Remember that old saying, "A stitch in time saves nine?" It doesn't apply just to clothes. Taking a few minutes regularly to perform some simple maintenance, can keep your car or truck looking and running like new for years. Here's a quick checklist.
Check the vehicle's "vital signs" every time you gas up.
When you fill the gas tank, pop the hood and check the levels of oil, coolant, brake fluid, and power steering fluid. You'll need a paper towel for the oil; most of the others can be checked at a glance in most vehicles. If the vehicle has windshield washer fluid, check that level also.
Check tires for proper inflation every two weeks.
Underinflated tires are a leading cause of blow-outs and accidents. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found that 12% of passenger vehicles on the highway have at least one underinflated tire by at least 25%. Get a tire gauge—they are inexpensive—and use it when you gas up or at least once every two weeks. The proper inflation level for your tires is in the owner's manual and on the driver's side door jamb or the backside of the gas filler door; it is not on the side of the tire (that's the maximum allowable pressure). If you fear getting your hands dirty, keep a container of wet towelettes under the seat or in the glove compartment.
Keep the exterior clean.
Some experts recommend washing the car weekly. You may not need to do it that frequently, but keeping the exterior free of dirt, road salts, tree sap, bird droppings and the like can keep your vehicle looking like new, enhancing its value. Be sure to wash road salts off quickly even if you have undercoating to help prevent rust. Wax the vehicle about twice a year (or whenever the water quits beading up on the surface). Touch up nicks and scratches with matching paint before they provide an entryway for rust. Scotchguarding the interior upholstery or treating leather and cleaning the interior frequently is also a good idea.
Follow the recommended schedule for oil changes.
Oil is an engine's single most important safeguard against wear and tear. Changing the oil and filter regularly, therefore, is the single most important thing you can do to keep your engine healthy. Manufacturers of many new vehicles may recommend an oil change only every 7,500 miles or longer instead of the time-honored "3 months or 3,000 miles." Following the manufacturer's recommendation will certainly keep your car within warranty, but many mechanics still recommend changing the oil more frequently because they say that most driving (in-town, stop-and-start, in traffic, in high heat and extreme cold) meets most manufacturers' definitions of "severe driving conditions." Check your manual to see which criteria your driving patterns fall under. You may decide the dollars spent changing your oil a little more frequently than the manufacturer recommends is worthwhile insurance. In any case, don't put the oil change off longer than the manufacturer recommends.
Check tire tread every two months; balance, rotate and align tires as recommended.
These steps can help insure that you get the longest, safest service out of your tires. Tires need replacing when the wear bars begin to show or when you can see the top of Lincoln's head when you insert a penny head first into the tread (about 2/32" or less).
Check hoses and belts every month.
Belts should be adequately tight. Hoses should be firm and not spongy. If you are unsure how to check, ask the attendant at a full-service gas station or your mechanic to demonstrate the techniques to you. Because modern belts and hoses don't show visible wear much, it's also a good idea to keep a record of when new belts and hoses are installed and then replace them at intervals recommended by the vehicle's or belt/hose manufacturer. The general service period is three to four years. Caution: don't test a hot hose with your bare hand.
Every fall and spring, check coolant strength.
The proper strength coolant mixture keeps the vehicle's coolant system from freezing in winter or running hot in summer. Adopt a regular check schedule that fits your climate. Have a service center flush and refill your cooling system at intervals recommended by the vehicle's manufacturer.
Check brakes for wear at least once a year.
Regular brake maintenance means you don't leave stopping safely to chance. Don't wait until you hear grinding or squealing sounds or until the brake pedal starts to fade or feel spongy to have the brakes checked.
Check battery connections regularly and keep track of the battery's age.
Also keep those jumper cables in the trunk. Checking that connections are secure and that no corrosion has built up on battery terminals can help prevent those annoying mornings when the car won't start. Batteries are also rated to give a certain time period of service. Keep track of when yours is due to be replaced.
Follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule for all systems.
Taking your vehicle in for the "minor" and "major" service required by the manufacturer to keep the vehicle under warranty is a must. Most manufacturers also make service recommendations for periods beyond the warranty. Use these as a minimum guide.
For more information on good vehicle maintenance: The Car Care Council provides an extensive library.