Tips for maintaining a car
August 15, 2006 4:01 PM   Subscribe

With any luck, I'm about to take ownership of my first car. I'm not particularly mechanically minded, what are the basic things I need to do to maintain it?

I've left it until my late 20s to get my first car, a 1992 Suzuki Samurai 4x4, which I want to keep running smoothly and in good condition.

So what are the basics of looking after a car? What needs refilling, topping up, cleaning off every so often? What tools or useful items should I be keeping in the car? Any other tips or tricks?
posted by chrissyboy to Travel & Transportation (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
My minimum, when I teach people how to drive, is to make sure they can pump gas, check tire pressure (although you can buy tire caps that change colour when low), check the oil (and where to add more), and where to add windshield wiper fluid.

Knowing how to change a flat before you have to do it is helpful. If you have an automatic transmission, it is easy to check the fluid levels.

In my car, I carry jumper cables, a tire gage, a small first aid kit, a blanket, reflective triangles (flares work fine, and are less fragile) and an air compressor that plugs into my cigarette lighter. The last is overkill, but useful more often then you'd think. If you have panty hose with runs in them, you can toss a pair in to be an emergency belt, but that is advanced car nursing.
posted by QIbHom at 4:24 PM on August 15, 2006

Oil changes: Get one every 3000 miles, or every 5000 if you use synthetic. This is one of the easiest things you can do to keep things running smoothly.

Your owner's manual will tell you additional maintenance to follow and any specific nuances that the car may have.

Premium gas: Use it only if your manual says it is required. Otherwise, use regular.

Find a good mechanic who you trust! This makes things so much easier when/if things go wrong.

I check roughly once a month or so for basic fluid levels when I fill up the car with gas. Check things like oil, antifreeze, and washer fluid. These are all real easy to check and are probably detailed in the manual or in any number of how-to sites online.

Tire pressure: check this roughly monthly, too. Deflated tires can reduce gas mileage and can also be dangerous (less control).

Hope this is a good starting point. Good luck!
posted by galimatias at 4:26 PM on August 15, 2006

Aside from gasoline, the most important things to check regularly are engine oil and tire pressure. I recommend checking both of these about once a month, or more if your car seems to need either of them more often.

The Car Talk site has some good resources, including what to keep in your trunk.
posted by mbrubeck at 4:27 PM on August 15, 2006

Get the Haynes manual. It'll contain all the info you need and more.

They're available at most auto parts stores, in the US at least.

Otherwise, the basics are:

Check your oil, every time you fill up or once a month. Witht the engine cold and off, pull the dipstick, wipe it off, reinsert it and pull it again. Examine the fluid level on it and add oil as necessary. Get the oil and filter changed (or change it yourself) every 5000km or so or 6 months.

Check to make sure your water/coolant level is ok. There should be a reservoir with a "Full Hot" mark on it, or something similar. Otherwise, when the car is totally cool (like in the morning) open the radiator and make sure it's full.

Check the air pressure in the tires and keep them inflated properly (correct pressure should be on the sidewall somewhere). Also keep an eye on the tread, so you know when you need new tires, and also to watch for uneven wear patterns that may be a sign of another problem. Also, get your tires rotated every 10000km or so.

But seriously, get the Haynes manual.
posted by techgnollogic at 4:33 PM on August 15, 2006

If the car doesn't come with an owner's manual, get one. It will have a maintenance schedule in it, which tells you what the manufacturer recommends, and how often.

Oil is critical. Most people ignore theirs; do yourself a favor and check it every two weeks. Some cars consume a bit over time, and it's good to keep it topped up. Note that usually the oil dipstick will have two dots on it, a "low" and "high" dot. You want to keep the level between the two dots, but that range isn't the full oil capacity. My car (98 Integra) takes 4.25 quarts, and the range between low and high on the dipstick is 1 quart. In other words, don't put in 4 quarts when you see the level at the low dot :)

While you're checking your oil, check your tire pressure. The driver's-side doorjamb should have a sticker which tells you, among other things, what pressure the tires should be inflated to. Follow this recommendation, not the maximum pressure numbers written on the tires themselves. The car-specific numbers are designed for ideal handling. You may find that increasing pressure by a couple of PSI doesn't hurt the handling and improves your fuel economy a bit. If you have one tire that leaks a bit, as it deflates you will get worse gas mileage and the tire will wear out weirdly and could cause a blowout, which is dangerous, especially in a 4x4. This is why it's good to check your pressure and keep all four tires topped up.

