Taking the pulse
of your car
By Karen J. Bannan
OIL CHANGES FUNCTION as mini checkups for your car. In the past, every three
months or 3,000 miles you’d stop in and a set
of professional eyes would give your car a
once-over, looking for any potential problems
or issues. Today, however, the use of synthetic
oil is pushing those checkups out to 5,000,
10,000 and in some cases even 25,000 miles
between changes, which means preventive
maintenance (and those mini checkups) take
a backseat to the convenience of driving past
your mechanic’s shop.
But with less time in front of a professional mechanic, little problems can grow into
big—and expensive—ones even when cars
are still under warranty. The takeaway,
according to car mechanics and other professionals: It’s up to owners to take care of their
cars to help them stay on the road.
“Once a month you should drive 20 miles
A little DIY basic maintenance can
without the radio. No kids, either. Just get in,
drive and listen,” suggests Dave Buchanan, a
Costco member who is the director of First
Choice Automotive in Joppa, Maryland.
“Listen for weird sounds, humming and
buzzing, because for every dollar in preven-
tive repairs you catch it’s going to save you $7
in emergency repairs.”
Buchanan says strange noises can signal
the beginning of suspension, brake and trans-
help avoid big problems and expense
mission issues. You should also keep track of
gas mileage, since a dip in efficiency may
mean something is amiss.
Here are other areas to check:
Tire pressure and alignment. Tire pressure is lowest when your car is cold, so take a
reading before you start your car and after
you get to your destination if your car isn’t
equipped with an automatic gauge. Check
your owner’s manual for your target pressure
range. Improperly inflated tires will suffer.
If your tires are under-inflated the outer
edges will wear first; over-inflated tires wear
from the middle out. This can result in having
to replace them prematurely, says Costco
member John Brennan, who owns Specialty
Repair in Alpharetta, Georgia. “Between 30
and 40 percent of the life of the tire can be lost
if it’s not inflated correctly,” he says.
Gas mileage suffers too. You’ll want to
consider rotating the tires and getting an
alignment once a year.
Oil and fluid levels. Oil leaks may be
associated with older cars, but even new cars
can leak or burn oil, says Costco member Joe
Saitta, manager of TLC Auto and Truck
Center in Farmingdale, New York. “One
quart per 1,000 miles is allowable,” he says,
“but if you’ve got a 5-quart capacity and you’re
going 5,000 miles between oil changes you’re
going to have a problem.”
Saitta suggests checking your oil at least
once a month. Other fluid levels to check
include coolant, transmission fluid and wind-
shield-wiper fluid. Coolant levels should be
slightly above the low mark when your engine
is cold. Brake fluid should be at the suggested
level and clear. If water gets into the system it
will make the fluid look brown or black, says
Saitta, which can lead to rusty brakes. “In that
case, it’s time for a brake service,” he says.
Headlights, taillights and turn signals.
Having a missing taillight makes it harder for
other drivers to figure out what you’re doing,
and it can cost you money if you’re pulled over.
Jon Kazary, manager of Linden, New Jersey–
based Kenwall Auto, says you should check all
headlights, taillights and turn signals at least
once a month, and be aware of how bright the
lights are, too.
“As the UV protection starts to yellow it
will make lights appear dimmer,” he says. He
suggests buying a headlight renovation kit,
which will clear up dullness on lenses and help
you see better at night too.
Body cleanliness and integrity. Keeping
your car clean is imperative, especially for
newer cars, says Buchanan, as many states
and countries have moved toward more envi-
ronmentally friendly water-based automotive
paints. Those paints, says Buchanan, “just will
not withstand bird poop.”
Wash cars monthly, wax every six months
and fix dings and scratches that reach the
metal, he says, to help avoid rust and rot. C
Costco member Karen J. Bannan is a freelance
writer and editor who lives in New York.
The Costco Connection
Costco and Costco.com offer a variety of
do-it-yourself maintenance items, including
a tire inflator with a tire pressure gauge,
headlight repair kit, wash and wax items,
engine oil and more.