Car Maintenance Guide: Everything You Need to Know

ByChris Hardesty 08/19/2021 4:00pm

Maintaining your car
Car and Truck Maintenance Guide

Car maintenance is a crucial part of vehicle ownership. Taking care of your car by performing preventative maintenance helps to ensure you have safe and reliable transportation.

Use this guide to learn about common automotive maintenance issues. It’ll help you protect your investment and keep your car in top-running condition.

The Importance of Car Maintenance

When you perform car maintenance at regular intervals, it keeps your ride in proper working order and helps prevent expensive mechanical repairs down the road. When it’s time to sell or trade in the vehicle, having detailed service records can help boost its value.

Vehicle maintenance does require an investment of time and money. But taking care of your car can often help you avoid major repair costs that follow a roadside breakdown. We make it easy to get maintenance pricing for your vehicle so you’ll know how much you can expect to pay within your area.

Most important, failing to follow preventative maintenance guidelines could even void the vehicle’s warranty.

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Scheduled maintenance check-ups address a vehicle’s fluid levels for brake and power steering systems, radiator coolant, and engine oil. Other items with significant safety purposes, such as brake pads and windshield wipers, should be checked routinely and replaced when necessary to keep them operating effectively.

Automobile engines are complex machines containing many interconnected parts. Proper mechanical maintenance, including replacing spark plugs, drive belts, timing belts or chains, and changing air and fluid filters, is needed to identify problems and to keep the engine running as well as it should.

How Often Should You Take Your Car in for an Inspection?

Always follow the manufacturer’s maintenance recommendations found in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. At the least, you should have your car inspected by a qualified mechanic every 12 months to look for problems.Please note that many vehicle manufacturers have replaced the printed owner’s manual you might be familiar with for an online version availability through the manufacturer’s website.

Some states require car inspections or smog checks for annual registration renewal, depending on the area of the state and age of the vehicle. This type of inspection evaluates only vehicle emissions or essential safety criteria rather than a full mechanical inspection of the car’s health.

Having your car’s oil changed at a repair shop or dealership usually includes a multi-point inspection to check fluid levels, filters, and other components. In previous decades, a rule of thumb was to change a car’s oil every 3,000 miles. Since 2010, many vehicles use synthetic oil that can go up to 10,000 miles between changes.

In addition to outlining regular maintenance such as oil changes and tire rotation, manufacturers give guidance for inspection or replacement of certain parts when the odometer reaches 30,000 miles, 60,000 miles, and 90,000 miles, for example. Again, refer to the owner’s manual for your vehicle’s maintenance schedule.

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Signs My Car Needs Maintenance Done

Even the most well-maintained car will encounter problems that require unexpected service. Often, the vehicle will let you know before it stops operating that there’s an issue needing attention.

The “check engine” light or “service engine soon” indication on the dashboard aren’t the only clues that should prompt you to call a repair shop:

  • Braking – Any problem with your brakes is a safety issue. Address a “soft” brake pedal and investigate any squeaking or scraping sounds immediately.
  • Lacking acceleration – A change in performance can mean that it’s time for an engine tune-up.
  • Vibration – Have a mechanic diagnose the causes if you feel shaking when the car is starting, turning, or stopping.
  • Stalling or difficulty starting – When your vehicle stalls or you can’t get it started, it’s time to get it checked.
  • Fuel efficiency – Bad sensors or leaky fuel injectors might be the reason for changes in your gas mileage.
  • Shifting – Automatic transmissions are designed to shift gears smoothly. Hard shifts and lurching might indicate a transmission problem.

There are less obvious clues that something might be wrong with the car, and these signs can be intermittent or vague. Remember that you know how your car drives better than anyone does. If something seems different, it might be the start of a more significant problem.

Contact a trusted mechanic at your local dealership or car repair shop when your vehicle isn’t performing well. Tell them what you feel and hear when the car begins acting up.

Vehicle Maintenance Checklist

Keep up with a schedule of preventative maintenance to maximize the lifespan and performance of your vehicle. Use this list to be aware of what – and when – tasks should be done to help keep your car in proper working order.

Service intervals can vary from make and model, so be sure to follow your vehicle’s maintenance schedule.

Service Immediately

  • Check engine light – This warning appears when the car’s control system discovers a problem. There is no reason to panic when you see this yellow warning light, but don’t delay a visit to the repair shop and don’t reset it on your own without knowing why it came on in the first place. A mechanic can run diagnostic tests to determine the cause.
  • Headlights/taillights – Check for blown fuses if a light goes out. Replace the light if that isn’t the problem. Driving with burned-out lights is unsafe and can bring you a traffic ticket.
  • Tire pressure light – A car’s tire-pressure monitoring system will alert you when the air pressure in a tire drops below a certain amount. Low air pressure can bring unsafe driving conditions, so inflate your tires to proper levels as soon as you can.

Monthly Check-up

  • Fog lights, turn signals, brake, and parking lights – It’s relatively easy to notice a headlight that isn’t working. Others aren’t as obvious, so walk around the car monthly to visually inspect the lights.
  • Oil and coolant levels – Check levels when the engine is cool at least once a month and always top off the levels before making a long trip.
  • Tire pressure and tread depth – Tires are essential to safe driving. Regularly inspect your tires and the spare for uneven wear, proper air pressure, and adequate tread depth. Use a penny to check the tread depth. If the top of Lincoln’s head is covered, there is still more than 2/32” of depth remaining, meaning there is still adequate tread left.
  • Windshield wiper fluid – Be sure the reservoir has an adequate supply of wiper fluid. It’s not possible to drive safely with an obstructed view, something that can result from a dirty windshield.

