Vehicle Maintenance Tips: Extend Your Vehicle’s Life

By Eric Peters, Automotive Columnist

Whatever you’re driving right now, odds are you probably would like to keep on driving it (and avoid a new car payment) for as long as reasonably possible. This is very doable, especially given the raw material of late-model cars — which are also the best-built cars ever. Just do two things — step up on the maintenance and drive the car moderately — and it might outlive you.

On the first:

The easiest and simplest thing you can do to increase the life of your car is to increase the frequency of routine oil/filter/fluid changes. A good rule of thumb of thumb is to follow the “severe service” (or “heavy duty”) intervals recommended in your owner’s manual — which are often half or even less the time/mileage intervals for “normal” service.

Overkill? Some might say yes — and maybe they’re right. On the other hand, more frequent oil/filter/fluid changes can’t hurt — and may do a great deal of good for relatively little investment.

For example, doing an oil change every six months vs. once a year might cost you an extra $40 or $50 annually. Over a five year period that’s an extra $250 out of pocket. But if the reduced wear and tear that results from more frequent oil/filter changes let you keep driving your vehicle several years longer than you otherwise might have been able to, that’s thousands of dollars in your pocket.

Upping the oil/filter changes isn’t a guarantee of longer service life — but it is a pretty good bet.

It’s equally penny-wise to change out gear oil in manual transmissions, axles (and on 4WD-equipped vehicles, transfer cases) more frequently.

Substituting high-quality synthetic gear oil — which isn’t as thick and lubricates more effectively at both cold and high temperatures — can improve function (easier shifting, for example, when it’s very cold outside) as well as decrease wear and tear over time.

I do this service every 30,000 miles no matter what the specified interval is in the owner’s manual. The cost to change the gear lube in my truck’s manual transmission, rear axle, front axle and transfer case is about $100 about every 2-3 years or so.

Expensive? How much is a new/rebuilt transmission? These components typically cost $1,000 or more — just for the component. The labor to install can add as much to the final cost as the price of the component itself.

One thing to mention here: Be sure to use only gear oil/oil/filters recommended by the people who built your car. Some manufacturers are very picky — and some transmissions, etc. very finicky. Use of the wrong type of oil/gear lube, etc. could cause damage or void your warranty. Maybe both.

Other things to do more often:

* Check/adjust/grease wheel bearings —

Saves wear and tear on the front suspension, decreases rolling resistance (which saves you gas as you drive) plus it’s very cheap and relatively simple to do-it-yourself. If you can perform an oil change you can learn how to check/adjust (and if need be, repack) wheel bearings. You can also grease suspension fittings (if your vehicle has them; many newer cars are “lubed for life” and have no fittings). Do this job at least twice a year, once in spring and then again in fall.

* Regularly check fluid/lube levels in brake master cylinder, clutch slave cylinder, power steering pump and gearboxes —

All these can (and often do) leak — and worse, few give any warning (via a dashboard light or chime) that you are running low. Meanwhile, as the fluid levels drop, heat and friction increase (power steering and gearboxes). A fluid level drop (brake master cylinder, clutch slave cylinder) can also be a major clue that there is an underlying problem that could be both expensive and dangerous.

Occasional minor top-offs are normal as eventually, just about every machine/moving thing seeps a little. But if you notice a significant drop in fluid/lube levels, it’s time to investigate further. If you have been checking fluid levels regularly, you’ll know about a potential issue sooner — which might be in time to do a minor repair vs. a major replacement.

* Replace brake fluid/flush lines every three years —

In a modern car with ABS, it is critical — if you want to avoid a huge repair bill down the road — to regularly replace the fluid and flush the entire system. Brake fluid attracts moisture over time and that along with other contaminants can rust out lines and ruin big bucks parts like the ABS pump.

* Radiator flush/cooling system service —

“Long life” coolant does not mean “lifetime” — and if you have priced a new radiator lately, you will appreciate the wisdom of caring for the one you’ve got by regularly flushing the entire system and filling it up with fresh coolant. Do this every 4-5 years, at the outside and you may never have to buy a new radiator. Other expensive parts like the water pump and heater core should last longer, too.

* Spark plugs —

These may indeed last 100,000 miles as advertised. The problem is that if you leave them installed that long, when the time does come to replace them, you may not be able to get them out without incurring serious damage to the (much expensive) cylinder head. The threads may literally fuse to the plug — and come right out with the plug upon removal. You can avoid this potential disaster — a $5 spark plug ruining a $1,000 cylinder head — by removing and reinstalling the plugs (adjusting the gap, if need be) using thread lubricant every 30,000 miles or so. Be sure to thoroughly clean the plug’s threads upon removal each time, before you apply the thread lubricant and re-install. This will assure that when the time does come to replace the plugs, you won’t also have to replace the cylinder head.

The rest is simply common sense: Be nice to your car. Drive moderately. Try to sync your driving with the ebb and flow of traffic. Gradual stops — not abrupt ones. Gradual acceleration — not pedal to the floor. Smooth shifting — no dumping the clutch. No overloading — no sustained high-speed driving, especially in hot weather. Gentle driving when it’s cold. Regularly scan and pay attention to the dashboard warning lights and gauges as you drive — so you’ll notice a problem (such as overheating or low oil pressure) before it becomes critical. Etc.

None of the above recommendations is either expensive, involved or a big hassle. But you might save yourself one by taking them to heart.

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