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Why your car needs a spring checkup

If winter was tough where you live, you can be sure your car suffered the effects of that cold and snow. Now is the time for a spring maintenance checkup to counter the effects of winter and be sure you are ready for a summer road trip.

So take your car to a dealership or independent mechanic, if you have one you trust, and get it checked out. The shop will go through a basic check list, but keep in mind some problems that might be overlooked in a routine check.

Auto maintenance experts we interviewed suggested watching for these issues:

Potholes may have damaged your suspension. "Potholes are becoming a huge problem," says Mike Calkins, manager of technical services for AAA. As funds for road repair have been scarce, more city streets have developed crater-like potholes that can do damage. Calkins suggests that if your car doesn't drive straight ahead when you briefly take your hands off the wheel, make sure your mechanic checks the suspension and the wheel alignment.

Cold weather may have damaged engine belts and hoses. A broken belt or hose can cause problems from losing power to engine overheating, but they are easily overlooked. If you check under the hood before taking the car in for a checkup, look for cracks and peeling on the belts and softening on the hoses.

Winter may have caused problems with the oxygen sensor. You may not be familiar with this engine component, but it is important to gas mileage. This sensor is the top reason the "check engine" light on your dashboard goes on, according to car repair web site CarMD. Because it is involved in setting the fuel mix going into your engine, a faulty oxygen sensor can reduce your gas mileage by as much as 40 percent, according to CarMD experts. While replacing this sensor typically costs about $250 in parts and labor, it may help you avoid more expensive repairs later.

While watching out for these potentially overlooked problems, make sure your auto shop or dealer goes over the basics.

  • Batteries. While cold weather is hard on cars, don't feel too smug if you live in a warmer climate. Summer heat causes its own problems. Mike Calkins of AAA says his organization's roadside service assists about 1.6 million motorists with failed batteries every summer. Many auto shops and auto parts stores will give you a free test to measure the strength of your battery.
  • Tires. Make sure your tires are wearing evenly, counsels Bob Madison, director of technical services at CarMD. And keep them inflated to recommended pressure, he adds, since underinflated tires can hurt gas mileages. Most cars have the recommended tire inflation numbers on a plaque visible when the driver's door is open.
  • Brakes. Your brakes may need attention if your car pulls to one side when you are stopping, says Calkins of AAA. Be alert also for what Calkins describes as "weird noises -- squeals or thunks" when you hit the brakes.

In addition to these issues, bring up any other problems you have noticed. "Tell the technician everything about the car," says Madison of CarMD, "even a problem that may seem minor."

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