3-Month Check-up

  • Oil and filters – Engines that use conventional motor oil can be on a 3-month/3,000-mile interval. Those using synthetic varieties might have up to 10,000 miles between oil changes.
  • Battery and cables – Make sure the battery and cables have tight connections and have no corrosion or leaking fluid.
  • Belts and hoses – The serpentine belt and other belts in the engine compartment shouldn’t look glazed, cracked, or frayed. Hoses shouldn’t leak or have cracks or bulges.
  • Power steering fluid – Check power steering fluid level when the engine is warm and add more when needed.
  • Wiper blades – Driving with worn wiper blades is a safety hazard because of reduced visibility when it rains. Inspect the blades seasonally and replace them if they’re damaged or no longer clear the windshield.

6-Month Check-up

  • Rotate tires – Rotating tires helps extend their life by balancing the tread wear and can help prevent noise and vibration problems. Check the owner’s manual beforehand because some types of tires and wheels shouldn’t be rotated or have to be rotated in a very specific way.
  • Wax vehicle – Wash your car regularly and apply a wax coating at least twice a year to help protect your car’s finish from rust.
  • Exhaust system – Look for and repair any damage, especially if the muffler is making noise.
  • Battery performance check – Your car won’t start without a good battery. Beginning when the battery is 3 years old, test it twice a year at your auto parts store.
  • Chassis lubrication – Your owner’s manual will say if the chassis, steering, and suspension systems require periodic lubrication.

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1-Year Check-up

  • Air filters – Cabin air filters help clean the air inside the car and should be replaced annually. However, engine air filters keep debris out of your engine and should be inspected when the oil is changed.
  • Brakes – Inspect the brake system, including the brake fluid, brake linings, rotors, and brake pads, to help ensure the proper operation of these critical components. The lifespan for brake pads largely depends on the driving style of the operator.
  • Inspect shocks and struts – Take your car to the shop if you notice a decrease in smoothness when driving. Shocks and struts are an essential part of the car’s steering system and should be inspected by a professional.
  • Coolant/antifreeze – Replace every year. Flush the coolant and the entire cooling system after 60,000 miles.

2-Year Check-up

  • Ignition system – Good quality spark plugs, plug wires, coils and other electrical components can last up to 100,000 miles. Even so, it’s a good idea to have spark plugs checked starting at 30,000 miles. Rough running or hard starting can be a sign that they’re beginning to fail.
  • Transmission fluid – Check transmission fluid levels regularly and add more when needed. You can expect to change transmission fluid between 30,000 miles and 60,000 miles in a manual transmission vehicle and between 30,000 miles and 100,000 miles in an automatic transmission one.
  • Fuel filter – Manufacturer guidelines for fuel filter replacement vary. Some suggest replacement at 30,000 miles.

Long-Term Check-up

  • Transfer case fluid –The transfer case shifts power from the transmission to the axles in a 4-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive vehicle. Have a professional check transfer case fluid according to manufacturer recommendations.
  • Front and rear differential – Differentials are devices that split the torque from the engine and send power to the tires to propel the car. The differentials require lubrication, and a professional should check them according to manufacturer recommendations.
  • Change tires – Tires can last from six years to 10 years. Check often for adequate tread depth greater than 2/32 of an inch.
  • Battery – Test the battery beginning at three years. It’s time to replace the battery after five years.
  • Timing belt – Replace following the owner’s manual guidance, typically between 60,000 miles and 90,000 miles. Not all vehicles have timing belts. Yours might have a timing chain, which often needs no periodic maintenance (or replacement) unless there’s an issue.

These milestones for car maintenance are general guidelines and not an exhaustive list. Carefully follow your car manufacturer’s recommendations on scheduled vehicle service and use qualified mechanics to perform work on your car.

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Chris HardestyChris Hardesty is an author specializing in electric vehicles and general advice related to car ownership. His 25-year journalism career includes leading editorial research at The News & Observer in North Carolina, The Mercury News in California, and Newsday in New York. After that, he was an online news editor at The Wall Street Journal before moving to the Atlanta area. He didn’t have a… Read More about Chris HardestyLinked In Social Network


How Much Does Car Maintenance Cost?

The costs of car maintenance vary, depending on where you live and the year, make, and model of the car you drive. To help you determine costs of maintaining your vehicle, use our 5-year Cost to Own tool. The tool breaks out the maintenance costs over five years. When you divide it by five you can get your annual costs.

What Does Check Engine Light Mean?

When the “check engine light” flashes or illuminates on the dashboard, it means it’s time to get your car inspected by a certified mechanic at a dealership or local auto repair shop.

How Long Can You Drive With Check Engine Light On?

It’s not safe to drive a long distance with your check engine light on. Wherever you may be driving, pull off and go to your nearest car dealership or auto repair shop so they can run a diagnostic test and determine the issue.

River City Fleet Services, Inc.

River City Fleet Services, Inc.