I was visiting an auto parts store over the weekend to pick up some things and have them collect the used motor oil from my container, when I noticed a Toyota Sienna minivan in the parking lot. Its hood was up, and an employee of the store was trying to help the driver replace something while the other people with her sat in the warm car or stood on the hot asphalt.
The vehicle was a fairly late model (maybe 4-5 years old), but its condition suggested that perhaps whatever had gone wrong under the hood might have been due to neglect. The entire outside was filthy, and one of the tires appeared to be seriously low. I am just guessing here, but I didn’t get the impression that the owner of that Sienna had kept up on routine maintenance. Just a guess, mind you.
Part of the problem today is that vehicles really are so reliable and trouble-free. Forty years ago, spark plugs had to be replaced much more often due to weaker ignition systems and leaded gasoline, and carburetors required occasional cleaning and fiddling too. Motor oil wasn’t nearly as good as it is today, and tires might have lasted you 20,000 miles if you were really careful.
So these days, many drivers have the “maintenance-free” attitude toward their cars. Yes, they’re very much “low maintenance” in most every respect, but you still have to pay attention to things now and then, or at least ask a mechanic to do so.
With those last summer road trips upon us, and back-to-school approaching for many college students who may have been home for the summer, I thought I’d touch on a few important points to ensure you don’t end up in the parking lot of an auto parts store on a Sunday. Or worse, broken down on the side of the road waiting for a tow truck.
First, fluids. Your car has lots of them, from motor oil to fluids for various functions. (Did you know that many manual transmission cars have a clutch fluid reservoir in addition to the one for brake fluid?) The good news here is that for the most part, the places where you might need to add something are well marked and many allow you to see through them to determine if the level is correct.
This is where the owner’s manual is really helpful. You know, that giant tome that’s under all the junk in your glove box. Pull it out and look under the section on maintenance and to see not only where everything should be checked, but a schedule of when it should be changed.
Yes, fluids occasionally need changing, not just adding. Brake fluid, for example, should be flushed out and replaced about every two years. Why? Because it gets contaminated with dirt, which lowers its boiling point. That in turn could cause your brakes to fail while driving down a long mountain road. Not good.
Moving to the very bottom of the car, take a look at your tires at least once a month. Thankfully most new cars now have tire pressure monitoring systems built in to them, but if yours doesn’t, you’ll need to use a gauge. Don’t fill them to the number imprinted on the sidewall, but find a sticker in a door jamb or elsewhere on the vehicle which lists proper inflation pressure. And don’t forget the spare, which may be a little hard to access but needs to be inflated to its correct psi rating as well. Oh, and check to make sure each tire has plenty of tread and doesn’t contain any nails or screws.
Finally, look at some of the little things that can make a big difference. Do all the exterior bulbs work? How are the wiper blades? If those are more than a year old, chances are good that the sun has made them brittle and ineffective at cleaning the windshield.
Sure, having an Auto Club or other roadside assistance plan is nice for peace of mind. But really, wouldn’t you rather not have to use it because you took proper care of your car?
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7 and can be heard on “The Car Show” Saturdays at 9 a.m. on KPFK, 90.7 FM. E-mail Dave at TVCarz @ pacbell.net Twitter: @dave_kunz, Facebook: ABC7Dave