Are you killing your car?

What you don't know can cost you a bundle

Lisa Christensen, 28, a licensed automotive technician from Montreal and host of CJAD radio’s The Car Show, has seen many a car klutz drive a perfectly good vehicle down the road to ruin.

There’s the sales rep who drove her car more than 60,000 kilometres without changing the oil. And the man who went 180,000 kilometres without changing his coolant, causing it to congeal into a thick goo resembling chocolate syrup.

“If you want to keep a car for a long time, you should be prepared to take some responsibility,” says Christensen. “You can’t just get in, turn the key and keep driving until something breaks.” Ignorance and neglect can cost car owners a bundle. Here are some simple steps to help cut your repair costs and prolong the life of your vehicle. (Note: service guidelines are general.)

Dig out your owner’s manual and read it. Pay particular attention to the sections on maintenance and emergency procedures.

A 900-kilogram car hurtling down the highway at 100 kilometres an hour is only gripping a patch of road about the size of a small pizza box, so a lot is riding on your tires. Improper tire inflation can cause loss of traction and excessive wear. Check your pressure at least once a month. Have your tires rotated and the wheels balanced and aligned once a year, or every 15,000 to 20,000 kilometres.

Oil lubricates your engine. It also helps clean and cool it. Check your oil weekly, and change your oil and filter every three months or 5,000 kilometres. Keep your receipts. Your warranty may be worthless if you can’t supply proof of regular oil changes. If your oil light comes on, pull over. Delaying by mere minutes can destroy your engine.

Putting off brake repairs can cost you money and compromise safety. Be alert for any squeals, squeaks, chirping or grinding. Notice any changes in brake pedal feel. A spongy, low, hard or pulsating brake pedal can signal problems. Replace your brake fluid every two years or 50,000 kilometres.

A timing belt-which should be replaced every 100,000 kilometres in most vehicles-synchronizes the opening and closing of engine valves in relation to piston travel. Worn belts may break-and then your car can’t run. At best, you’re stranded and have to be towed to a garage to get the belt replaced (about $300 to $800). At worst, your valves and pistons suffer thousands of dollars in damage.

Car engines produce enough heat to melt engine components if the cooling system fails. Replace your coolant and flush your cooling system every two years or 50,000 kilometres. Watch your gauges when driving. If the temperature starts creeping up in stop-and-go traffic, shut off your air conditioner and put the heater and fan on full blast. You’ll be baking, but it may bring the temperature down. If this doesn’t work, or if steam starts rising from the hood, pull over immediately. Follow the emergency procedures outlined in your manual.

The more gas you have in your tank in winter, the less chance your fuel lines will be clogged with ice crystals (due to condensation) or that you’ll be stranded. “I fill up once a week in winter, whether my tank is half or three-quarters full,” says Christensen. Fuel filters should be replaced every two years or 50,000 kilometres.

The sweetest sound a transmission shop owner can hear on a winter’s day is tires spinning wildly while a vehicle is stuck. The more the driver accelerates, the greater the chance the transmission will overheat and fail. Motorists in severe climates should invest in snow tires and carry sand or kitty litter for traction. Check your automatic transmission fluid at least every three months and have the fluid and filter replaced every two years or 50,000 kilometres.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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