We sometimes take our cars for granted during most of the year. Trips to work, shopping, taking the kids to school, weekend errands and outings. The miles add up, and so does wear and tear on the various parts of the vehicle.
When summer rolls around, it’s likely the family car will be asked to stretch its legs and hit the road for some extended highway runs. Recent surveys have shown that many Americans are tightening their belts a little and planning to skip air travel in favor of a road trip closer to home.
So it’s probably time to give the car a thorough once-over before the extra burden of a family vacation brings out an issue that’s been bubbling beneath the surface, either figuratively or literally. Spending a little time on preventative maintenance before a trip is much easier than getting stranded somewhere and having a vacation ruined.
The first place to look is in the glove compartment. No, you’re not taking inventory of AAA maps, but pulling out the owner’s manual. Toward the back of the book will be a table of items that need to be periodically checked under the hood and around the car. The better manuals even have helpful illustrations that show where various fluid reservoirs are located.
You’ll also want to find out the correct tire pressure, which won’t be in the manual but on a decal on a door jamb, inside the glove box, or even on the back of the fuel filler door. If you have a tire gauge (they’re available for a few dollars at many stores), check each tire when the car hasn’t been driven for at least two hours. After you drive a few miles, the pressure will increase due to heat, so measuring the pressure when the tires are hot will give an inaccurate reading.
While you’re making sure the tire pressure is okay, take a look at the overall condition of the tires. Does the tread look substantial? Are the grooves deeper on one side of the tire compared to the other? Are there any nails or screws in the tread? Having something stuck into the tire doesn’t necessarily mean it would start losing air. In theory you can be driving around for weeks or months with an object embedded into the tire without even knowing it.
If in doubt, have a professional tire shop make an inspection. Most reputable tire retailers will give an honest, free inspection if you stop by when they’re not too busy. And if they tell you everything is okay, keep their business card handy for your next tire purchase as a way to repay them for their time.
Another thing a tire professional will check is the air in the spare tire. You can do this yourself as well, but the spare isn’t always easy to access. It’s either buried beneath the floor of the trunk, or on many SUVs and vans, it’s stowed underneath the vehicle. But it’s critical to make sure this tire is at recommended pressure too. After all, you don’t want to have a flat on the car and a flat spare.
If your car is getting older, you might also want to have the air conditioner looked at as well. While it may seem to be working fine within our mild temperatures, a trip through the desert or even California’s Central Valley can tax the A/C unit to its capacity, and it might not be able to keep you as cool as you’d like.
Do you periodically wax your car (or have it done at a car wash or detail shop)? This would be a great time to get a fresh coat of wax on the paint. First off, a shiny car will reflect a little more of the sun’s heat. And secondly, those bugs and the general road grime won’t stick to the car as easily. A good detailing will also get the windows sparkling clean inside and out, which will help reduce glare from the rising or setting sun.
Finally, make sure your glove compartment or center console is properly stocked with the necessities. Registration (hopefully the current one), insurance cards and a note pad will be handy in the event of an accident. You should also keep the phone number of your usual mechanic in the car. That way you can inquire by phone for a “second opinion” should an unfamiliar repair shop give you an estimate for an emergency repair while on the road.
There are lots of things to think about before a driving vacation. It may seem like a bother, but including a simple checklist for the car won’t take all that long. And considering that alternative could be an interrupted trip, it would be time well spent.
I’ll see you down the road.
Dave Kunz is the automotive reporter at KABC-TV Channel 7. He’s also a car enthusiast and owns several classics. Dave can be reached at TVCarz@pacbell.net.