To cheap out – or not cheap out?

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People are understandably edgy about the Obama Recovery – not – and trying to avoid as many unnecessary expenses as they can. When it comes to your vehicle, there are some things you can cheap out on to save a few bucks – and some other things you shouldn’t neglect, even if it costs you some coin. Better to pay a little now – vs. a lot later.

Stuff it’s ok to cheap out on:

* Regular unleaded vs. premium –

Some car engines require premium; others recommend that you use it. Read your owner’s manual. If it says the engine requires premium, then you ought to use premium, otherwise, you’ll end up losing not just performance but probably some MPGs, too. If the engine was designed to burn higher octane fuel, combustion will be less efficient if you feed it lower octane fuel. And if the car is pre-computer you could damage the engine by using low-octane gas. Modern cars (early ’80s and up) all have engine computers that can compensate to an extent for low octane fuel, but older, pre-computer cars don’t and use of low octane fuel in an engine that needs high octane fuel will result in premature combustion inside the cylinders (this is that knocking or pinging you’rehearing) and that will eventually kill the engine.

If your owner’s manual says premium fuel is only recommended, then you can probably get away with using regular unleaded and given the current appx. 20 cents per gallon difference in cost between regular and premium, that could save you a lot over the course of a year. If you have an 18 gallon tank, filling up with regular vs. premium and saving 20 cents per gallon puts almost $4 back in your pocket at every fill-up. That works out to about $200 a year in savings.

You might not get every last horsepower your engine is capable of delivering – and you might suffer a slight mileage drop that could eat away the “up front” savings at the pump. The loss of a few hp is probably nothing you’ll miss or even notice – but keep track of your gas mileage “with” and “without” premium to see whether the difference is big enough to make going back to premium fuel the smart thing to do.

PS: Using premium in a car designed to run on regular is a total money, economy and performance waster. Higher octane fuel is not better fuel; it just burns more slowly than lower octane fuel. If your car’s engine was designed to burn lower octane fuel and you feed it high-octane (slower burning) fuel, combustion will be less efficient, which will give you less power and poorer mileage. And you’ll be paying more at the pump, too. Duh. Don’t do it!

* Drive-thru car washes –

They’re convenient, but they are also a huge and unnecessary expense. The typical “basic” wash costs around $12-$14 and most of these joints up-size you with extras such as wheel/tire wash, paint protection/wax and underbody wash. By the time you come out the other end, you could be out more than $20 – and that’s before you tip the attendant who vacuums out the carpets. Do this a couple times a month and you’re tossing close to $500 out every year. Is washing your own car a time-consuming hassle? Maybe. But if saving money’s the goal, this is a great way to do it. You can do as good a job or better in your own driveway, for free – or next to free (you do have to buy car wash soap, a bucket and so on) and come out hundreds ahead every year.

That’s equivalent to several tank-fulls of “free” gas!

* Standard tires vs. speed-rated tires –

More and more late model and new cars are coming from the factory equipped with tires designed for safe high-speed cruising at sustained speeds of 130 mph or more. In some case, a lot more – speeds as high as 150-plus MPH. Sustained.

But unless you drive your car this fast for sustained periods, you can often save a lot of money by going with tires that have a lower speed rating. A standard S (rated for safe sustained speeds up to 112 mph) or T (118 mph) rated tire is certainly adequate for American highways, where few cars drive faster than 80 or 90 mph for extended periods of time.

H-rated (130 mph), V-rated (149 mph) and ultra-performance W (168 mph) and Y-rated (186 mph) tires are Fantasy Tires on U.S. roads, where driving anywhere near such speeds is also ultra-illegal. A few daring drivers might occasionally run their cars over 100 for a few seconds. The rest is talking points, not reality.

You can find out what the speed rating of your tire is by looking at the alphabetical designation on the sidewall. For example, a 225/50HR16 tire is an H-rated tire for a 16-inch rim. This information should also be listed in your vehicle’s owner’s manual. See here for more detailed info about tire ratings.

