Expert Advice

By Valerie Lemke

August 15, 2008 5 min read


Certain problems are better left to your mechanic

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

From the earliest days of automobiles up to recent times, drivers who love to tinker lived in a golden age. The internal combustion engine and accompanying tires, brakes, dents and dings called out to those with the eternal urge to fix stuff.

Times have changed, according to Dave Stall, a Southern California automotive service manager for 30 years and now a radio, television and newspaper guru affectionately known as "The Car Guy."

Today, beyond familiarizing yourself with your owner's manual, knowing how to change a tire and monitoring oil levels and tire pressure between standard automotive checkups, there's not a lot even the most serious weekend mechanic can do. With everything computer-controlled and many parts sealed in newer cars, regular checkups by your dealer or an independent technician are crucial. These experts not only keep your driving trouble-free, but they preserve your investment -- all the more important in the current economy.

"A car is not just transportation, it's a money pit if you don't treat it right," Stall said. Neglecting vital checkups due to a budget strained by today's astronomical gas prices is an exercise in futility.

Consider the ubiquitous lube, oil and filter procedure generally recommended every 3,000 to 5,000 miles. Neglect this maintenance milestone at your peril. A lack of sufficient clean oil over a period of time causes the engine to break down, requiring exorbitant repair costs or a tow to the junk yard.

It is conceivable to drive an automobile for years without changing the oil. "As long as there is sufficient oil, the car will probably run," Stall said. "But it won't last as long as everybody else's car." Given the cost of even a new economy car, longevity alone is a solid reason for following a recommended maintenance schedule.

Regular brake checkups are a case in point. Before a problem is discernable to the driver, early diagnosis and replacement of worn pads or leaking brake cylinders during a routine checkup can mean the difference of hundreds or even thousands of dollars.

Service by a mechanic is more than changing the oil today. A look at a recent report card for a 5,000 mile checkup revealed a long list that included not only a lube, oil and air filter change, but testing all interior and exterior lights and operating the windshield washer, horn and clutch (if there is one). Under the hood the battery was checked as were all fluid levels and external drive belts.

With the car on a lift, the brakes, shock absorbers, struts and suspension were examined. Tire condition, tread and pressure were checked. The bill for this particular service: $31.89.

"You have every right to call and ask how much an oil change or any scheduled checkup might be before taking your car in," Stall said, adding that there should be no surprises. "A lube, oil and air filter replacement can range from $19.95 to $75.95, for example." Also ask the mechanic to call you before proceeding if he finds major problems in a routine checkup.

Invoices should be easy to read but if you're confused, ask for an explanation. "When you get your bill, don't leave the property until you totally understand the charges," Stall said.

And if you've recently purchased a car and plan to keep it for a while, Stall recommended you research the benefits of an extended service contract which would cover you out to 100,000 miles. He estimated the cost at about $900 and "well worth it."

The choice between putting your car in the hands of the dealer or an independent technician also requires thought and research. Unless you have a longtime favorite mechanic with some experience under the hood of your specific make of automobile, Stall suggested you consider using the dealer for service.

"Nobody knows your car as well as the service manager," he said, speaking as a veteran service manager. With today's cars as complicated as they are, the dealer who knows your car inside and out and who has customized parts for whatever goes wrong is valuable in keeping your car running smoothly.

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