6 Simple Tips to Keep Your Car Running Longer

Photo: Craig Howell

If you’ve ever owned a car for several years — or just driven one that’s several years old — you know that it takes some work to keep it running. The good news is, how often your car breaks down and how much those repairs cost you are largely within your control. Here’s a quick rundown on how to keep your car on the road — and more money in your pocket. (See also: 6 Mistakes to Avoid When Shopping for Car Insurance)

Choose the Right Car

Overall, cars are getting more reliable, but there is still a wide range in how much trouble you can expect to have with each one. So, when you’re shopping for a new (or, better yet, previously owned) car, choose one with a reputation for reliability. If you choose a reliable car, you’ll be able to spend your money on keeping it running well, rather than just keeping it running. There are many sources that provide this information, such as Consumer Reports, which ranks most makes and models in terms of short-term and longer-term reliability. If you’re really interested in getting the most out of your car, choose a reliable model to begin with.

Don’t Be Cheap

You may hate handing your hard-earned cash over to your local mechanic for oil changes, tire rotations, and other maintenance, but spending money on the basics is the best way to avoid major repairs. An oil change costs $30 to $40; if you’re an average driver, you’ll need two or more each year (every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, depending on your car). The cost of a new engine — which could be what your car requires if you skip too many oil changes — is $2,000 to $4,000. You decide. Don’t believe me? Check out this video of what happens to an engine that’s gone too many miles without an oil change.

Make a Note of Maintenance Milestones

Car manufacturers provide recommendations on when to complete basic maintenance tasks. You can find this information in your car’s owner’s manual. Most experts recommend getting your car’s transmission fluid flushed every 25,000 miles, while an engine’s timing belt should be replaced within 100,000 miles. These are just a few of several maintenance milestones your car will require. Find out what your car’s manufacturer recommends and stick to it to avoid more costly issues.

Drive Nicely

Just like stepping lightly in a new pair of shoes can help keep them from showing wear, driving gently can help reduce wear and tear on your car. This means slowing down for big bumps or potholes, taking corners at a reasonable speed, and avoiding putting your foot to the floor before your car has warmed up. Driving hard puts more stress and strain on your car’s components. Over time, these “joy rides” can put your car’s condition into an expensive tail spin.

Know Your Dash

You know all those annoying lights that appear on your dash? Usually, they come on to alert you to things that don’t signal an emergency for your car, such as a burned out tail light, low on fuel, or that you are not wearing your seat belt. As a result, you might assume these “nanny lights” can be ignored for while. But while some check-engine lights can be deferred for a day or two while you wait to see your mechanic, there is one light you absolutely cannot ignore, and that’s the oil pressure indicator. If this light appears on your dash, you must pull over and stop the car immediately. This light means that your car has suddenly lost oil pressure, which will cause friction and heat to build up in your engine. This can weld your engine together permanently in less than a minute. Unless where you’re headed is worth the cost of a new engine, pull over and wait for a tow truck.

Keep It Clean

You may not think that how your car looks has much bearing on how it drives, but this isn’t entirely true. Dirt, grit, and the salt used to melt road ice in the northern states and Canada can cause damage to your car’s paint and undercarriage. This can lead to rust, which can make your car deteriorate faster and, if serious enough, reduce its crash safety. Even in warm, dry climates, dirt can grind down upholstery and leather, wearing out the inside of your car. Just as you’ll need a regular schedule for conducting maintenance on your car, you should also make a habit of cleaning it regularly.

You don’t need to know a lot about cars to keep your car running, but you do need to know a few basics and be informed about what’s recommended for the make and model you own. If you treat your car well, it is likely to return the favor in reliability and longevity. Putting regular maintenance into a car that’s running just fine can be tough for frugal-minded people, but while you may hate handing that cash over to your mechanic, what really pays his bills are the big repairs only he (or she!) can help you avoid.

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Guest's picture

This is something that you can apply to more than just your car. If you put in a little effort, you can make so many things last way longer. And this is good for more than just your finances. I have a pair of leather boots that I clean and oil every now and then, and I think they are going to last for many years!

Tara Struyk's picture

Thanks - that's so true! I think older folks who've lived through tougher times are used to doing this, but it is so easy to buy things now that it's gone out of favor.

Guest's picture

This is a great list of tips about taking care of a car. My friend once went almost 5 months past a scheduled oil change date, and as a result her car bit the dust much earlier then it should have! The best advice in this column is to just suck it up and spend the $40 or $50 here and there to make small repairs, which will definitely save you a lot of money in the long run.

Guest's picture

Here in Southern California, oil changes are often advertised as loss leaders for local shops, so an oil change shouldn't cost more than $20 - often the advertised price is $17 plus the $3 waste disposal fee. Of course, with the long commutes many of us have, we change the oil much more often than twice a year. Check with your favorite local shop and they may match coupon prices for you, especially if you're a good customer (mine does).

Guest's picture

OMG that's a Nash Metropolitan - looks to be a 59!!! That is my dream car (even the same colors)

(sorry, car envy out out of the way)

I drive a 1996 Ford Explorer - that's 16 years coming up in early 2012. It is on its second transmission and radiator, and had the suspension system replaced, but otherwise it is all been regular maintenance. Do the oil changes, the tire rotations, the fluid flushes - all when recommended!!

I love no car payments, super low insurance and I don't sweat the little dings and lack of new car smell... the money saved is worth it and I don't see my car as an indicator of status or my personal worth - it's a way to get to and from places.

Guest's picture

high-mileage oil.'nuff said