Do I need to change my car's fluids before this trip? Which ones? Anything else?
September 1, 2010 3:03 PM   Subscribe

Taking my car (previously mentioned here) on a cross-country road trip on Saturday. Need some more advice.

Car: still = 2000 Corolla, about 84K miles, sat outside unused in Maryland for two years, revived and driven around town for a month with no issues. My friend and I will be driving it from Maryland to California on Saturday. I like to research and understand stuff, but I'm kind of flustered and stressed out at this point, so my research isn't yielding solid enough answers.

1) Mechanical advice: when I dusted it off and started driving it again three months ago, the mechanic replaced the battery and the brakes, and checked hoses and such, but he only changed the oil, nothing else (not coolant/transmission/differential/brake/power steering fluid or anything). He said stuff (dirt?) doesn't get into the other fluids and that they looked OK. He said it all still looked OK when he fixed the air conditioning yesterday as well.

Now I'm not sure whether to trust him on that--I'm getting more paranoid about details and things that perhaps should be done preventively. He also said the tires were fine because they have tread left, but after some research I realized that such old tires (7.5 years old, put on in early 2004) are in danger of having the treads separate, especially with 3000 miles of highways, so I'm replacing them.

I'm having the new tires (bought at tirerack) put on tomorrow, and the people doing that (at a Mr. Tire) will also look the car over a bit (fluids and hoses, but no serious opening stuff up), but is there anything else I should do, without throwing money around carelessly? Want it to last for this trip and also a good while beyond that, if I can. I'm unemployed right now but have savings for things that are good investments in car health.

I bought the car used in 2007, and maintenance records show that

-transmission fluid and engine air filter replaced at 75K miles (late 2006).
-engine coolant was replaced in 2004 at 57K miles. It's the slightly older red kind, not the new super-long life kind.

So just going by maintenance guidelines, I guess it should get engine coolant changed at 87K. But does the two years of sitting change things? Can I wait til I get across the country or will having old fluids matter with all that highway driving in heat? (I'd kind of like to learn how to do this myself maybe, though I've never done anything of the sort before, and I don't want to experiment with that now.) Do I also need to do a coolant flush, or just change it? What about other fluids? And then in other places I read that I should have all sorts of other things done, like doing a pressure test on the radiator and changing the that really necessary?

I do know it has a timing chain rather than belt and that those don't get replaced at 90K miles like belts do because they don't break in the same way. It's had regular oil changes.

2) Route stuff (much less vital): is there any place really awesome that we should stop and see? We're not totally sure about the route yet other than stopping in Cleveland and ending up in San Francisco. We have 9 days. I tend to enjoy stuff like peoplewatching and just absorbing how things are different in various parts of the country, light outdoors-y stuff (we won't be camping, though), interesting but cheap food (good pie? we might stop in Pie Town, NM) and queer-related stuff.

3) Any other road trip advice (technical, safe driving, fun) you feel like sharing is welcome. (I've read other threads, but if there's new stuff to add...)
posted by needs more cowbell to Travel & Transportation (21 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
You're basically giving these guys an opportunity to get you to fix every little thing they can find on the car. Remember that they have a financial interest in getting you to get stuff fixed. If they say you're good to go, you're good to go.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 3:06 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: I see what you mean, but..I guess I don't fully trust him after the tire thing. It's great that he's not cheating me, but I think he may have mostly customers that lean toward real frugality who are not taking long road trips.
posted by needs more cowbell at 3:11 PM on September 1, 2010

Mechanically if the mechanic looked it over and said it is ok, it probably is. Changing the tires is a good idea. Tires wear out just sitting there, particularly if it is in the sun. I would also change the windshield wipers. While they have the tires off check to see if the struts are leaking and if the calipers are leaking (probably not but its easy with the tires off). Don't neglect to check the spare and make sure it is aired up and does not have any dry rot or ozone damage. This will look like a find spiderweb of cracks on the surface of the tire and it won't hold good air pressure. In fact if you can you should replace the donut spare with a full size spare-get a rim from a junk yard and put on the best of your take offs or buy the cheapest tire that the shop where you are installing you tire has. In some cars though a full size spare won't fit in the hole the donut is in, so check it out before spending a ton of money. Fix a Flat is ok but of dubious value and can make a tire non-repairable.

