Best Ways to Keep Your Car Running
1. Don't Drive
Want your car to last? Don't use it. That sounds obvious, but it's worth keeping in mind.
Chances are there are plenty of times when you currently use your car that you could be walking, biking, using public transportation or carpooling — choices that are better for the environment, your wallet, your health, and the car you won't be driving. It's simple: The less you drive, the longer your car will last.
2. Make Fewer Short Trips
Short trips of less than 10 minutes can be particularly hard on a car, resulting in excessive wear and tear. During a short trip, your car's engine never has a chance to reach its full operating temperature.
So what? Here's why it matters: One of the byproducts of engine combustion is water. When an engine reaches its operating temperature that water turns to vapor and is expunged, either out the tailpipe or the crankcase ventilation system. On a short trip, however, that water stays inside your car's engine and exhaust. Unfortunately, water is one of only three ingredients necessary to make rust (you've already got the other two, oxygen and metal), and rust kills. Look at any of my brother's cars.
A further complication of condensation and water is that it dilutes your oil, which then does a poorer job of lubricating the engine. If you can't avoid taking lots of short trips, we recommend you change your oil frequently, such as every 2,000-3,000 miles.
3. When Shopping for a New Car, Choose Carefully
If you're in the market for a new car — and you'd like that car to last until the start of the Sasha Obama administration — be sure to choose a car company that's going to be around for a while, with a good reputation for supplying parts.
Here's a sad but true fact: Too many perfectly good-running cars are junked because it's hard to get parts for them. So here's our recommendation: Talk to your local independent mechanic and find a company that has a good reputation for supplying parts for its older vehicles. Our personal favorites are Volvo, Toyota and Saab (although everything is subject to change these days). These brands have a reputation for longevity, so it's understandable that they'd want to make sure they make parts available for many years.
4. Drive Gently
When you drive, do your car a favor and drive gently.
Think of your car like your own body. What's more likely to land you in a full-body cast: A gentle walk around the park, or a season of rugby? We rest our case.
What does "drive gently" mean? It means accelerating slowly, not snapping your head back. It means anticipating your braking so you can brake gently and avoid panic stops. It means not revving your engine in the driveway when it's cold, before the oil is warm and freely circulating.
If it's below freezing outside, allow your car a minute or so to warm up before driving it hard. Then drive slowly for another minute or two, until the engine oil has warmed up and started to fully lubricate all the components.
Finally, if your car is new, follow the break-in recommendations in your owner's manual. Regardless of the manufacturer's recommendation, we advise changing your car's oil after your inaugural 1,000 miles.
5. Watch for Engine Warning Signs
It's OK to drive your car short distances with certain warning lights illuminated or gauges out of their normal range, but there are three that you dismiss at your car's peril: the engine oil light, the engine temperature gauge and the brake light. A few minutes of an excessively hot engine or low oil pressure and the groceries you're hauling in the back could suddenly be worth more than your car. A couple of minutes with the brake light on and you might end up playing bumper cars with the Cadillac Escalade ahead of you. The one being driven by Tony Soprano. In a bad mood.
Get in the habit of glancing at your engine's temperature gauge and warning lights. If the idiot lights come on, pull over as soon as it's safe to do so and shut off the engine. You might just save yourself an expensive engine rebuild — much to the disappointment of your mechanic.
6. Unload Extra Weight
Most of us know what it feels like to be hauling a few extra doughnuts around the midriff, so to speak. It places extra demands on our engine, and it creates suspension, braking and even exhaust problems. If you catch our drift.
It's no different with your car. Extra weight adds stress to critical systems and causes premature wear. Check your car right now. What's in there that can come out? Toss out the four bowling balls, the barbells and the lead-lined box of plutonium fuel rods. You might even consider removing your mother-in-law — as long as she doesn't have to come inside the house, that is.
You should also remove anything that causes additional drag. Creating aerodynamic drag is similar to adding weight in that it increases the demand on your engine, so think about removing the big, flat bug shield that sticks up above your hood. Remove any roof racks you're not actively using, and take the cargo carrier off the top of the minivan. We know it gives you some hope of looking cool, like you do something besides haul kids around, but it's killing your gas mileage and making your engine work harder.
7. Do Your Regular Maintenance
Skipping regularly scheduled maintenance intervals is one of the quickest ways to assure your car finds its way to an early grave. Regular oil changes and oil, fuel and air filter changes all help make sure your car has what it needs to run without problems: clean air and clean fuel, plus fresh, uncontaminated oil to prevent wear and tear.
An added bonus to regular service? It gives good mechanics an opportunity to spot problems before they balloon into something more serious.
If you're wondering how often to do these things, there's a book that explains it all to you. It's called the owner's manual. You'll find it in your glove box, shrink-wrapped in plastic, because — if you're like most of us — you've probably never looked at it. In the back you'll find a list of service intervals, and the services that are recommended during each of them. If intervals in the book stop at 120,000 miles, that doesn't mean you're done with maintenance. Go back to the beginning and start over (so, for instance, do all the services called for in the 7,500-mile service at 127,500). Nice try, though.
By the way, if you're fretting over the ongoing cost of routine service, remember our maxim: "It's the stingy man who makes the most boat payments!"
