We have all heard these stories, cars and trucks lasting 200,000, 300,000, even 500,000 miles.
What’s the secret? Three words: maintenance, maintenance, maintenance.
“Nobody reads the owner’s manual. Pretty much to make it run that far it’s fluids, timing belts, maintenance by the book,” said Jim Moritz, global technical trainer for an international automotive tool and equipment manufacturing company.
These vehicle owners adhere to every word recommended by the automaker, for them it is a religion. In many cases, they are changing engine oil, transmission and brake fluids more frequently than required. They read that manual from cover to cover.
“I know guys who are getting 300,000 miles out of a F-Series pickup and 400,000 miles from a Hyundai Sonata,” he said. “There is no such thing as too much maintenance, you are not going to hurt it.”
Listed below are 10 maintenance tips to make the engine, transmission and other expensive parts of your vehicle last longer. Most importantly, read the owner’s manual to avoid thousands of dollars in repairs.
- Check the oil: The simplest task to increase the life of your vehicle is to maintain the proper amount of oil in the engine. Additionally, change the oil and filter at the intervals recommended in the owner’s manual, for example, every 5,000, 7,500 or 10,000 miles. Oil lubricates the engine parts. Second, oil is a fluid that disperses heat. Some of the oil is burned off by the engine so it needs to be replenished when the level drops. Make sure it is the proper weight oil for your engine. “An engine runs hotter with less oil in it. The hotter it runs the more strain, stress that is put on the engine parts. You could blow the engine eventually, meaning it will need to be rebuilt or replaced, it’s very expensive. It will not blow up if the engine is a quart of oil down, but when they start getting a couple of quarts down you can run into some interesting issues,” Moritz said.
- Fight sludge: There’s a big downside to short trips, stop-and-go traffic, as well as long trips when there is a heavy load on the engine, for example, pulling a trailer. The enemy: Sludge. Sludge is a petroleum byproduct that is a gooey, black-colored substance that builds up in an engine. It is a major contributor to engine problems. Changing the engine oil at prescribed intervals or more frequently will reduce the probability of sludge buildup and extend the life of the engine. Specific driving conditions can cause sludge. It can come from oil solidifying on a long trip at engine temperatures generally above 210 degrees Fahrenheit. Other culprits are short trips that prevent the engine from reaching its proper operating temperature and water in the oil caused by condensation. “It accumulates everywhere in the engine. Sludge drops to the bottom of the oil pan. But when the engine warms up, the oil mixes with the goo and is pumped through the whole engine,” Moritz said. “Sludge does not burn away.” To avoid sludge, follow the owner’s manual for oil and filter changes or switch to synthetic oil, which is not petroleum based. Many fleets use synthetic oil.
- Timing belt replacement: Your car’s engine has either a rubber composite timing belt or timing chain. The device connects the crankshaft to the camshaft, which is synchronized with the opening and closing of the engine’s valves. If your car has a timing belt, follow the owner’s manual to determine when the belt should be replaced. “Rubber belts break and when they do that’s the end of the engine, it is catastrophic, you are done,” Moritz said. To avoid disaster, the timing belt should be replaced at intervals recommended by the automaker, usually between 50,000 and 110,000 miles. The cost to replace the timing belt isn’t cheap but it is thousands less than rebuilding the engine.
- Check power steering fluid: Older vehicles and some new models have a hydraulic power steering pump that is lubricated by power steering fluid. The pump’s reservoir has a screw-type cap that lifts off, so the fluid level can be checked. If the pump runs dry, it can fail and require a replacement costing hundreds of dollars. A few symptoms of a power steering problem are squealing noises when turning the steering wheel or heavy or stiff steering. Newer vehicles have electric power steering; there are no fluids.
- Transmission fluid replacement: Having the proper amount of fluid is critical because it cools the transmission, lubricates moving parts and smooths the shifts between gears. However, the fluid deteriorates over time. Frequent stop-and-go driving or pulling a trailer accelerates deterioration. Under those conditions the transmission’s operating temperature rises, putting a strain on the transmission’s components and the fluid. Automakers recommend more frequent fluid replacement under those conditions. Check the owner’s manual for details. Signs of transmission problems: If the fluid turns dark or has a burnt smell this could be a signal that the it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical issues. Check the fluid level when the engine is running. To avoid transmission failure only use the fluid recommended by the automaker. “I know a guy who mixed fluid on a Honda. His transmission lasted a week,” Moritz said.
- Radiator coolant flushing: Coolant has rust inhibitors that break down over time. Rust and corrosion can build up and harm an engine, plug a thermostat and damage a water pump. Some automakers recommend a coolant change every 30,000 miles, some suggest over 100,000 miles. Again, check the owner’s manual.
- Top off brake fluid: While you are under the hood checking fluids, it’s a good time to check the brake fluid level. Place the vehicle on a level surface, then unscrew the reservoir cap. The brake fluid level should be between the minimum and maximum marks in the fluid reservoir. Use the automaker’s recommended fluid and add to the proper level. Replacing the brake fluid will not increase the longevity of the brake system but it might save your life. Brake fluid absorbs water over time which degrades its effectiveness in providing stopping power. “A brake system is not perfectly sealed as you might think so you can get condensation just from the change of cold temperatures to hot,” Moritz said. If you have too much water in the brake fluid, stepping on the brakes hard generates heat which in turn can boil the water in the line and as a result, increase the vehicle’s stopping distance.
- Transfer case maintenance: This is a very expensive repair when things go wrong. The fluid inside the transfer case on all-wheel and four-wheel-drive vehicles needs to be replace at prescribed intervals. Follow the recommendations in the owner’s manual.
- Rotate your tires: Tires are expensive, so you want them to last. The owner’s manual will say when the tires should be rotated and alignment checked. Equally important is maintaining the proper air pressure to get more miles out of each tire. A sticker on the driver’s door frame lists the tire pressure for the front and rear tires.
- Have a clean engine air filter: A dirty air filer can reduce miles per gallon, hurt engine performance and contribute to higher engine emissions.
No maintenance required
There are some components on cars that at one time required regular maintenance, but because of technological advances, there’s no need anymore. Ball joints and steering linkage which at one time required lubrication, no longer require it; new spark plugs may last 150,000 miles and at one time vehicle batteries (which are now sealed for lift) needed the water level in the electrolyte periodically checked.