The other stuff won't really wear out just sitting. The biggest problem would be leaking seals from drying out. This will show up as oil spots under the car where you park. Best way to tell new from old oil spots is put a collapsed cardboard box under the car and see what shows up overnight. Just in case I would take spare engine oil (in the correct weight), Automatic Transmission Fluid (ATF), power steering fluid, and brake fluid in case you develop a leak during your trip. A portable compressor for airing up tires (or air mattresses)is also good.

I don't know much about the route from cleveland to san francisco but you can pick several routes and choose your sights. I prefer travelling off the interstate myself. When I have broken down ont he interstate I have set for hours until someone pulled over to help me, on the rural two lanes I have never had to wait more than 20 minutes, and that might have been the only car to pass me in 20 minutes. I once had a very kind farmer tow my car with a siezed engine from Luna New Mexico to Twin Arrows Arizona and wouldn't let me buy him a tank of gas. You see better stuff and real america off the interstate. On the intersate you see sound walls, truck stops, trucks and people in hurry to get from A to B. You might as well fly.
posted by bartonlong at 3:27 PM on September 1, 2010

Don't worry so much.... just drive.

I just got back from a 4000 mile trip in a Taurus with 130,000 miles. Did I worry a bit at times? What if? Well, yeah, you're sitting there bored with nothing else to do and it crossed my mind. The car was fine.

You'll be fine, too.
posted by Doohickie at 3:40 PM on September 1, 2010

Get AAA membership before you leave.

Spend some quality time making yourself music playlists before heading out - I know it is last minute, but if you can ask friends to make you mix CDs for your trip, it is great to have an hour of so of unexpected music from a friend.

This may not apply to you but when a friend of mine and I drove x-country, we took some old flannel sheets and used them to cover the seats of the van we were driving. Since they were big, we could rotate them when we got sweaty; it just made it much more comfortable. Similarly, bring your own pillow, it will help you sleep better on the road.

Get off the highway and enjoy driving with the windows open and the radio blasting.

Every time you stop for gas, use the squeegee and wash the windows. If nothing else, it gives you a bit of stretch and some moving around.

Good sunglasses are necessary.
posted by sciencegeek at 3:59 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: I guess...I'm not *so* much worried about breaking down as I am about those things like "well, you wouldn't have blown your head gasket if you'd done XYZ (small preventive thing) like you should have" situations.
posted by needs more cowbell at 4:07 PM on September 1, 2010

Here's what your major concerns are:

#1: Your tires. They're old. Fill 'em up, check the pressures, then check the pressures again the next day. Did they lose more than a pound or so? Expect that to be worse on your trip. It's ideal to carry a 12V air pump that's powered by your cigarette lighter/12V socket. I just did LA to NY to LA in two weeks, and one tire (two years old) went from no problems to having to fill up twice a day, then the day after we got back it went flat completely (turned out to have a screw in it), so the air pump was a godsend. Don't forget to check your spare and have enough cash on hand to buy a new tire if you have to.

#2: Your coolant. It's hot right now in many parts of the country, and your A/C is fixed (good) but your coolant has to be good, too. If your mechanic says it "looks good", it's probably fine for the trip, but if you have leaks or a history of overheating you'll want to fix that. Note that if you do get high temps as you drive (especially if the light comes on), stop and shut the car off IMMEDIATELY so that you don't incur severe engine damage. Better to wait for help. If what you just read scares you, then do a coolant change before the trip.

#3: Oil changes. How far are you driving? Get a change done the day before you leave, check the level in the morning and look for stains on the driveway before you go, and if you hit 3,000 miles on your trip, have it changed before you continue. Cheap insurance against engine overheating and damage.

#4: Air filter. Is it clean? Wouldn't hurt to do it, and it's cheap.

Beyond that, bring a phone, and maps, and make sure you have a battle plan if you get stranded. But I don't see anything worrysome about taking your car on this trip, honestly, and me being me I'd probably hit the road without doing everything I've listen above. Don't be like me, though.
posted by davejay at 4:14 PM on September 1, 2010

Oh, one more thing: maintenance is always cheaper than repairs. If you plan on doing things like the radiator soon, might as well do 'em before the trip.
posted by davejay at 4:15 PM on September 1, 2010

By the way, your new tires don't negate the possibility of a slow leak (like mine, from a screw), a leak from a bad mount, or outright failure. The 12V pump is cheap insurance.
posted by davejay at 4:17 PM on September 1, 2010

There's a pie town? Bring back pie.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:30 PM on September 1, 2010

Your link above does not go where you think it goes.

