Russ Evans, ASE Master Certified Automotive Technician based in Garretson, South Dakota. He is cohost of the syndicated radio show Under the Hood, now in it’s 32nd season, which is broadcast on more than 240 radio stations and available on YouTube or as a podcast. UnderTheHoodShow.com
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The average price of a new car recently raced past $46,000, a staggering sum that gives drivers more reason than ever to keep their vehicles on the road for as long as possible. Modern cars are capable of delivering a lot of miles—200,000…250,000…even 300,000 or more—but only if they’re treated right. Here are 10 ways you can increase the odds that your vehicle will live a long life…
The fluids that go into your vehicle can dramatically affect how long it lasts…
Choose the right oil. Changing your vehicle’s oil on schedule is among the most important things you can do to keep it on the road. If the owner’s manual recommends oil changes every six months or 5,000 miles, don’t wait any longer than that. The oil you choose is crucial as well—use the oil recommended in the owner’s manual, even if it costs $75 to $100 for a full synthetic oil change or you can’t use the same oil that’s used in your household’s other vehicles. Warning: Do not assume that less expensive nonsynthetic oils are fine because you’ve been putting them in your cars for decades. Due to new environmental regulations, nonsynthetic oils don’t protect engines as well as they used to.
Fill your tank with “Top Tier” fuel. Use gas from pumps that feature a white, green and black label reading “Top Tier Detergent Gasoline.” Top Tier certification means that the gas contains detergent additives that protect engines. Tests have confirmed that engines develop far less carbon deposits on fuel injectors, intake valves and other components when operated using this fuel. To find stations that sell Top Tier gas: Use the search tool at TopTierGas.com. This type of gas is common at large chain gas stations…less so at independent stations. Note: If you drive a diesel, the label will be white, blue and black and will say “Top Tier Diesel Fuel.”
Don’t ignore the transmission fluid—even if it’s almost impossible to check. If you search around for the transmission fluid dipstick under the hood of a modern car, you might be searching for a long time—many cars now have “sealed transmissions,” which don’t have dipsticks or any other way to easily check the fluid level and condition. But that doesn’t mean the transmission fluid will last for the life of the vehicle. Check the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual—the fluid likely needs to be checked and/or changed at some point. I recommend that it be checked every 30,000 miles or sooner—and if there is any sign of leakage, it should be checked immediately. Caution: These sealed systems can be tricky to access, so most car owners should leave this to the pros. Expect a mechanic to charge $100 to $200 to change the transmission fluid—that’s a lot less than the $2,500 to $5,000 it might cost to replace the transmission altogether.
Driving and Ownership Habits
Some key things have more to do with daily use than with maintenance…
Keep it clean inside. The messier a vehicle’s interior, the shorter its life. Drivers who don’t keep their cars clean inside tend not to maintain them under the hood either…but messes inside cars also can contribute to their demise. Food crumbs and packaging inevitably attract rodents that chew the vehicle’s wiring, and the wiring of cars made this century often is coated with a soybean-based material that rodents find tastier than conventional plastic. Extensive wiring problems can easily end a car’s life—not only is the wiring damage itself potentially expensive to fix…but if the rodents chew certain wires, it could trigger even pricier problems.
Don’t tow or haul more than your vehicle’s limit—or even close to your vehicle’s limit. To keep a vehicle on the road as long as possible, avoid towing and carrying significant weight as much as possible, and never exceed 80% of the weight that the manufacturer says the vehicle can carry or tow.
Let your car idle for a few minutes on cold mornings. You might have read that modern fuel-injected engines don’t need to be warmed up, and that doing so wastes fuel. It is true that warming up a car isn’t as important as it used to be, but it still can take two or three minutes for oil to properly lubricate an engine on a cold day.
Drive conservatively. The harder you push your car, the harder it’s going to be to keep it on the road. Rapid acceleration and hard braking take a toll as well as increase the odds of accidents.
When to Call in the Pros
Knowing when to take your car to a mechanic can make a major difference in how long it lasts.
Respond promptly to warning lights, drips or new noises.
Warning lights: You don’t need to immediately pull over or have the car towed if the dashboard warning light is solid yellow—but you should make an appointment with your mechanic as soon as possible, especially when a “check engine” light appears. If a yellow check-engine light is flashing, stop driving the vehicle immediately and have it towed to prevent further engine damage. Caution: If a red lamp comes on, consult your mechanic right away. The longer you let dash lights linger, the greater the risk that a small problem will grow.
Drips: Take the car to a mechanic if any fluid other than water is dripping from it. A drip might be the result of a simple problem, such as a gasket that needs to be replaced…but the more fluid that escapes, the greater the odds that a major component will fail. Exception: There is no need to take a car to a mechanic for dripping water—that’s probably just condensation.
Noises: See a mechanic if your car starts making a sound it’s never made before.
Have the timing belt changed on schedule. In decades past, many cars had “non-interference engines” that would stop running if their timing belts failed but usually were fine once those belts were replaced. Most modern cars have “interference engines,” which are more fuel-efficient than non-interference engines, but they often are destroyed if their timing belts fail because the pistons slam into valves. That makes replacing the timing belt on schedule among the most important maintenance steps car owners can take. Unfortunately, many car owners balk at the cost, which can be anywhere from a few hundred dollars to more than $1,000. Some maintenance schedules recommend timing-belt replacement as often as every 60,000 miles, though 90,000 or 100,000 miles is more common. Exception: If your vehicle has a timing chain rather than a belt, this might not have to be replaced at all. Check your owner’s manual.
Have a rust-proof undercoating professionally applied annually if you live in a rust-prone region. Rust is among the greatest risks to cars’ longevity in the northern US. Spray-on oil-based underbody coatings can greatly reduce rust damage. Example: NH Oil Undercoating (NHOilUndercoating.com) is effective and widely available for a few hundred dollars.