Drive Smart: What Car Maintenance Do I Need?

Timely maintenance can head off costly repair bills

Q: I’m on a tight budget. Besides regular oil changes, what other important maintenance might save me from expensive repairs as my car gets older?

A: If you have more than a few years of driving experience, you’re probably familiar with the indicators of potentially catastrophic car repairs. You know to stop and pull off to the side of the road if a flashing (as opposed to a steady) “Check Engine” light appears, if the oil-pressure warning light comes on, or if the coolant-temperature gauge heads into the red zone. Keep driving and you risk demolishing your car’s engine or—in the case of tires or brakes—jeopardizing your safety.

But there are some potential automotive disasters that give either a subtle warning or none at all:

Underinflated tires. Tires low on air pose a safety risk, waste fuel, and can self-destruct. A tire-pressure monitoring system (TPMS) has been standard on cars since model year 2008; a dash warning light indicates loss of pressure in one or more tires. Yet according to a survey by Schrader International, a maker of TPMS components, 42 percent of drivers fail to identify the light when it comes on. Cost to properly inflate tires: around $5 for a tire-pressure gauge. Cost to replace a set of tires: $500 or more. Incidentally, the TPMS light comes on only after a tire is 25 percent or more underinflated, which is dangerously low. Check the pressure at least once a month. The correct pressure can be found in the owner’s manual or on the driver’s doorjamb.

Skipped fluid changes. At one or more points in a car’s life, automakers may require that the cooling system and the brake and transmission fluids be replaced. Scheduled changes vary considerably among car manufacturers. Check your owner’s manual. You can also have a repair shop you trust test a fluid to see if it’s contaminated or has lost its strength and is ready for a change. Cost to change the transmission fluid: $200. Cost to replace a transmission: $2,000 and up.

Failed oxygen sensor. Several conditions can trigger the steady glow of a “Check Engine” light. High on the list is a defective oxygen sensor. The little gizmo’s job is to monitor the oxygen level of the exhaust so that the engine’s computer can adjust fuel levels for maximum efficiency. When it fails, the engine may not get enough fuel or it may run “rich,” gulping down fuel—which will cost you money. Your wallet will take an even bigger hit if excess fuel destroys the car’s catalytic converter. Cost to replace a sensor: $250 or more. Cost to replace a catalytic converter: at least $500, maybe more.

Worn brake pads. Disc brakes tend to squeal when you apply them—annoying but often harmless (still, have it checked out). But if the brakes squeal when you’re not depressing the pedal or if you hear grinding noises when you depress it, the problem could be serious. Have your car looked at right away—very likely, it’s time for new brake pads. Ignore the noise, and metal-to-metal contact in the brake system will result in deeply scored rotors that must be replaced. Cost to change pads: as little as $250 per axle. Cost to replace rotors: an additional $100 to $200 for each rotor (one per wheel).

Aged timing belt. The timing belt operates the camshaft, which opens and closes the engine valves. It’s inside the engine and can’t easily be inspected. Some engines use a timing chain instead, which doesn’t need regular replacement. But if a timing belt breaks, valves may collide with pistons, essentially destroying the engine. So you’re flirting with disaster if you fail to replace your car’s timing belt according to your owner’s manual’s recommendations. You should replace several related items at the same time, including the water pump and various seals. Cost to change a timing belt: $500 to $800. Cost of a new engine: $4,000 and up—way up, in some cases.

You can ignore any of these factors and motor on, perhaps for many miles. But eventually they’ll get you in the wallet, big-time. So it’s best to simply heed the old adage: Don’t be penny-wise and pound foolish.

Photo (top): Thinkstock

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