Some drivers appear to have great luck keeping their vehicles trouble free for many years—even decades. Others don’t even make it past 60,000 miles without major problems. The longevity of your vehicle can depend on what type you own, but driving and maintenance habits also are crucial. A few proven techniques—some easy, some more complex but worth the effort—can help keep your vehicle running beyond the 300,000-mile mark.
Coast as much as possible. Plan your approach to red lights, stop signs and turns long before you reach them. Don’t accelerate unnecessari—ly and then step on the brake at the last moment—that wears down brakes quickly.
Accelerate slowly. Avoid jackrabbit starts. Flooring the gas pedal when the engine is cold is a major reason for blown head gaskets, which are expensive to fix. Drive as though you have an egg between your foot and the gas pedal. Reserve rapid acceleration for emergency situations.
Allow the engine to get hot. To help flush contaminants, such as fuel and moisture, from the motor oil, drive at highway speeds for 30 minutes at least once a month.
Delay heating or cooling. To prevent adding an extra load on the engine, allow it to run for a minute so that it is lubricated before you turn on the windshield defroster or air conditioner.
Run the air conditioner or windshield defroster at least once a month (even in cooler weather) for about a minute to circulate oil through the heating and cooling system. Otherwise, oil may settle in the compressor, causing the system to stop operating.
Use the parking brake. If you don’t use it at least once a week while parked—even if you’re not parked on an incline—the parking brake can freeze up and fail to release.
Wind down turbocharged engines. The engine should be allowed to idle a few minutes before you shut it down. This allows the turbo to stop spinning while it is still being lubricated with motor oil. (Don’t close the garage door until the engine is off.)
Avoid two-footed driving. Using the left foot to brake can lead to unconscious riding of the brakes, which wears them out and confuses the engine control computer, possibly leading to stalling, surging and high emissions.
With manual transmissions, use the brakes and not the gears to slow down—brakes are cheaper to replace than the transmission. For most manual transmission vehicles, aim to operate the engine between 2,000 and 3,000 revolutions per minute (RPM) to avoid overworking or over-revving the engine. Don’t keep the clutch pedal pressed any more than necessary. Keep your hand off the gear shift when driving to avoid excess strain on the transmission. Don’t necessarily park in gear—if another car bumps into yours while yours is in gear, the transmission could be damaged. Exception: Park in gear is for extra traction on inclines.
With automatic transmissions, shift into park when idling for extended periods to allow the transmission to cool down. Don’t idle for long periods in neutral, because some bearings are not lubricated in neutral.
Try to use a gas additive with every fill-up because modern gasoline doesn’t contain enough detergents to keep the fuel system clean. Avoid additives that contain methanol, methyl, alcohol, xylene, toluene or acetone—these can damage the fuel system hoses and pump.
Best: Redline SI-1 or Chevron Techron (usually $7 to $9 per bottle).
Use the octane called for in the vehicle’s owner’s manual. Putting premium fuel in an engine designed for regular, or vice versa, won’t deliver better mileage, and it can cause a buildup of carbon in the combustion chambers, which hurts driving performance.
Don’t let the fuel level drop below one-quarter tank. A low tank promotes condensation, which can damage the fuel pump.
Don’t fill the tank to the top of the filler neck. Topping off after the gas hose clicks can damage the evaporative emission canister, which will cause the “check engine” light to come on. Repairs could cost more than $500.
Determine the normal life expectancy for major parts so that you can replace them before they fail.
Example: Most people never think to replace their radiator, but a radiator should be changed every 10 years or 150,000 miles—or sooner, depending on your driving conditions.
Rotate tires every 7,500 miles to extend tire life and improve gas mileage. (Some vehicles have tires that cannot be swapped from front to back or side to side.) It’s also a good opportunity for your technician to check the vehicle for potential problems, such as leaks or parts that are about to fail.
Have the battery tested annually at a shop that uses a “conductance” tester, which can predict battery life. When the battery wears out, replace it with an Absorbent Glass Mat (AGM) battery, which lasts at least twice as long as an ordinary battery, offers more cranking power, recharges faster and increases starter and alternator life. AGM batteries are sealed and don’t vent explosive gases or cause corrosion of the cables or nearby electrical components, as conventional batteries do. Examples of AGM batteries: Optima, Odyssey (prices start at $130).
If the battery can be opened up, you can top off the electrolyte (fluid). Use distilled water only for this.
Clean the throttle body and fuel injectors every 30,000 miles—unless a gas additive is used regularly.
Change spark plugs every 60,000 miles. Replace plug wires, if applicable, every 100,000 to 120,000 miles.
OTHER HELPFUL STEPS
Keep only a few keys on the ignition key ring. The extra weight from a fistful of keys will wear out the ignition switch prematurely in some vehicles.
Use a car cover if you don’t garage your vehicle. It reduces environmental damage to the paint and sun damage to the interior. Best: Covers ranging from $80 to $400 available at www.autochic.com (800-351-0605).
Use a windshield sunshade or dashboard cover to preserve the dash vinyl when parked in the sun.
WHEN TO CHANGE THE OIL, BRAKE FLUID…
The owner’s manual often does not include recommendations for the change intervals for important fluids and filters, or the recommended intervals may be too far apart. Use the guidelines below unless the manufacturer recommends shorter intervals…
Oil. The old rule of thumb for oil changes is every three months or 3,000 miles, but if you drive in a mild climate or use synthetic oil, this may be too frequent. If you drive in more severe conditions, it might not be frequent enough. Better: Have your oil analyzed every few years with a test kit (available from Oil Analyzers Inc., 800-956-5695, www.oaitesting.com). This will tell you whether you change the oil often enough for your kind of driving, and it will warn you of potential problems.
Example: Finding trace amounts of coolant or sand (silica) in the oil allows you to take corrective action before the engine is damaged.
Brake fluid. Every two years or 24,000 miles, whichever comes first, for vehicles with an antilock braking system (ABS). Every three years or 36,000 miles for those without ABS. Use DOT 5.1 synthetic brake fluid, which has good corrosion inhibitors.
Power steering fluid. Every two years or 24,000 miles.
Long-life radiator coolant. Every three years or 36,000 miles. Buy premixed coolant, or mix it yourself with distilled water, not tap water, which can cause mineral deposits to plug up the radiator.
Transmission fluid for automatic transmissions. Every three years or 36,000 miles in front-wheel-drive vehicles… every five years or 50,000 miles in rear-wheel-drive vehicles. Synthetic transmission fluid extends the interval by one year or 10,000 miles.
Transmission fluid for manual transmissions. Every 60,000 miles, or 100,000 miles when using synthetic transmission fluid.
Fuel filter. At least every 50,000 miles. A partially blocked fuel filter can cause premature failure of the fuel pump. Best: Use the same brand of filter that the factory supplied.