Stop stressing. Did you explicitly say to the mechanic "I am driving this car cross country, would you let your son drive it cross country in this condition?" That generally gets them to either tell you "You're fine" or then they come up with 57 other things. If the latter, they're trying to rip you off, but from what you've written here, you already gave them the chance to do that and they've declined the opportunity.

You cannot do preventative repairs for everything. You can do everything you can think to do and then something will happen you could not possibly anticipate. That is why you get some kind of roadside assistance, whether it's AAA or through your car insurance.

That said, doing a coolant change now would be a good idea, as davejay suggests. Also, he is right about the oil changes.

If you don't have a deadline, avoid the interstate. You can pick up bits of old Route 66 once you cross the mississippi, and that's what I'd do if I was driving cross country without any kind of deadline. I also recommend Roadside America for things like The Axe In The Tree and The World's Largest Cow and all sorts of good stuff like that. I would also point you at There are places on Roadfood I'd plan a day around. If nothing else, it'll help you avoid the interminable Cracker Barrel/Denny's/Bob Evans stops by giving you something local and interesting when you get close to your destination for the night.

Another tip: Flying J and TA travel centers. They're mainly for long distance truckers, but they're open 24/7, they're bright and well lit, you could even take a shower there if you had to sleep in the car one night, they have the most interesting things for sale. If you;re bringing a laptop or wifi enabled device, Flying J will let you buy an internet pass that you can use from the front seat of your car. (TA's do too but I've had a lot of trouble connecting to them.) They can be good places to just stop and rest for 15 minutes, get an ice cream, clear your head.
posted by micawber at 4:45 PM on September 1, 2010

Response by poster: If you plan on doing things like the radiator soon, might as well do 'em before the trip.

See, I don't have plans to do these things because I don't have a good sense of them. I'm not even sure if you mean "replace the radiator" or test it somehow or just flush it/change the coolant.

Also, my link does go where I intended: to a Cartalk page about preparing for summer driving, which is basically what I'm about to do, to the tune of 3000 miles. It will be hot in most of the places I'll be driving. So those things seemed logical.

I had my oil changed in June and I've probably driven less than 100 miles since then. Do I really need to change it again?
posted by needs more cowbell at 5:11 PM on September 1, 2010

You might be about due to have the spark plugs changed out. They aren't the kind of thing that will fail catastrophically or cause any other majors issues but as they wear out your engine will have to burn more fuel to produce the same amount of power. Eventually, you'll start to get mis-fires and the engine will run rough or not at all.

It looks like the maintenance schedule calls for replacing at 120,000 miles but you might get some benefit to replacing them now, especially in the higher elevations.

The plugs themselves are $8 each at most and if you have access to a torque wrench and a spark plug socket (and a feeler gauge if you buy plugs that need to be gapped), it might be something you can do yourself.

As far as the coolant goes, I don't think it will make a difference. However, if you're going to be keeping this car, this looks like a piece of maintenance that you're going to do pretty soon anyways so it might be worth the piece of mind to do it now. If you're going to have to do it as soon as you're done with the trip, why not just do it now.

I would make sure to buy a cheap, simple, tire pressure gauge and take that with you. There is a sticker or plate inside the driver's side door-jam in addition to the car's manual that will tell you the recommended tire pressure. Keep in mind that this is for COLD tires so you'll want to check it before you've done any driving or the tires have had some time to cool down (they heat up a surprising amount while you drive and the air inside expands and increases the pressure). It might not make a difference but you might pick up some better gas mileage by adding 2psi to the tires. The more important thing is regularly checking the tire pressure. You might even get in the habit of doing it every day before you set off during the trip as under-filled tires will get you lower mileage and are potentially dangerous.

Other than that, you've done everything you can do and more to make sure the car is up to the trip.