Check your coolant regularly too. Heck, do it while you're checking your oil. Whatever. That should not really get _consumed_ per se, but it can evaporate. You just want to make sure you have some in the reservoir. Usually it has a min/max fill level, so just be sure you're between that. Overheating is no fun. Tip: if the engine temp starts to creep up while you're driving, crank the heat full blast. This sucks heat away from the engine and can hold you together until you have a chance to get to a service station. I don't mean you'd wait days... just time to get off the highway or whatever and figure out why your primary cooling system isn't working.

Other things like brake and transmission fluid really shouldn't leak or otherwise go away, so I don't make a habit of checking them closely every time I'm under the hood. They just need to be replaced in a timely way, as defined in the owner's manual.

As for tools to keep in the car: jumper cables, jumper cables, jumper cables. Jumper cables. Jumper cables? Jumper cables. The first time you are caught with a dead battery because you left your lights on, the image of your jumper cables coiled up on the floor of your garage will mock you in your sleep for days after. I also carry a flashlight, multi-bit screwdriver, and vice grips. Owning a basic socket set (probably metric in your case - Asian manufacturer and all) is good for car stuff, but you don't really have to keep it in the car, although I do. Here's a good one also - a fucking jack and a spare tire. You'd be surprised how many people I know have bought used cars, driven them for n years, gotten a flat, and only THEN discovered that they didn't have one or the other, or both, of these rather critical items. Make sure you have them and see where they ARE. Sometimes just FINDING the jack is a bitch.

Those are the big ones for me I guess. If you live in a snowy climate, wash your car regularly in the winter, after the roads are dry. Salt and such corrode and will bring rust eventually.
posted by autojack at 4:36 PM on August 15, 2006 [1 favorite]

All of the above + check the ashtrays, I drove my first car for a year before I found half a joint in a backseat ashtray.
posted by Iron Rat at 4:46 PM on August 15, 2006

When it's sometime close to winter (read: October in the northern hemisphere), store an ice scraper and snow brush in the car. Yes, even if it only frosts 2 days a year where you live. I enjoy laughing at people trying to scrape ice with a credit card and scoop snow with their bare hands.
posted by crazycanuck at 5:05 PM on August 15, 2006

everything added above! and watch out for hot hot hot radiator fluid. check it when it's cold. it tastes sweet, but will burn your lungs.

also handy, and cheap:

basically a scrubby for your battery. older cars will get gunky and its handy to have to clean them off (and trouble shoot stuff when your car won't start).

did we mention jumper cables yet?
posted by jeribus at 6:18 PM on August 15, 2006

And for $DEITY 's sake, don't make any sharp turns at high speed in it. The short wheelbase and high center-of-gravity of the Samurai make it possible to roll over if you drive crazily.

Just drive safely, okay?

//happy first car, though! :-D
posted by Wild_Eep at 6:52 PM on August 15, 2006

As for tire tread, an old rule of thumb is to put a penny (United States) into the tread with Lincoln's head pointing down toward the tire. If you can see the top of Lincoln's head, you need new tires. Note: this is a rule of thumb and does not work for all tires, but is a fairly simple test of tread depth for a quick check.
posted by galimatias at 6:58 PM on August 15, 2006

if you want to go beyond the standard fluid level maitenance, you can save yourself a little bit more money by learning how to replace the oil filter, fuel filter and spark plugs.

They are all easy jobs, As techgnologic says, get the repair manual and a few basic tools (wrenchs and the like) and it will easily show you how to go about it.
posted by TheOtherGuy at 7:15 PM on August 15, 2006

After you get the basics down, start saving for UPGRADES.
posted by techgnollogic at 7:40 PM on August 15, 2006

Two flashlights/torches. A small one in the glove compartment; a large one in the trunk/boot (always keep it in a part of the trunk where you can find it and get to it in the dark!). You're unlikely to have dead batteries in both at once.

