Do It Yourself

By Valerie Lemke

August 15, 2008 5 min read


Why it's more important than ever to be responsible for your vehicle

Valerie Lemke

Creators News Service

Prompted by the highest gas prices ever, Americans are canceling road trips, taking public transportation, carpooling, bicycling and generally reducing driving in an attempt to keep the family budget afloat.

But ignoring the overall wellbeing of your car in the process is a bad idea.

Next to your home, your automobile is probably the most expensive item you'll buy, said Dave Stall, a service manager for 30 years who now spends his time on radio, television and in the newspaper as a Southern California automotive authority.

The maintenance you should perform, as well as scheduled checkups by a technician you know and trust, has never been more important. So, what are your responsibilities?

"The owner's manual is your guide to maintenance, who does it and when," Stall said. "Don't wait until you're having an emergency in rush hour traffic, that's not the time to read the owner's manual. Sit down and read it all the way through. It can cost you thousands and thousands of dollars if you don't."

Everything from replacing light bulbs to winter driving, filling the gas tank to jump starting a car, playing the radio to warranty coverage is in there. If you've bought a used car and don't have the manual, you can download it from Google -- just put in the year, make and model.

"Using the manual as your guide, find out where the fluid receptacles are located, pull out the tester in each and look at the levels," Stall said. Do this for oil, transmission, brakes, windshield washer bottle, overflow bottle for the radiator and the clutch, if you have one.

Check the tire pressure in all tires, including the spare. Again, the owner's manual gives you step-by-step directions for conducting this test.

"And if you've never done so, see if you can break the lug nuts on the spare, as well as jack up the car," Stall said. "Knowing how to change a tire might prove necessary some night when you find yourself with a flat and no cell phone."

Beyond these tasks, checking and maintaining the oil and tire pressure levels between scheduled maintenance visits is all you have to do or know, Stall said. An added bonus: these two minor chores are directly related to the fuel consumption you are trying to keep at a minimum. When neglected, both under-inflated tires and insufficient or dirty oil make the engine work harder and expend more gasoline over the short term. When left undone for longer periods, expensive engine repairs are inevitable.

Stall does allow that weekend tinkerers can still change their own oil, but paints a less than fun picture of the exercise. "First you have to get the car up in the air, or you have to slide under it, invariably ending up doused with warm 1050," he said. "Then, of course, you've got to dispose of the oil."

Done by the experts, the routine oil change includes replacing the air filter when necessary -- another way to save on gas. It has been estimated gas mileage can be improved by a whopping 10 percent when a clogged air filter is replaced.

Oil changes may either be part of scheduled visits to your dealer's service department or independent mechanic, or you may use one of the numerous lube outlets that boast quick service and low prices. For the latter, however, be wary of attempts to sell extra products and services.

"They won't have the specialized parts you'll receive from the dealer," Stall said. An oil filter sold at a quick service outlet will be universal, manufactured to fit any vehicle, for example. The dealer will put in a customized one.

Given the complexities of today's automobiles, overall maintenance is best left to the dealer or independent technician during regularly scheduled checkups. What services will be performed during these visits and when they are scheduled is spelled out in the owner's manual. In today's newer cars you'll probably also get service reminder readouts on the dashboard.

Experts have determined such maintenance schedules is optimal for keeping your car safe, fuel efficient and smooth running. Wise car owners should not neglect them.

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