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Car Maintenance Made Easy

Americans are holding on to their cars longer than ever. Keeping an older vehicle on the road is simple with these doable tips from the experts.

By Dan Tynan

Though it pains me to admit this, I drive a 14-year-old minivan that has not looked spiffy since Clinton was president. It goes from 0 to 60 in about 10 minutes. The once-white exterior is now greenish gray, thanks to an algae-like life form that took up residence underneath the paint. On good days the inside smells like a wet dog. You don't want to know about bad days.

Still, it has two clear advantages over a new car: It's paid off and, well, it's paid off. Our goal is to keep this baby rolling until the wheels fall off or my 14-year-old son is old enough to terrorize other motorists, in which case he'll inherit it. (He has already stated his intention to paint the van jet black, sell it, and use that money to "get something better." As if.)

It turns out we're in good company. Due to the shaky economy, people are holding on to cars much longer than they did just two years ago, says John Nielsen, director of auto repair and buying for the Automobile Association of America (AAA). The average age of a passenger vehicle on U.S. roads is now 10.6 years, according to research firm R.L. Polk, and climbing steadily.

There's no secret to keeping an aging vehicle roadworthy. Maintenance is key, along with some TLC. These days you can even add aftermarket extras like an entertainment system or a rear-view camera to give the vehicle some of that "new car" feel, if not the smell. But first off, start with the basics.

Go by the book. You know that owner's manual in the glove box, buried under a fistful of fast-food ketchup packets? Look inside at the maintenance schedule and update your calendar's upcoming tasks list so you remember when you need to bring your car to the service center, says Eric Brock, a retired car technician who now fields auto-related questions on JustAnswer.com.

"Recommended maintenance schedules don't exist just to rip you off," he says. "They were created by the engineers who designed your vehicle and can save you tons of money. The number one reason for engine and transmission failure is customer neglect."

Lubricate as indicated. Changing your oil on schedule is critically important, says Melody Schuette, marketing director for Chevrolet Buick Cadillac GMC Certified Service. With today's synthetic oils, cars can now go 5,000 or even 10,000 miles between changes (no matter how much your father-in-law insists on "three months or 3,000 miles").

Most cars built in the last 10 years have sensors that alert you when the oil needs changing, as well as when to swap out air or fuel filters and top up brake, transmission, and radiator fluids. Heed the signals and you should be fine.

Keep up the pressure. Properly inflated tires prolong your car's life and save you money at the pump, says Lauren Fix, author of Lauren Fix's Guide to Loving Your Car (St. Martin's Griffin) and the Car Coach website (laurenfix.com).

"Check tire pressure at least once a month," she says. "It can add 2 to 3 miles per gallon to your wheels' MPG. If everybody did this monthly, it would save 2 billion gallons of gas a year."

Amy Marentic, a planning manager for Ford Motor Company, recommends ignoring pressure guidelines printed on the tires. Because optimal tire pressure varies depending on the weight of the vehicle, it's better to go by the owner's manual. Check tires when they're cold, and don't overinflate.

Tread carefully. Check the tread to see if tires need replacing or are wearing more on one side, which means they need to be rotated and could signify an alignment issue. If there's no tread-wear indicator (a small bar perpendicular to the tread that indicates the minimum depth), a coin will suffice, says Tom Kenny of Hankook Tire America Corporation. "Place a penny, upside down, in the thickest groove of the tire," he says. "If the top of Lincoln's head is visible, the tire needs to be replaced immediately. If the top of Lincoln's hair is partially visible, you have a little time. If the tread covers Lincoln's forehead, you're good for now."

Switch your wipers. Wait too long to change blades and you could scratch your windshield, which runs $400 or more to replace, says Fix. Fresh wipers also mean better visibility. To extend their life, protect them in bad weather. Before a snowstorm, Marentic puts the blades up and covers them with sweat socks (yes, really).

Come clean. Wash the car at least once a month and wax the exterior four times a year to fight rust and corrosion, says AAA's Nielsen. Vacuum the interior regularly. Marentic recommends getting rubber floor mats or the absorbent pads used for housebreaking puppies to soak up excess water during the wet months.

"People think a soaking rainstorm now and then is a good-enough wash job," says Robert Gal, an accessories development manager for Volkswagen. "They're definitely mistaken."

Still, even the best-maintained car will eventually falter. "When a repair costs more than the value of the car, it's time to move on," says Fix. Edmunds.com or YahooCars can tell you what your wheels would fetch on the open market. Typically, people get rid of vehicles long before the scrap heap beckons, simply because they're tired of them, says Nielsen. Thinking long-term makes much more sense when it comes to cost per mile driven. "Keep a car for just five years and the depreciation kills you," he says. "If you drive it for 10 years, your cost per mile goes down by more than 40 percent. Economically, that's excellent."

Who knows? Maybe my son is destined to madly fall in love—with a jet-black minivan.

Originally published in the May 2011 issue of Family Circle magazine.

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