Tune up your auto IQ

By Catherine Dilworth
April 11, 2002

Kit Dewey

Today’s vehicles with all their electronic parts and gadgets can be far more complex and demanding in terms of regular maintenance than your grandfather’s Model T. Keeping your car running and road-worthy used to be pretty easy: Change the oil every 3,000 miles or so, and pop on some new tires when the tread started looking like Dr. Evil’s head. But times have changed.

You need to keep a close eye on your car’s overall health, especially when the weather changes. “For example, all fluids should be checked seasonally,” advises Herb Hoeflinger, service manager at Porter Chevrolet on Kirkwood Highway and Cleveland Avenue in Newark, DE, “and you should change the anti-freeze once a year.”

“Most maintenance,” he continues, “depends on the make, model and year of your car. At least twice a year your vehicle should be looked over by a competent mechanic.”

Even if you can’t tell a catalytic converter from a carburetor, you can still extend your vehicle’s usable life. Here’s a checklist of common maintenance duties:

Depending on your car’s make, model and year, your oil should be changed every 3,000 to 4,000 miles.

“You talk to most mechanics,” says Hoeflinger, “and they’ve taken apart very few engines that were clean inside. When you have internal engine problems, mechanics often find the oil hasn’t been changed.”

Wilmer Stradley, owner of Land Rover Wilmington, notes that many car dealerships will do an oil and filter change often for the same price as commercial companies specializing in the service. “It’s wise to have the dealer do it for you,” he says. “A factory-trained technician will be looking at your car, and he or she may see other things that could be a problem, before that problem would be detected by someone untrained to look at anything else besides an oil change.”

Your tires should be rotated twice a year, and your brakes checked at least twice a year, say most mechanics. Why rotate your tires? By shifting the tread wear, you’ll extend their life. And you’ll need to make sure radial tire rotations (and new purchases) match up in terms of tread patterns and construction.

If your lights are shining yellow and your car groans when it starts, you may need a new battery. Look at your battery and see how long it’s supposed to last (most are marked “36-month” or “48-month,” and stamped with the date of origin).

If a headlight burns out, buy a new one, or pay someone to replace it for you. Tip: If you’re buying one headlight, you might as well get two. More often than not, the other will burn out soon as well.

If your engine’s belts start to weaken, your car may make a whining or shrieking noise when you start it. If you look closely at the belts, you may see signs of wear or even small cracks. Get to a mechanic before the belt breaks while you’re on I-95 in rush-hour traffic on a Wednesday morning in the rain. All belts and hoses should be checked twice a year.

Your car is making a “funny noise”. Since this is probably the first major purchase of your life, you have absolutely no idea what’s wrong or how to go about getting it fixed. Where should you go? Do you choose one of those ten-minute lube’n’tune places? The mechanic down the street? The dealership repair shop?

No mistaking it, car repair is expensive. So, we all try to save a few bucks by going to the local mechanic rather than a dealership or a specialist. In some cases, this will turn out just fine, but always keep your guard up for rip-offs. Keep your eyes peeled for the following common scams pulled by car repair establishments:

Billing you for time that wasn’t spent working on your car. It might be worth your time to investigate just how long it takes to fix the problem, and compare it to the billing time.

Billing you for repairs that were never actually made. Pay attention to your car after the repairs have been made. Did they really fix the problem?

Billing you for unnecessary repairs. Did you really need a new set of spark plugs? It is relatively easy for mechanics to invent problems, or even create new problems by sabotaging your car’s parts.

Once you have found a trustworthy, good mechanic, stick with him/her. It is worth paying a few extra dollars to get the job done right consistently.

Shop around. There are lots of mechanics out there and, if at all possible, don’t leap into a decision before you’ve had time to look over your options.

Ladies, beware! Some mechanics will try and take advantage of the fact that you are female (they think you won’t know as much about cars), so don’t even let them try it. Look up on the Internet about the noises you hear if you don’t know. If the mechanic tells you that your muffler bearings are shot.let it be known there are no such things as muffler bearings.

Don’t let any mechanic bully you into making a silly choice. Remember that the final decision is yours.

Ask to see where the problem is and the defective part. If the part has been replaced ask to see the old part taken from your car.

Car repair is a sticky situation because we all want our car fixed cheaply, correctly, and immediately. Any mechanic worth his/her spark plugs will try and throw a monkey wrench in the works, so keep your eyes open and don’t get fooled.

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Catherine Dilworth

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