Car Care: When Can You Afford To Cheap Out?

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

People are understandably edgy out by the turn the economy’s taken — and trying to avoid unnecessary expenses. When it comes to your vehicle, there are some things you can “cheap out” on to save a few bucks — and other things you should never neglect.

Let’s look at some of both:


Regular unleaded vs. premium

Some cars require premium; others merely recommend it. If you have one of the latter (recommend it) you can save a fistfull of dollars every month by using regular, which is typically 20-30 cents less per gallon.

Caveats: You might not get every last horsepower your engine is capable of delivering — and you might suffer a slight mileage drop that could eat away the “up front” savings at the pump. The loss of a few hp is probably nothing you’ll miss or even notice — but keep track of your gas mileage “with” and “without” premium to see whether the difference is big enough to make going back to premium fuel the smart thing to do. And: if you vehicle requires premium, do not use regular (or even mid-grade). You won’t hurt your engine but your mileage may suffer and power/performance may dip noticeably, too.

Standard tires vs. speed-rated tires

Many late model and new cars are equipped with tires designed for safe high-speed cruising at sustained speeds of 130 mph or more. But unless you drive your car this fast for extended periods, you can often save a good bit of money by going with tires that have a lower speed rating. A standard S (rated for safe sustained speeds up to 112 mph) or T (118 mph) rated tire is certainly adequate for American highways, where few cars drive faster than 80 or 90 mph for extended periods of time.

H-rated (130 mph), V-rated (149 mph) and ultra-performance W (168 mph) and Y-rated (186 mph) tires are arguably overkill on U.S. roads, where such speeds are also ultra-illegal.

You can find out what the speed rating of your tire is by looking at the alphabetical designation on the sidewall. For example, a 225/50HR16 tire is an H-rated tire for a 16-inch rim. This information should also be listed in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. See here for more detailed info about tire ratings.

Caveats: High-speed tires also usually provide better braking and handling performance than standard type tires. That means your car might not corner as well or stop as quickly. However, these losses would likely be encountered and noticeable only under extreme conditions — at “the limit” of the vehicle’s handling/braking abilities. Under normal driving conditions, it’s likely you would never notice the difference. The key thing is to be sure that whatever tire you choose meets the minimum load/heat/traction rating listed by the vehicle manufacturer. So long as they do, you are safe.

Drive-thru washes

They’re convenient, but they are also a huge expense. The typical “basic” wash costs around $12-$14 and most of these joints up-size you with extras such as wheel/tire wash, paint protection/wax and underbody wash. By the time you come out the other end, you could be out more than $20 — and that’s before you tip the attendant who vacuums out the carpets. Do this a couple times a month and you’re tossing close to $500 out every year. Is washing your own car a time-consuming hassle? It certainly can be. But if saving money’s the goal, this is a great way to do it. You can do as good a job or better in your own driveway, for free — or next to free (you do have to buy car wash soap, a bucket and so on) and come out hundreds ahead every year. That’s equivalent to several tank-fulls of “free” gas!

Caveats: This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t wash your car. If you’re physically unable, don’t have the facilities (or just don’t want to deal with it) then going through an automatic wash is still good policy. Regularly removing dirt from the surface of your vehicle will help keep the finish looking good, which will aid re-sale value at trade-in time. And spraying away dirt from wheel-wells and undercarriage areas helps slow the progression of rust, which can shorten the useful life of your vehicle.


Oil changes (and oil quality)

Cheaping out on either oil changes or the oil itself is probably the most penny-wise and pound-foolish thing you can do to your vehicle. Stretching oil change intervals beyond the recommended maximum time/mileage interval risks accelerated engine wear, reduced fuel efficiency and possibly even a catastrophic failure. Using low-cost (and low-grade) oil that doesn’t meet the minimum API/SAE specifications does the same thing — to a greater extent — and will absolutely void your warranty coverage. You could be left holding the bag for thousands of dollars because you tried to save a few bucks on oil.

It’s especially important to key your oil change intervals to the type of driving you do. Many people go by the maximum intervals touted by the vehicle manufacture — which are touted precisely because they let the automaker make the car seem “low maintenance.” However, the maximum intervals often apply only to cars driven under so-called “normal” operating conditions. And what many of us subject our vehicles to every day — especially stop-and-go driving, short trips, etc. — actually qualifies as “severe” or “heavy-duty” use — and the recommended changeout intervals will be more frequent.

Caveats: In addition to using oil that meets the manufacturer’s recommended minimums, be sure the oil filter you use also meets the manufacturer’s requirements. A below-spec filter can cause problems — and void your warranty — too. Also, if you are a do-it-yourselfer, be sure to keep receipts for all the oil/filters — so that you can prove you used the manufacturer-recommended stuff in case of a warranty claim. If you have your oil changed by a non-dealer be sure they use the right type of oil and filter (and that it is listed on your paperwork). And be sure to check the dipstick yourself after they are done. Some of these quickie-lube places have been known to over or under-fill the crankcase.

Radiator service

“Long life” coolant doesn’t mean forever. It also doesn’t mean it will last as long as advertised, either. It’s really important to periodically check the condition of the coolant in your radiator — or have a competent mechanic check it for you. Contaminated coolant can lead to a gunked-up/ruined radiator — a very expensive part to replace. It can also lead to overheating, which in a modern engine with aluminum cylinder heads, etc. risks catastrophic damage.

Coolant condition should be checked at least every two years, regardless of the advertised “shelf life” of the product that’s in there. It’s also smart to periodically open the radiator cap (engine completely cold!) to check the fill level. You may catch a minor, pinhole-type leak (or perhaps a a larger problem, such as a leaky head gasket) before it gets leave-you-stuck bad.

Caveats: Never, ever fool with a hot radiator! The coolant is more than hot enough to give you serious burns and the stuff is under pressure, too – meaning it can blast you in the face if you remove the cap with the engine hot or even warm. You can check the condition of the coolant itself with a device which you can buy for about $10 at an auto parts store. You can also “eyeball” the coolant for obvious signs of deterioration. Fresh coolant should appear bright green (or orange-red, if it’s the “long-life” type) and translucent, not cloudy. If it looks dirty, it probably is dirty — and probably needs to be changed. And don’t forget: Coolant is lethally poisonous to animals, which may like its taste. Be sure to mop up any spills in your driveway or garage, if you have pets.

Wiper blades

People sometimes neglect to change their vehicle’s windshield wiper blades, which should be replaced as soon as they can no longer clear the glass without streaking. Blades typically last about six months, but sometimes wear out much sooner if subjected to harsh/extreme conditions. Winter driving — and road salt — is especially hard on wiper blades. Obviously, if you can’t see, you can’t drive safely — and no amount of money in your pocket is worth risking wrapping your car around a telephone pole.

Caveats: Don’t forget to regularly check (and top off) your windshield washer reservoir. In heavy usage, you can run dry surprisingly quickly — and even the best/freshest wiper blade can be rendered helpless by a windshield coated with road salt and muck. It’s smart to keep a jug of the stuff in the car, so you can fill up right away instead of having to drive around half-blind, like Mr. Magoo, looking for a gas station or auto parts store.

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