8. Change Oil and Other Vital Fluids
Your car's fluids will often be changed during regular service intervals, but it's important enough that we wanted to mention it separately. As you drive your car, and even if it just sits in the driveway, your car's fluids degrade.
That's a problem because each of the fluids in your car is vital to the long-term health of the engine, transmission, steering or brakes. Simply keeping the fluids topped off isn't enough because over time they lose important properties — like their ability to remove heat and lubricate, as well as the ability to prevent rust and freezing.
What fluids are we talking about? Transmission, differential, brake and power-steering fluid; oil; and antifreeze. Windshield washer fluid? Not so important.
Regular transmission and differential fluid changes are often overlooked, but this service is very important. If you really want to keep your car forever, our suggestion is to get these fluids changed every 60,000 miles whether your owner's manual recommends it or not. Fresh, clean transmission fluid assures that your car's drivetrain stays cool and uncontaminated. Some cars, by the way, have two separate differentials. Be sure to ask your mechanic if yours is one, and make sure that both sets of differential oil get changed. It's easy to overlook this particular service, but you do so at your own peril: A cooked differential can cost thousands of dollars to repair. Routine maintenance service is much less expensive; it should cost about $150 to get your transmission fluid flushed and replaced, and another $100 to do both differentials.
By the way, if your mechanic tries to sell you new blinker fluid, lace up your Pro-Keds and run out of there as fast as you can.
9. Get Problems Checked Out Sooner Rather Than Later
This is like saying "Don't let a cold turn into pneumonia." If you have a small problem with your car, get it checked out sooner rather than later.
For example, a torn CV boot is a common problem and a simple repair. Delay getting it fixed, though, and you'll eventually end up by the side of the road, unable to drive and forced to fork over some additional money for a tow and a whole new axle.
That's just one example. There are many other problems that start small but balloon into something much larger if they're not addressed right away. Don't believe in this theory? Talk to the secretary of the Treasury Department.
Above all, make sure your car is safe to drive. If you have any doubts about such things as brakes, brake lines, ball joints, tie rods, airbags, seat belts or even the structural integrity of your car, get it checked out. Remember: Even though you want your car to last a long time, you still want to outlive your car.
10. Find a Mechanic You Trust
Find a mechanic you trust intuitively. Think of maintaining your car as a partnership between you and your mechanic. Or, more precisely, between your bank account and the bank holding the loan on your mechanic's yacht. Money only moves in one direction, and in exchange you get a car that runs reliably.
Having a good working relationship with your mechanic will enable you to make wise decisions when the time comes — and you won't have nagging doubts about the truthfulness of what you're being told. This is such an important point we wrote an entire feature on how to develop a great relationship with your mechanic. All platonic, mind you.
How do you find a great mechanic? When you find someone you think you like, ask for recommendations from longtime customers. If you're new to an area, or your mechanic just retired to the Home for Aged Grease Monkeys, ask friends or try searching our database of recommended mechanics, the Mechanics Files.
11. Discuss Your Plans With Your Mechanic
Not everyone wants a car to last for 200,000 miles. As a result, mechanics don't always have a long-term mindset when they perform routine service.
If your mechanic knows you're in this for the long term, he'll spend a little more time looking things over when you bring in your car.
You'll need to remind him regularly that you're hoping for a long, healthy life for your car. Ask him to keep that in mind as he works on your car. Like everyone else, mechanics can be myopic. They tend to focus on the boat payment at hand, and can easily overlook important signs and symptoms that might be right next to their elbows.
12. If You Can't Avoid Salt, Wash Your Car Frequently
If you live in a part of the country that gets more than a few inches of snow during the winter, you're probably very familiar with the ravages of road salt.
By kick-starting rust, salt wreaks havoc on the body and other components. Our advice is simple: During the winter, when there's salt on the roads, wash your car's undercarriage as often as possible. You'll remove much of the salt that's eating away your car, and that's a good thing.
13. Skip the Heated Garage
Garages and carports are great things. Do you want to spend 10 minutes every morning during the winter freezing your bolts off, scraping ice and snow off your car? Of course not!
A garage allows you to avoid that supreme morning hassle, and it also helps slow the steady deterioration of your car's interior and exterior caused by bright sun and storms.
However, there's a big exception to this rule: heated garages. Our advice is to skip the heated garage, which can accelerate your car's march towards its grave. Here's why: Heat accelerates oxidation, also known as rust. You drive in the garage with snow and ice on your car, it melts, and the water and salt mix in that nice, warm petri dish and, come morning, there's less of your car there.
14. Be Proud!
Owning an older car should be a source of pride. You're showing that you're sensible, not swayed by the latest models and capable of keeping your car well maintained. Who knows? That sort of no-frills common sense can be very appealing to members of the opposite sex. It might even land you a date! After all, who wants somebody who's always got his eye on a new model?
Even if it doesn't score you the babe or hunk of your dreams, owning an older car can offer you something else: a truly liberating experience. You no longer care about scratches, dents or bird droppings.
And, best of all? It's paid for!
So who cares what your neighbors think? Shoot them a broad, smug smile the next time they eye your jalopy puttering down the street.