety features, like lane-keeping assist, which keeps you from drifting out of your lane, and automatic emergency braking, which applies the brakes if sensors detect a possible collision. Both are incredibly useful but can seemingly make the car behave oddly if you’re not aware of how they work.

Other safety features you’ll want to understand include:

  • How many airbags your car has, their locations, and how to position yourself for maximum effectiveness in a case of a crash
  • How blind-spot and rear cross-traffic warning systems work
  • And how to adjust head restraints for maximum protection in a rear-end collision

Know what warning lights mean

If there’s one thing that sends an average car owner scurrying to the owner’s manual, it’s the appearance of a glowing warning light in the instrument cluster.

The typical car has a dozen or more of these so-called idiot lights, often accompanied by written warning messages in the associated display. Know what the most common ones refer to:

  • Low tire pressure
  • A charging-system problem
  • High coolant temperature
  • Low oil pressure
  • Low fuel level
  • The dreaded check engine light

Take note of them when you first start the car, when they all light up momentarily. But there’s no need to commit all of them to memory. The owner’s manual explains what they mean and what action, if any, is required on your part.

Also, pay attention to how they light up. Generally, a light that comes on and stays on is less concerning than one that’s blinking. Either way, though, it’s a good idea to visit your dealership or independent repair shop to diagnose the issue. If you see a (typically) red oil-pressure light, though, pull over and shut the car off as soon as it’s safe to do so. Otherwise, you could do serious damage to your car’s engine.

Identify key components under the hood

Nothing baffles the average car owner more than the mechanical maze confronting them when they lift their car’s hood. Owners might even have a hard time identifying individual components, because nearly everything in the engine compartment on today’s cars seems to be covered in plastic.

The owner’s manual has you covered here, too. Most manuals feature well-done annotated drawings of the engine compartment. For typical owners, the most important things to know are the location of the oil dipstick, oil-filler cap, the positive and negative battery terminals, engine-coolant reservoir, brake-fluid reservoir, air filter, and windshield washer fluid reservoir. (Some cars—various models from Audi, BMW, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Lincoln, Mazda, and Mercedes-Benz, among others—no longer have an oil dipstick; a dashboard icon lets you know if the oil level is low.)

Learn maintenance schedules

The car owner’s manual will explain what procedures need to be completed at various mileages—how often to rotate the tires or have your engine oil and filter changed, for example, and whether your driving style qualifies for “normal” or “severe” service. You won’t need to remember many of the details beyond making a mental note of the mileage for your next recommended service. Just put a sticky note in the maintenance section so you can refer to it quickly if you have questions.

Beyond the owner’s manual: where to find more info

If neither the reference guide nor the owner’s manual helps you find the right information or solve a problem, ask someone at your dealership’s service department or the independent service facility where you have your car repaired.

Alternatively, type “[Manufacturer’s name] customer support phone number” into an Internet search engine. Sometimes there’s no substitute for talking with a live human being.

Alan Rider is a veteran journalist whose automotive feature stories and car reviews regularly appear in several of the country’s largest AAA magazines.

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