After what seemed like an endless winter, you may be planning to hit the road for a spring or summer road trip. Just take this factoid as a warning: AAA roadside service estimates that it helps more than 9 million stranded motorists during a summer.
If, like most Americans, you're not driving a fresh-from-the-showroom ride - the average age of passenger vehicles in the U.S. is just over 10 years old - it's time to give your car a little springtime TLC.
"Drivers often overlook their cars when it is spring cleaning time," says Shawn Hoelzer, master technician for CarMax, the largest U.S. chain of used car dealerships. "Following a few easy steps to spruce up your vehicle helps avoid costly repairs."
So take your car to a dealership to get checked out - or, better yet, to an independent mechanic you trust. (See Save $300 on Auto Repair.) Use this spring maintenance checklist to make sure your car is reliable and running efficiently.
Check the battery: You can't get where you are going if the car won't start. "Winter is tough on all the starting components like the starter and alternator. The battery works harder and can get drained," says Jimmie Swims, a specialist at the auto parts chain Auto Zone. Signs of a weak battery: dimming headlights or interior lights; power windows that take longer than usual to go up and down.
Check the brakes: Winter conditions and salt on the roads can lead to corrosion of brake parts; Auto Zone's Swims also points out that anti-lock braking systems get an especially hard workout in winter's slick conditions. Nothing is more crucial to your safety than your brakes, so get them checked. Trouble signs: pulling to one side when you hit the brakes, squeaking or grinding noises and a brake pedal that feels too soft.
Inspect the tires: Worn-down tires make it hard to stop, even if your brakes are in good order. Try the coin test on your tires: Insert a quarter into several grooves across each tire. If part of Washington's head is always covered, you still have 4/32 inch of tread left and can probably drive safely. If you have less tread, it's time to think about replacements. (A definite danger signal comes when you slip a penny into a groove and the tread does not reach Lincoln's head.)
Even if your tire tread are OK, make sure you keep them inflated to the pressure listed on the placard visible when the driver's door is open. You can boost your gas mileage by 3% or more and make the car safer as well. To get an accurate reading, check the pressure of tires when they are cold, not when you have been driving.
Check the belts and hoses: A broken belt or hose can cause problems ranging from the loss of power steering to an overheated engine, but these parts are easily overlooked. Look for cracks and peeling on the belts, softening on the hoses - or ask your mechanic to do it for you. "Broken belts are one of motorists' worst summer breakdown surprises," says Auto Zone's Swims.
Test the air conditioning: Turn on the cooler full blast and make sure it reaches that max chill in short order. If you suspect problems, get a mechanic to check it out soon.
Check your oxygen sensor: This one is obscure, but it is important to gas mileage. Because the sensor helps set the fuel mix going into your engine, a faulty one can cause too much gas to be used - cutting your mileage by up to 40%, warns auto repair web site CarMD. Replacing the sensor, which usually costs less than $200, needs to be done every 30,000 to 50,000 miles. And it is the repair problem that most often causes the "Check Engine" warning to light up near your speedometer, CarMD reports.
Getting a spring checkup for your car not only could avoid a summer breakdown, it could save you money on your monthly gas budget.
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