Here are some simple things you can do to minimize the cost of keeping your car in shape.
It seems paradoxical: At the same time that cars have grown fiendishly complicated electronically and mechanically, they've also become more reliable and need less maintenance. But having that maintenance done correctly and on schedule is more important now than ever—and it's the key to cheaper driving. Here are seven painless steps to saving money on maintenance:
Drive gently — Cars react to excessive stress the same way most people do: They break down more often and wear out faster. Try to avoid abrupt cornering, hard braking, and other such stress-inducing practices.
Stay on top of maintenance — Become familiar with your car's requirements by minding the scheduled maintenance section of the owner's manual. Choose the most conservative schedule it offers and stick to it. Change that oil on time. Don't try to eke out another winter on the same old antifreeze. Replace that timing belt.
Regular maintenance not only tends to be cheaper than repair, it can delay the need for repair. Also, the regular attention your car will get can alert you to developing conditions before they cause a breakdown on the road.
Find a good repair facility before you need it — Asking friends for recommendations is a good way to get started. Once you've found a prospect, check it out with your local Better Business Bureau. You might give the shop a small job and take the opportunity to speak with the service writer or manager. The shop should appear clean and well organized and have modern equipment. The service writer or manager should be willing to speak with you and answer all your questions in a way you can understand. Ideally, the other cars awaiting repair in the shop should be the same general type as yours.
Form a relationship — The technicians who work on your car should be familiar with both you and it. It's a good idea to have them do all the maintenance and repair work on the vehicle—even though you may be able to get a tire or wiper blades for less somewhere else.
The relationship you build with a good repair facility will, in the long run, save you money and worry and it may reduce the chance of an unforeseen breakdown on the road.
Ask questions — When you're having a repair made, you should ask such questions as how the trouble might have been prevented and what other related problems might be developing. For example, if one coolant hose goes bad, can the others be far behind?
Keep a written record of all maintenance and repairs — Some facilities will keep a computerized record of your car's history. Knowing what has been done in the past can make diagnosis of present trouble, and possible prevention of future trouble, easier.
You, too, should be aware of your car's repair history. The shop will provide a bill itemizing parts and labor. Keeping a file of bills can remind you when to have periodic maintenance done, help you determine the true cost of driving, and hint at when it might be economical to replace your car.
Keep your car as long as possible — Hanging on to an older car may seem antithetical to the ideal of minimizing repair costs—and it is. But it can save you money overall as even the rising cost of an older car's maintenance and repair is probably not going to equal the big expense of new-car ownership for quite some time. Taxes, depreciation, and insurance all are higher with a new car. And once your vehicle is finally paid for, you have no finance charges.
The AAA Approved Auto Repair program can help you find a facility that has been inspected and approved by AAA technicians, will guarantee repairs for 12 months or 12,000 miles (whichever comes first) for AAA members, and cooperate fully with AAA in resolving repair disputes. There are over 600 Approved Auto Repair facilities in Northern California, Nevada, and Utah. To find one near you, you can call (800) 645-4288.
AAA operates a Car Care Plus facility  in Northern California. This is a one-stop shop for most auto maintenance and repairs and feature AAA technicians and state-of-the-art equipment. Santa Clara: 2615 Keystone Ave., (408) 247-5405.
This article was first published in September 2002. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.