Keeping Your Car Going

Keeping Your Car Going
Automotive writer Mary Jackson, author of Car Smarts (1998), offers some tips for how to keep your automobile running without the need for major repairs. Her preventive maintenance suggestions include frequent oil changes, avoiding engine stress, and paying careful attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations about how to break in a new car.

Keeping Your Car Going
By Mary Jackson
Your car or truck is likely to be the second biggest item in your budget, after your home. You probably need it to drive to work or even to do your work. If it's not running, you have a real problem. A car or truck today may contain 10,000 mechanical parts and 40 on-board computers, all vulnerable to dirt, grease, salt, rust, corrosion, friction, and shock. The good news? You can make your car run reliably and last for years and years—without spending a lot of money. Good sense and forethought can save you thousands of dollars.
Breaking in your new vehicle
Long years of good service depend on properly breaking in your new vehicle. The key idea is “easy does it.” For the first 1,500 mi (2,400 km), moderate your speed. Keep engine speed under 4,500 revolutions per minute (rpm)—you can check this if you’re lucky enough to have a tachometer. Equally important, vary your speed. Avoid driving at the same speed longer than five minutes, especially on highways. Finally, make sure that the first oil change happens exactly when the manufacturer recommends it.
Establishing a care regimen
Cars are like people. The more sensibly you feed them, rest them, and exercise them, the longer they’re likely to last. Just as you routinely visit your dentist to have your teeth cared for, regular check-ups and adjustments are vital to your car’s health. You need a trained technician to perform the preventive maintenance that will keep your car running smoothly. Ask your relatives, friends, coworkers, and insurance agent where they take their cars for servicing. Your car dealer probably has a service department. Keep looking until you find a technician or shop that you like and trust, and then stick with your choice.
Even the best technicians can’t protect your vehicle without your informed help. Read your owner’s manual, and do what it tells you. Follow closely the schedule of preventive maintenance it recommends. No owner’s manual? Contact the parts department of any dealership that sells your type of vehicle, and ask them to order a manual for you.
Checking under the hood
Engine oil circulates like the blood in your body and is as vital to your vehicle's health as blood is to yours. Just as clogged arteries form a serious health problem, oil thickened by unburned deposits from the engine coats your engine’s inner parts with goo, causing them to work harder and wear out faster.
The nicest thing you can do for your vehicle—and nothing, I mean nothing, will help it last longer—is to have the engine oil changed every 5,000 mi (8,000 km). If you live in a cold climate, and your average trip is less than 5 mi (8 km), your vehicle works even harder, and 3,000 mi (4,800 km) is the right distance between oil changes.
Keep track of how much oil your car uses by checking under the hood every second time you buy gasoline. If you notice a sudden change in oil levels or rate of oil consumption, have your vehicle inspected. The same rules apply to other fluids, such as engine coolant. Whenever you add any fluid, use the type recommended by your vehicle's manufacturer.
Avoiding engine stress
Approximately 80 percent of all engine wear takes place in the first 10 seconds after you turn the key in the ignition. That’s because the oil needs time to reach and protect all parts of the engine. To lessen this heavy wear, let your vehicle idle for 30 seconds before driving off in the morning—or whenever you start it after it’s been sitting for a few hours. Once you’re on the road, accelerate slowly for the first few miles, until the engine and transmission have warmed up and their fluids are flowing freely. It’s a good idea to avoid prolonged idling, because it concentrates stress in the engine.
Buy the grade of gasoline recommended in your owner’s manual. If your manufacturer suggests using higher-priced gasoline, do that. This grade of gasoline will help avoid knocking or pinging, a condition that causes excess vibrations and premature engine wear.
Roadwork for fitness
Like people, vehicles need regular exercise. Every week or two, take your vehicle for a 20- to 30-minute highway cruise—not in stop-and-go traffic, but as high as the speed limit allows. Steady driving is the equivalent of an aerobic workout, and your car will love you for it. A highway workout burns off engine deposits and helps eliminate water that can eventually rust internal parts.
Keep it cool
Your vehicle’s engine produces enough heat to supply a three-bedroom house on a freezing winter day. Engine overheating can cause serious and expensive damage. Engines that run too cold also suffer, because sludge accumulates quickly in an engine that never reaches ideal operating temperatures, and premature wear follows sludge. Watch your coolant temperature light or your temperature gauge for any signs of trouble. As with oil, be alert to changes in coolant consumption.
Coolant can lose its protective qualities over time. When this loss occurs, acids build up that attack your engine and your expensive cooling components. Unless your car has “extended wear” coolant, have the coolant changed every two years. (Not sure which coolant you have? Ask your dealership.)
Showing you care
Finally, keep in mind that vehicles do not live by gasoline alone. Follow the guidelines above, but also name your vehicle, acknowledge it when it does well, encourage it during difficult times, and listen to it. It has needs and preferences. Maybe it likes to go 5 mph (8 km/h) below the speed limit on long hauls; maybe it prefers one type of gasoline to another. Notice what kind of tires it performs best on. Get to know what it likes and dislikes, and accept its foibles as it ages. None of us work as well today as we did when we were teenagers. And finally, grieve when you eventually part with it, after many years of worry-free service. The owner’s manual won't tell you to think of your car as a family member, but it helps.

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