Whether you’re taking a quick jaunt into the countryside to see the spring wildflowers or a longer road trip to a favorite destination, it’s always a good idea to make sure your car is well maintained and in good working order. For most people, the standard auto maintenance routine also includes fresh oil and filter, plus a check of tire pressure, belts and hoses, air filter, and maybe a tire rotation. But if you want to keep your vehicle on the road for many miles to come, that should be just the minimum.
There are several key components and systems that require occasional maintenance, but are often neglected. It’s a good idea to have them checked regularly to help prevent mechanical breakdowns or unsafe conditions. In addition, paying attention to the symptoms that might indicate possible problems can help you determine if an item needs immediate attention.
Just about every car on the road uses hydraulic power steering to make the steering wheel easier to turn. This system usually includes a rack and pinion in the front axle, which is controlled by fluid under pressure from a special pump. Failure of a part or a leak in the hydraulics can make steering very difficult, and can also cause expensive damage to your car’s rack and pinion components. It’s a good idea to have your power steering fluid checked every time you get your oil changed. If this isn’t included in your auto maintenance package, a check of the system and top-off of fluids is often available at a small charge.
How to tell is something might be wrong: The most obvious evidence of power steering problems is a whining noise when you turn your steering wheel—especially when making sharp turns. The sound may increase in frequency or severity as the system loses fluid or as the pump begins to fail.
Your vehicle’s transmission allows the engine to “get in gear” as you’re driving. Whether you have an automatic or manual transmission, you’ll still need to pay attention to the manufacturer’s recommendations and have the transmission serviced appropriately. For most vehicles, routine maintenance service involves opening up the transmission, replacing or cleaning the filter, checking and cleaning the pan and replacing the fluid. Sometimes routine maintenance will turn up evidence of larger problems which, if fixed immediately, can save you money in the long run. Your vehicle’s manual will indicate the manufacturer’s recommended frequency for service.
How to tell if something might be wrong: You might just tune out the sound of your engine, but it’s worth paying attention to it from time to time. If shifting is rough or delayed or if you can feel the gears slipping, you should have your transmission inspected immediately. Also, if you notice a leak on your driveway that is bright red (instead of black, which would be motor oil) you should have a qualified mechanic check things out.
The most important safety equipment on any vehicle is the brakes. The next time you push that horizontal pedal to the floor to prevent an accident, consider what would happen if the brakes didn’t bother to respond. Since you want this critical system to continue braking (instead of breaking), ask your mechanic to perform an inspection during routine auto maintenance. Brake pads need to be changed when they get too worn, and the calipers and rotors (the parts that squeeze and the parts that get squeezed) need attention from time to time.
How to tell if something might be wrong: Many vehicles have a “trouble light” on the dashboard that lights up when a sensor detects that the brake system needs attention. In addition, if you hear a squealing or grinding sound when you apply the brakes, or if you feel a vibration when you push the brake pedal, you’ll want to get this checked as soon as possible.
Some people might think that vehicle air conditioning is an “optional” system—those people obviously don’t live in Arizona, where interior temperatures of a car sitting in the sun can reach more than 150 degrees in just 15 minutes. Seriously—it’s not unheard of for Arizonans to drive while wearing oven mitts. For drivers in hot climates, A/C isn’t a luxury; it’s a necessity. Having a qualified mechanic check out your air conditioning system once or twice a year can help ensure that your cooling is always in good working condition.
One of the worst things your cooling system can do is sit and do nothing. Because of this, most manufacturers recommend that you run your air conditioning for short periods of time every month—even during the winter. Just keep the temperature setting to HEAT and let the system run. Doing this will keep the internal parts lubricated and help ensure that your A/C is in good working order when summer arrives.
How to tell if something might be wrong: If the A/C seems to be taking a long time to cool the interior of your car on a hot day, or if it doesn’t cool at all, you should have it checked by a good mechanic.
Keeping your vehicle’s wheels aligned can make your car or truck easier to drive. In addition, proper alignment will prolong the life of your tires, make your brakes more effective, and improve overall safety. It’s a good idea to consult the auto maintenance schedule recommended by the manufacturer of your vehicle, but most car makers suggest having wheel alignment checked every 20,000 to 30,000 miles. Costs vary based on the size of the vehicle and whether you’ll require a two-wheel or four-wheel alignment. Note that having your vehicle checked for alignment will sometimes turn up other issues, such as problems with the steering or braking systems. Because of this, paying attention to the symptoms of poor alignment is critical to the overall safety and roadworthiness of your vehicle.
How to tell if something might be wrong: If your steering tends to pull to one side or the other, or if you experience a vibration in the steering at higher speeds, you’re probably due for an alignment check. Uneven wear on your tires is another obvious sign that the wheels aren’t aligned correctly.
It’s tempting to think of a vehicle as a simple input/output device. You put in the gas and the exhaust comes out—and the car or truck just keeps going … until maybe it doesn’t. Getting your vehicle’s oil changed and tires rotated regularly can go a long way towards keeping your car or truck running in top shape. Keeping tabs on the crucial auto maintenance items mentioned above will also pay dividends in prolonging the life of your vehicle and saving you money and hassle.
For all you car people out there: did we leave out anything important?