In terms of logistics, I would be really diligent about rotating drivers every three hours. It will make the trip far safer and will feel shorter. This actually works much better if you add a third person. One drives, one stays up with the driver in the front, the other sleeps in the back and you rotate clock-wise (sleeper drive, driver rides shotgun, shotgunner sleeps) every three hours.

If the car is equipped with cruise control use it religiously, it might save you from getting a ticket and, more importantly will get you better gas mileage, especially over the course of 3,000 miles. You might also do some number crunching around the speed that you want to travel at. Over that kind of distance, 5 mph can make a big difference in how long it will take but you'll likely get the best gas mileage at something like 50 mph or at whatever speed the car just changes into top gear under slow acceleration. The mileage drop slowly up to around 60 mph and then start to drop off really fast. It might be worth while to figure out rough estimates on each leg of the journey and figure out the best combination of speed and efficiency you can use to get there. It would be much easier if the car has a trip computer that calculated mileage for you so that you could set the cruise at different speeds to get a good idea of what mileage it gets at various speeds.

In my car (A 2005 Nissan Altima 3.5SE with a 3.5 liter V-6 and the aforementioned trip computer), I get 35mpg at 60mph, 33mpg at 65mph, 30mpg at 70mph, 27mpg at 75mph, and 22mpg at 80mph. If I'm remembering all of that correctly. The mileage of your Toyota is going to be much higher but the relationship between speed and mileage should be similar.

In terms of routes, you'll go faster, safer, and with better mileage by keeping a near constant speed. This means sticking to reasonably major highways and interstates that don't go through any small towns (a feature common to many lesser traveled highways) and also avoid major metropolitan areas except for the sights you want to see obviously.

On a side note, when you do have to slow down to go through a town or for any other reason, remember that brisk (but not full-throttle) acceleration is more fuel efficient than slow. I know a lot of my advice concerns fuel mileage but, after 3,000 miles, you're going to have burned up a lot of gas.

That is all I can think of for right now but if I can think of anything else before Saturday, I'll post it here.
posted by VTX at 5:41 PM on September 1, 2010

for real get AAA. One tow is worth the cost of the annual membership. I have been a AAA member for like 14 years and have driven more than a million miles in my life, including more than 50 1,000+mile trips. Believe me, when you're passing WaKeeney, KS, at 12:30 of a rainy night and you throw a belt, you do not want to blow $150 of your budget on the tow for a $20 repair.

Plus you get to see awesome stuff - like the wrecker who came to change my flat tire in Sikeston, MO (Home of Throwed Rolls). I didn't have a spare and he didn't have a machine, so he took off my old tire and put a new one on the rim by hand - using spoons. And it's a lot funner sitting up in the cab of the wrecker shooting the breeze with the tow operator when you know that, at the least, you won't have to pay for the tow.

They'll assist any vehicle in which you're driving *or* a passenger (to the extent that I have (ahem, known someone who has) bought non-running cars, pushed them out in the street with the seller's help, and then called AAA for a tow. Such abuses are the reason you now get a nastygram from AAA after three tows in one year, and let that be a lesson to you, you potential miscreant.).

They bring you gas. They let you in when you're locked out. They jump your battery. Sometimes when you've done something dumb, or you have a problem that is cheap, simple, but impossible for you to diagnose, they can fix it on the spot - frequently for free. Plus you get maps - like 10 free per year. And hotel discounts - did I mention the hotel discounts?

I hate shilling for AAA because they're one of the reasons gas prices are artificially depressed in the U.S. But would I consider a cross-country trip without it? Hell no.
posted by toodleydoodley at 6:01 PM on September 1, 2010 [1 favorite]

In response to your question about oil. Assuming that you are using standard oil and not a synthetic (and you certainly would know it if you did), the oil should be replaced every 3,000 miles OR every three months. You're at just about three months now so yes, you do need to change the oil. It breaks down chemically over time whether you drive or not (at least, the natural component of it does) and it doesn't work as well as it needs to to lubricate the engine. Oil changes are cheap so I'd do one now and one more when you get there.

