To be smart about your car, you need to do the right amount of on-time maintenance -- while resisting mechanics' pitches for unnecessary work. "With advertising that emphasizes maintenance-free cars, people may have the idea they don't have to take care of them," says George Sadowski, education manager at the Norwood, Mass., campus of Universal Technical Institute, a leading provider of training courses for auto mechanics.
But while neglect doesn't work, neither does overspending. From Sadowski and Michael Calkins, manager of the AAA program that recommends repair shops, here are 10 ways you may be wasting money on your car.
1. Changing oil every 3,000 miles. A relic of a bygone era, this guideline is often promoted by dealers or repair shops eager for business. Instead, read your owner's manual and follow the manufacturer's recommendation for oil-change intervals -- it's often 5,000 to 7,500 miles.
2. Using premium fuel unnecessarily. Don't pay this higher cost unless your owner's manual says premium fuel is "required." High-performance engines like those in Corvettes and some luxury models do really require it. But if premium fuel is just "recommended," you can still buy regular. Michael Calkins of AAA takes this suggestion to heart. "I have a Nissan Murano that recommends premium," he says. "But it runs fine on regular." At recent national averages of $3.78 a gallon for regular and $4.04 for premium, that's a savings of about $4 every time you fill up a 15-gallon tank.
3. Failing to change your air filter. "If you have not changed your air filter by about 40,000 miles, it is probably clogged and hurting your gas mileage," says George Sadowski. That MPG penalty could be as much as 10% to 15%, he estimates. So if your mechanic recommends a fresh filter after about 25,000 miles, say yes.
4. Failing to check the brake pads. Most mechanics will raise this issue periodically, but you should suggest it if not. Getting timely pad replacement can help you avoid later (and much more expensive) repair to the brake drums or rotors, Sadowski advises. Replacing the pads should cost less than $150.
5. Buying mileage-boosting additives and devices. On auto racing shows and other sports programs, ads are nearly constant for oil additives or devices -- like magnets on the fuel lines -- that will supposedly improve your car's mileage. "I've never seen any good scientific study proving that any of this works," says the AAA's Calkins. "They come out of the woodwork whenever gas prices go up."
6. Tune-ups for your engine or air conditioning. Another relic of a bygone era, this is still a popular promotion to drum up business. "Modern engines are constantly being tuned by on-board computers," says Calkins. "And as for air conditioning, if it is blowing cold air, it is fine. If it isn't, get it fixed."
7. Changing coolant. Mechanics or dealers will often say you need to have the engine coolant flushed out and replaced. That's only true if you have plenty of miles on it. Modern coolant -- you'll know it because it's usually brown or light red -- is engineered to last five years or 50,000 miles, says Calkins. That's about double the lifespan of the old-style green coolant.
8. Ignoring your check-engine light. This amber light on your dash, which in some cars says "service engine soon," indicates a problem with the fuel or emission system. A malfunctioning oxygen sensor, often the reason for the light, can hurt your gas mileage. (See 5 Questions to Ask Your Mechanic.) And an out-of-kilter fuel mix, if ignored too long, could harm the engine."You could wind up with a $1,000 repair job instead of what could have been a $150 job," cautions Calkins.
9. Buying expensive performance tires. When it is time to replace your tires, the dealer rep or salesman at the tire shop may try to convince you that you need the super-grip performance tires that come with sports cars and other high-performance vehicles. But they can sometimes cost twice as much, Calkins notes, and because they are made of softer rubber, they often do not last as long. And let's get real: Are you driving an Indy track or circling the mall looking for parking?
10. Paying for built-in navigation. If you are buying a new car, taking the factory navigation system can cost $2,000 or more. Calkins points out that most smart phones now have navigation options that work just as well and carry free updates of their maps, unlike the built-in systems.
You can't control the price of gas. But by paying attention to your maintenance schedule and doing just enough -- but not more than you really need -- you can keep from wasting money on your other automotive costs.