Jumper cables, yes, but get a knowledgable friend to show you how they work in a time of leisure, in full daylight. Then when your battery has died and it's dark and windy and you're on the side of the road with traffic whipping past, you will not have to figure it out on the spot.

Ditto for changing a tire.

Ditto for getting a sense of what the tire tread should look like, and whether the set that came with the car are evenly worn. (I don't know if you're as innocent about this as I once was, but: uneven wear can cause a serious accident; it's not a cosmetic problem. If your tires are unevenly worn, get a new set.)

If your climate has extremes, keep supplies for them in the trunk/boot. Eg, for winter: wool blanket or mylar space blanket, wool hat and gloves, box of granola bars, bag of sand for traction on ice, ice scraper. For summer, gallon bottle of water. In the same vein, it's nice to have sunglasses and an umbrella just for the car -- ie, they don't usually come into the house with you, so you don't forget to put them back in the car, so they are actually in there on unexpectedly sunny or rainy days.

If your windscreen doesn't get clear when the wipers are on, be aware that you can replace the wiper blades. In a used car, this will sometimes make a huge difference.
posted by LobsterMitten at 7:56 PM on August 15, 2006

If you drive it only when you need to, you will save lots of money on petrol, maintenance (tyres, oil, etc.), repairs, and parking, your car will last longer and be worth more when you sell it, and you won't be as likely to get fat and die young.
posted by pracowity at 2:13 AM on August 16, 2006

Sheesh, you guys really are obsessed with changing the oil every five minutes.

Some cars in the EU are on variable service schedules that will go 20000+ miles before needing an oil change.

(My understanding is that age matters more than mileage for oil changes in fact.)
posted by pharm at 2:41 AM on August 16, 2006

Find a good mechanic who you trust!

Does anyone have any tips about finding one? I've found it very hard to do.
posted by futility closet at 4:52 AM on August 16, 2006

Find a good mechanic who you trust!
Does anyone have any tips about finding one?

Ask friends and family with cars. Take advantage of their experience.
posted by pracowity at 5:57 AM on August 16, 2006

If you really want the car to last, use synthetic oil. It costs more to fill but if you ever end up redlining or otherwise abusing your engine (and let's face it, to go anything like fast in an old car you'll need to) synthetic will protect your engine far better than dino-juice. Mobil-1 is affordable and plenty good enough. Be aware that synthetic has a detergent effect so your car will likely smoke/smell more for a few weeks after you switch as the gunk is cleaned out.

Also, if you ever get a new car, don't use synthetic right away, most engines need a break-in period of a few thousand miles of non-synthetic oil before switching over.

For long-lasting flavor, get your hoses and belts checked once you have the car and find out when to replace your timing belt/chain.

What else, oh yeah if you don't know how old your battery is, get one of those portable battery/compressor things from AutoZone or something and throw it in your trunk.

Another fun diversion is getting a buddy and practicing jump-starting and push-starting (push the car and popping in the clutch to start the engine even if the battery is dead) in a parking lot somewhere. Fun and educational!
posted by Skorgu at 7:55 AM on August 16, 2006

Join an auto club. Membership in an auto club can reduce a disaster to an annoyance. AAA is one, but there are many others, most of them much cheaper. Your credit card may offer membership in an auto club. AARP does, too (but I bet you're not eligible for that).

Unless you car is relatively new, don't go to the dealer for repairs - ask your friends and family for recommendations of a good independent garage. Dealers are much more expensive, both on labor rates and cost of parts.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 8:23 AM on August 16, 2006

Response by poster: God you guys rock. Thanks so much for the excellent responses!
posted by chrissyboy at 8:53 AM on August 16, 2006

Oh, and for the sake of all that's right in the world, if the car starts getting really hot, PULL OVER. I know a guy who kept driving as the temperature needle pushed it's way into the red zone, shifting down gears to get the torque needed to keep driving. Finally the car died. He had to buy a new engine.

Also, never open the radiator on an overheating car (steam = bad for you) and never fill a hot radiator with lots of cold water. Trickle it in while the engine is turning over.
posted by tomble at 3:08 AM on August 17, 2006

Since I just found it, here's MeFi's advice about what to keep in the car for emergencies.
posted by LobsterMitten at 11:36 PM on December 6, 2006

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