Going forward, if the car is going to continue to only be driven very rarely with large periods of disuse, I would switch to using a full-synthetic oil (and it will be clearly labeled as such). Some cars will let you double the mileage between changes (yours is a little older so I doubt it, consult the maintenance schedule to be sure) but, at the least, you can ignore the time component and only pay attention to the mileage. IE you go from oil changes every 3,000 miles OR three months to simple every 3,000 miles. There are some other benefits to a full synthetic but is the big one for me. I buy the oil where-ever I can find it for the least $ and then bring it a dealership (my uncle owns it) to have it changed. I have to make sure I check the bill to make sure they don't charge me for oil since I'm the only one out of thousands of oil changes where they don't have to charge for the oil. I don't hold it against them since I'm the one breaking the routine.

In terms of your cooling system, you should get the system flushed and the coolant replaced (which they will do as part of the flush). You should also have them check for leaks which is probably included as part of the coolant flush. The pressure test is probably more than you really need and the other fluids are almost certainly fine.

Not to add anything more for you to worry about and I hesitate to even bring it up but the only component I can think of that might cause you issues is your alternator. The problem is, they kind of fail all at once and, to the best of my knowledge, there isn't a way to test its health. It supplies electricity to the spark plugs and charges the battery so it is vital. It isn't unusual for it to fail at 75k miles but they can also last for 200k miles without an issue. If you're going to break down, I would bet on this being the issue but there isn't anything short of preemptively replacing the part. You might be swapping out a healthy alternator for no reason and it isn't a cheap job (but not hugely expensive either) so I don't think it is worth doing. The best thing to do is to be prepared for it (you're car will just stop and the electrical stuff will stop working as the battery drains its charge) and have AAA on speed-dial. You've seen that buying a membership has been recommended by now right? :) Most likely, the trip will go off without a hitch and I'm worrying about nothing but at least you'll be armed with knowledge.
posted by VTX at 6:23 PM on September 1, 2010

After a year of driving it around, I drove my 1970 Impala on a 5000 mile road trip. Before I'd bought the car, it sat for almost 15 years.

I also took my 90 CRX on many road trips (5000 mi +) after letting it sit for years on end.

Maybe have 'em slap in a thermostat and new coolant, just for grins.

If it was gonna have a problem after sitting, you'd have found out in the past month.
posted by notsnot at 7:26 PM on September 1, 2010

(oh, and the mileages on the vehicles on the aformentioned road trips: 80k on the Impala (it now has over 150k) and lessee, the last road trip on the CRX had it rolling 200k. It lasted to 240k.)
posted by notsnot at 7:27 PM on September 1, 2010

AAA, GPS, radar detector. We planned the route on Google maps, and then use Yelp or whatever for local info.
posted by Ideefixe at 7:31 PM on September 1, 2010

I think you're spending wayyyyy too much time reading and thinking about possible disasters. You needed to have a knowledgeable person look over the car for obvious problems like fluid leaks, worn belts, old hoses, etc. That's about it. The tires were probably overkill.

All you can do here is reduce your risk by addressing the most likely and obvious failures. You'll still need to be prepared for the unpredictable, which means you need to carry a credit card and a phone. Beyond that, make sure all the idiot lights on the dash are working, and know how to respond to them. If the oil pressure or coolant temp. lights come on, stop immediately and get a tow. If the check engine light starts flashing, stop immediately and get a tow. If the check engine light comes on and stays on, plan to see a mechanic when it's convenient.

Enjoy your trip. You have a notoriously reliable car with relatively few miles on it, and long-distance highway driving is easier on the car than short-run city driving. I don't think you have much to worry about.
posted by jon1270 at 4:14 AM on September 2, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: For what it's worth, I:
-replaced tires
-didn't do anything to fluids (another mechanic looked at them and said nothing looked too worn out)
-got AAA

We didn't run into any mechanical difficulties over the course of the trip, but a few hundred miles in we realized the car is either burning or otherwise losing oil at a very fast rate (like a quart every hundred or two hundred miles) and had to top it off frequently. So oddly, even though it made it across the country with decent gas mileage and no (other) problems, it may not be long for this world, since I'm told that burning or leaking oil tends to require opening up the engine and cost thousands of dollars to fix. Oh well.
posted by needs more cowbell at 1:12 PM on October 4, 2010

Don't go calling a scrap yard too quickly. Oil-burning may indeed be a big problem, but there are some simple, cheap-to-fix causes for it too.
posted by jon1270 at 1:29 PM on October 4, 2010

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