By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist
Owning and operating a car is a major expense — second only in many people’s lives to the cost of rent or a mortgage. But it’s the little things that can really nickel and dime you into the poorhouse.
The good news is a lot of it is stuff you can skip altogether. For example:
1) Gas additives
The gas you buy — whether unleaded regular, mid-grade or premium — probably already has the additives your car’s engines needs.
People often confuse quality with octane — and believe that higher-cost “premium” fuel is better gas than “regular” — but these terms refer to the octane rating of the fuel, not its quality.
You pay more for high-octane fuel than you do for regular, but unless you car’s engine needs high octane “premium” fuel, buying it over “regular” (or “mid-grade”) isn’t getting you better gas. Just more expensive gas. All grades of gas usually have the same additive packages (with some exceptions, such as off-brand fuels). If you stick with name-brand gasoline, buying pour-in additives is an unnecessary expense — like buying salt to go with Saltines.
2) Oil additives
As with fuel additives, buying bottles of additive to mix with your oil is usually not necessary and may even lead to problems. For one, if you stick with the type/quality of oil specified in your owner’s manual, that oil will meet (or exceed) the requirements laid down by the engineers who designed your car’s engine. You’d only need to add something if the oil you bought was missing it to begin with — and if you buy the type/quality of oil recommended by the people who built your car, it won’t be.
For two, additives may cause problems; do you really know what’s in that stuff you’re about to pour into your crankcase? It may be a completely harmless money-waster. But it might be more than that, too — if the stuff gunks up your engine or contains solvents that dilute the oil and ruin its ability to lubricate/protect your engine’s internals. Also, be aware of the capacity issue. If you’ve added a quart (or even a half-quart) of additive to an already full crankcase, your engine is now over-filled. Too much oil in the crankcase can cause numerous problems, some of them serious. It’s very important not to overfill your engine with oil — or additives.
3) High speed tires
In the United States, the highest legal speed limit is 80 mph (In Texas). In most states, it is 65 or maybe 70. Nowhere is it legal (or even realistically possible) to cruise at speeds much above 100 mph for extended periods of time without risking a huge ticket, or more likely, jail time.
Yet many cars come equipped from the factory with tires designed for safe travel at continuous speeds in excess of 130 mph (or more). On Germany’s unrestricted speed Autobahns, such tires are not just useful, they’re essential. Here, they’re expensive overkill.
While it’s true that high-speed performance tires also offer better handling “at the limit” (e.g., on a race track or under severe high-performance use) in 99 percent of real-world driving that most of us do, less aggressive (and expensive) tires are perfectly satisfactory. Just be sure the tire you’re looking at meets the minimum load rating specified by the vehicle owner’s manual.
And don’t worry to much about those speed ratings. Keep in mind that they are a measure of a tire’s capacity to safely operate for sustained periods of time at the specified speed. So it’s ok to briefly run to a higher speed than a given tire is rated for. In other words, you can do a furtive burst of speed to well above the legal maximum — “just to see what it’s like” or to execute a quick passing maneuver — and still be safe… as far as the tires go, anyhow.
4) Extended warranties
These things can go either way — and sometimes, not your way — so it’s smart to do some math before you commit.
The cost of the extended warranty may be more than the cost of some down-the-road repair that might never happen anyhow. For example, let’s say the cost of an extended warranty is $2,000. Two years down the road, your vehicle needs a new transmission and the cost is $1,800. You’re $200 poorer than you would otherwise have been. Keep in mind, too, that extended warranties (like health insurance) sometimes have deductibles or “pro rata” partial payment coverage.
Some people like the peace of mind that comes with knowing “they’re covered” by an extended warranty. But you can get the same thing by just setting aside the money you’d otherwise have spent to buy the warranty. Put it in an interest-earning savings or checking account. You may not earn much, but you will earn something — and if the car never suffers a breakdown, that money will still be in your proverbial pocket. If you bought the extended warranty and the car never has a problem, you get literally nothing in return for your “investment.”
If you still like the idea of an extended warranty, be sure to closely read and understand all the caveats, Ifs, Ands or Buts. These warranties are often liberally salted with weasel wording designed to let the issuer avoid a payout — and leave you holding the proverbial bag.
5) Car wash “rust protection”
Automatic car washes are a wonderful convenience but some of the extras typically offered are of dubious, if any value.
“Rust protection” spray is one of them.
In the first place, modern vehicles are extensively rust-proofed during the assembly process; all the exposed metal parts have already been coated/treated/painted to keep rust from forming. Spraying any additional “rust prevention” on these parts is superfluous. (This isn’t a car wash issue, but any heavy spray-on “rust prevention” coating applied to a car’s underbody might actually accelerate rust by locking in moisture, etc.)
The basic wash is the best value because it actually gives you something for your money. Most of those extras are just heavily hyped (and heavily marked up) money wasters.
You’re better off putting the money in a cookie jar.