It used to be that drivers were lucky to get 100,000 miles out of their vehicles. But now it’s not uncommon for cars to last 200,000… 250,000…or even 300,000 miles. That means car owners can wait much longer before they have to pony up for new autos. Reasons…
• Today’s engines suffer much less wear than those made just 15 years ago, in part because of changes that automakers have made to meet EPA emissions standards.
• Car bodies and frames are much less susceptible to corrosion and rust.
• Today’s lubricants and fluids do a great job protecting key automotive components.
But the number of miles you get with your car depends in large part on how well the vehicle is maintained. Eight simple ways to avoid the major problems that hurt performance and send cars to the salvage yard sooner that you might hope…
1. Pay extra for synthetic motor oil and a high-quality filter when you have your oil changed. Synthetic oil can cost much more than conventional petroleum-based motor oil—perhaps $10 a quart—and it can add $20 to $40 to the cost of an oil change. But it also can extend the life of your engine. Synthetics are less likely to degrade when engine temperatures get very hot, and they remain more fluid in extreme cold.
Caution: Not every motor oil that is labeled “synthetic” is a high-quality product, so choose one that’s well-regarded throughout the automotive industry, such as Amsoil or Mobil 1. (Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual to confirm that a particular type of oil is appropriate for your car.)
It’s worth spending a little extra for a high-quality oil filter, too. These are significantly better than bargain-basement filters at removing particulates from engine oil. They also get oil to the engine faster upon startup. Automaker Kia issued a service bulletin in 2012 warning that it had linked some major engine problems to owners’ use of low-quality oil filters.
Ask your mechanic to use either the specific filter recommended in your owner’s manual or some other high-quality brand-name filter when changing your oil. (A high-end filter could add perhaps $5 to $15 to the cost of the oil change if it is not included in the price of a synthetic oil upgrade.)
2. Check your coolant every 20,000 miles. Most cars made in the past 15 to 20 years use long-life coolants designed to last 100,000 miles or more—but that doesn’t mean it’s safe to ignore your car’s coolant for that long.
Open up the coolant reservoir at least once every 20,000 miles, and take a look. Have the coolant replaced if it is dark red rather than orange…feels gritty between your fingers…and/or smells burnt. These symptoms point to rust in the coolant system, which could inhibit coolant flow and lead to engine overheating and failure. If your coolant looks milky, immediately take the car to a mechanic—motor oil is getting into the coolant, and engine work might be needed.
If your car uses traditional green ethylene glycol coolant, replace this every two years or 24,000 miles.
3. Check your power steering and brake fluids every 20,000 miles. Take the car to your mechanic to have these fluids examined and, most likely, replaced if the brake fluid is rust-colored or feels gritty…or if the power steering fluid appears dark, smells burnt or feels gritty.
Discolored or gritty fluids could indicate that water has gotten into the system or, in some cases, that the fluid has overheated in the past. Replacing the fluids usually will solve these problems, but in some cases there might be an underlying issue that needs to be addressed. Keep a close eye on these fluids after they are replaced to see if the problem recurs.
4. Replace the transmission fluid and filter every 35,000 miles. Many owner’s manuals say that you can wait 100,000 miles or more before replacing transmission fluid. Usually that’s true—but not always. If you want to play it safe, replace the transmission fluid at 35,000 to 40,000 miles. It costs $150 to $200 to have transmission fluid replaced—having this done regularly will substantially reduce the odds that you will have to pay $2,000 to $4,000 or more to have your transmission replaced or rebuilt.
Ask the mechanic to use a high-quality synthetic transmission fluid—Mobil 1 and Amsoil are good choices here, too (assuming that these meet the transmission fluid specifications in your car’s owner’s manual). Synthetic transmission fluid lasts longer and protects better when the transmission gets very hot, such as during prolonged stop-and-go driving or when your vehicle is towing a trailer. The greater slipperiness of synthetic transmission fluid can even slightly boost your vehicle’s fuel efficiency.
Also: Immediately check your transmission fluid level if your transmission whines or slips out of gear.
5. Wash away the ravages of road salt. The salt that many states use to melt ice and snow off winter roads can rust away the underside of your car, too. Everything from body panels to brake lines to the frame of the car is at risk.
One way to limit this damage is to take the car to a car wash for an underbody wash after every major snow or ice storm. (Wait until temperatures climb above freezing to do this.)
There are many products and processes that claim to protect against the risk of rust from road salts, but most are either unproved or ineffective, particularly when rust already has a foothold on a car.
6. Have your timing belt inspected regularly. Most modern auto engines have a timing belt that synchronizes the rotation of the crankshaft and the camshaft(s). Your engine could be ruined if this timing belt snaps.
Owner’s manuals typically recommend replacing this belt every 50,000 to 100,000 miles. Definitely follow this advice. (If your vehicle’s owner’s manual does not mention timing belt replacement, it probably means that your vehicle has a timing chain rather than a belt. Timing chains do not generally require regular replacement.)
But if your car has what’s called an “interference engine”—an engine where the valves and pistons collide and destroy one another if the timing belt fails—it’s worth going a step further. (Your mechanic or dealership should be able to tell you if your car has an interference or noninterference engine.) Ask your mechanic to thoroughly inspect the timing belt every 25,000 miles or so between replacement intervals, particularly after your vehicle’s warranty ends.
With most vehicles, this inspection will require removing certain parts at the top of the engine, but this should take the mechanic only around 30 minutes.
7. Give your radiator hoses a squeeze every 20,000 miles. If the hoses feel firm and resilient, all is well. But if they feel mushy and soft or are cracked and brittle, replace all the radiator hoses. If one hose is showing signs of age, the rest likely aren’t far behind.
New radiator hoses, which are not expensive and won’t take a mechanic very long to install, could save your car from major damage. A blown hose could quickly lead to an overheated and badly damaged—or completely ruined—engine.
8. Frequent a good mechanic. One of the best ways to keep a car running well is to find a mechanic who will help you identify automotive issues before they become serious.
Bring your car to a good mechanic whenever you hear it make a strange sound or notice a change in the way it handles.
Also bring your vehicle to the mechanic when you need an oil change or another basic service. A mechanic might charge a little more for this service than a quick-oil-change place would, but this gives your mechanic an additional opportunity to give your vehicle a once-over.
Choosing a mechanic: It’s a good sign if a mechanic has been in the community for many years…has a relatively clean shop…has a friendly, helpful employee behind the counter…and is AAA-approved (AAA.com/approved-auto-repair) and/or ASE certified (ASE.com, select “Car Owners,” then “Find an ASE Blue Seal Facility Near You”). Dealerships usually have high-quality mechanics, but they tend to charge a lot if the vehicle is no longer under warranty.