How To: Maintain Your New Car

I agree it's annoying - you spend thousands on a brand new car, and they still expect you to pay for more things and do a bunch of other stuff. I spent thousands on furniture, and except a little Scotchguarding, my duties were done. It doesn't seem fair.

But if you don't keep up with your car's maintenance schedule, some very nasty things can happen, like engines seizing. And if you don't keep up with the maintenance schedule, you can also void your warranty and you'll end up a few grand more out of pocket.

Your owner's manual is the best source of information about what your car needs and when. Make sure you know what it says before you go to the shop - remember that the service manager has a vested interest in getting you to change your oil every 5,000 km instead of every 8,000. The more often he can sell you maintenance products and services, the more money he makes. Knowing what you're there for and what your car needs can save you succumbing to pressure sales.

Do make some allowances for your own driving habits, though. The maintenance recommended in your manual is for "normal" driving, whatever the heck that is. If you run a courier service or take off from lights like the car behind you is on fire, you're going to need to do these things more often.

We all know we're supposed to do this stuff, and we may even have a vague idea why. So instead of telling you why you should do it, let me tell you what might happen if you don't.

Oil change: Your oil will get dirtier and dirtier until it clogs up the filter to the point where your now-filthy oil bypasses it all together. Healthy additives will wear out. As it stops properly lubricating, the engine will wear harder and harder, and eventually you'll face a catastrophic seizure from which there is no recovery. Fun, huh?

oil changing

Belt and hose check: When a hose fails, your engine can overheat, or your cooling system or power steering can fail. Belts drive your alternator, water pump, power-steering pump and air conditioner compressor, so it's pretty clear what's going to happen if one goes phlooey on you. You may then face expensive repairs, but at the very least, you'll face a really crappy day.

Tire pressure monitoring and tire rotation: Not only can improperly inflated tires cost you more at the gas pump, but your car won't handle as well as it could. Worst case scenario? A dangerous blow-out. Overinflation puts less rubber between you and the road, giving you poorer traction and longer braking distances. It's also bouncy, and you may spill your coffee. Underinflation increases friction and can lead to tread separation. You know all those road gators along the side of the highway? That could be you. Neglecting to rotate your tires can lead to uneven wear, and consequently unnecessarily poor gas mileage and handling.

Fluid levels: Your car is filled with all sorts of nifty liquids in the engine, transmission, steering, cooling system, air conditioner and brakes. (And for windshield-washing, but if you can't figure out what happens if you let that run out, you're either hopeless, or you live in Arizona.) If your transmission fluid gets low, chances are you have a leak, and you'll know it when the car becomes less maneuverable; ultimately your transmission will fail. A power steering fluid loss will make it feel - well, like you don't have power steering. It will also cause wear to the power steering components, such as the pump and gearbox. A lack of coolant will cause overheating and may result in a big, ol' engine seizure. When your brake fluid needs replacing (about every two years, as it begins to absorb moisture), they'll start to feel spongy and eventually stop doing their job completely. If your air conditioning fluid levels get low? More sweat.

Fluid levels

Brake inspection: Brakes can fail for a number of reasons, such as low fluid or old fluid (see previous), lack of friction (like, say, oil on the brakes), or worn brake pads. Your car may pull to one side, you may notice braking distances increase, or hear clicking, squealing or grinding. The worst-case scenario? This one should be obvious - no brakes = no stop.

Let's face it. We all hate preventive maintenance. We don't put on snow tires on until it snows. We don't study until the exam is scheduled. Heck, most of us won't even give up a Pepsi habit until the diabetes sets in. But if you can bring yourself to perform regular maintenance, you will save yourself a ton of money and a world of nuisance in the end.