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Your Car: Maintaining Your Car

These days, a well-maintained car may last 200,000 miles without major repair.


The basic rule of economic car ownership is simple: Buy a new or good used car and keep it as long as it's safe and reliable. That's likely to be a very long time if you invest in even minimal periodic maintenance.

"Oil and coolant changes, brake inspections, and other such mundane stuff are inexpensive protection for the investment you've made in a vehicle," says Mark Woods of AAA's Car Care Plus repair facility. "Unless your car is blowing clouds of blue smoke, it's not too late to get started." There are three easy steps.

1. Read the owner's manual

Owner's manuals commonly give two maintenance schedules, one for "normal" driving, the other for "severe" or some similar term. The kind of driving nearly everyone does is "severe." Old ladies who just drive to church on Sundays: severe. Cross-town commuting: severe. Stop-and-go driving, taking short trips—anything not a steady freeway pace: severe. There just aren't that many "normal" drivers. So consider the more conservative maintenance schedule.

2. Look beneath the hood

You'll notice the entire space from firewall to radiator and wheel well to wheel well is crammed with expensive-looking equipment. The owner's manual can help you find two key spots: the engine oil dipstick and the coolant reservoir.

Check the oil level frequently and, while you're at it, take a look at the plastic coolant overflow tank. The level of cheerful orange or nearly iridescent green (depending on the kind of coolant you have) should be between the "high" and "low" marks. If it isn't, either add coolant (only when the engine is cool) or visit your service technician. If the coolant is rust colored, visit your local service technician.

3. Follow the maintenance schedule that's right for the way you drive

Recommended maintenance schedules vary among carmakers. According to Woods, "Extreme intervals, such as 100,000 miles for spark plugs or 10,000 miles between oil changes, may be appropriate for some cars and some drivers. A more conservative approach to maintenance probably is better in most cases."

A trusted service technician can guide you through the maintenance appropriate for your car and the way you drive. AAA technicians, who have many years of experience in vehicle diagnosis and maintenance, suggest the following guideline as a good, economical schedule for protecting your motoring investment.

  • Inspect lights and check tire pressure at least monthly. For tire pressure, buy a good pressure gauge—don't trust the ones on gas station air hoses. Check tire pressure when tires are cold, not after you've been driving.
  • Oil and filter change; belt and hose inspection: 3,000 to 5,000 miles or three to four months (whichever comes first). "Low oil levels and contaminated oil are very common conditions in the cars we see," Woods says. "Frequent oil changes may be the best thing you can do to ensure your car's engine will go the distance."
  • Tire rotation, wheel balancing, and brake inspection: 6,000 miles or every other oil change.
  • Replace air and fuel filters; service automatic transmission: 24,000 to 100,000 miles.
  • Cooling system flush and refill: 40,000 to 100,000 miles. Coolants vary greatly in promised life expectancy; eventually, their corrosion inhibitors lose effectiveness. The old rule of thumb—changing coolant sooner, such as every two years, rather than later—still holds.
  • Belt and hose replacement, engine timing belt replacement: 60,000 to 100,000 miles or five to eight years. Belts and hoses also vary greatly in life expectancy. However, those older than seven or eight years are living on borrowed time. Timing belts can fail without warning. When they go, the best you can hope for is an inoperable but repairable engine. It's also possible that the engine will be destroyed. Better to strike first.
  • Inspect the air conditioning system annually.
  • Test the battery if it's four years old or older. Many people replace a battery when it reaches the end of its warranty period, typically five to six years.

This article was first published in November 2000. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.