Caveats: High-speed tires also usually provide better braking and handling performance than standard type tires. That means your car might not corner as well or stop as quickly if you go with a lower-cost, less aggressive tire. However, these losses would likely be noticeable only under extreme conditions – on a test track, at “the limit” of the vehicle’s handling/braking abilities. Under normal driving conditions, it’s likely you will never notice the difference. In fact, the car’s ride may be smoother, since standard-type tires give a better ride than aggressive, performance tires

The key thing is to be sure that whatever tire you choose meets the minimum load/heat/traction rating listed by the vehicle manufacturer. So long as they do, you are safe.

And saving money.

Don’t cheap out on:

* Oil changes (and oil quality) –

Cheaping out on either oil changes or the oil itself is probably the most penny-wise and pound-foolish thing you can do to your vehicle. Stretching oil change intervals beyond the recommended maximum time/mileage interval assures accelerated engine wear, reduced fuel efficiency and possibly even a premature catastrophic failure. Using low-cost (and low-grade) oil that doesn’t meet the minimum API/SAE specifications does the same thing – and will absolutely void your warranty coverage. You could be left holding the bag for thousands of dollars in engine damage because you tried to save a few bucks on oil.

It’s especially important to key your oil change intervals to the type of driving you do. Many people go by the maximum intervals touted by the vehicle manufacture – which are touted precisely because they let the automaker make the car seem “low maintenance.” However, the maximum intervals often apply only to cars driven under so-called “normal” operating conditions. And what many of us subject our vehicles to every day – especially stop-and-go driving, short trips, etc. – actually qualifies as “severe” or “heavy-duty” use – and the recommended changeout intervals will be more frequent.

Caveats: In addition to using oil that meets the manufacturer’s recommended minimums, be sure the oil filter you use also meets the manufacturer’s requirements. A below-spec filter can cause problems – and will also void your warranty if a failure occurs. Also, if you are a do-it-yourselfer, be sure to keep receipts for all the oil/filters – so that you can prove you used the manufacturer-recommended stuff in case of a warranty claim. If you have your oil changed by a non-dealer be sure they use the right type of oil and filter (and that it is listed on your paperwork).

Finally, be sure to check the dipstick yourself after they are done. Some of these quickie-lube places have been known to over or under-fill the crankcase.

* Radiator service –

Long life coolant doesn’t mean forever. It also doesn’t mean it will last as long as advertised, either. It’s important to periodically check the condition of the coolant in your radiator – or have a competent mechanic check it for you. Contaminated coolant can lead to a gunked-up/ruined radiator – which can be a very expensive part to replace. It can also lead to overheating, which in a modern engine with aluminum cylinder heads risks catastrophic engine damage.

Coolant condition should be checked at least every two years, regardless of the advertised shelf life of the product that’s in there. And it should be changed every five years, at the outside, if you care about the long-term health of your vehicle.

It’s also smart to periodically open the radiator cap (engine completely cold!) to check the fill level. You may catch a minor, pinhole-type leak (or perhaps a a larger problem, such as a leaky head gasket) before it develops into a major leak – and a big hassle.

Fresh coolant should appear bright green (or orange-red,if it’s the “long-life” type) and translucent, not cloudy. If it looks dirty, it probably is dirty – and probably needs to be changed.

* Wiper blades –

People sometimes neglect to regularly check – and change – their vehicle’s windshield wiper blades. These should be replaced as soon as they can no longer clear the glass without streaking. Blades usually last about six months, but sometimes wear out much sooner if subjected to harsh/extreme conditions. Winter driving – and road salt – is especially hard on wiper blades. Obviously, if you can’t see, you can’t drive safely – and no amount of money in your pocket is worth risking wrapping your car around a telephone pole.

Also: Don’t forget to regularly check (and top off) your windshield washer reservoir. In heavy usage, you can run dry surprisingly quickly – and even the best/freshest wiper blade can be rendered helpless by a windshield coated with road salt and muck. It’s smart to keep a jug of the stuff in the car, so you can fill up right away instead of having to drive around half-blind, like Mr. Magoo, looking for a gas station or auto parts store.

Throw it in the Woods?



  1. The best piece of advice I got on not cheaping out was to always use high test on all 2 cycle engines and the lawn tractor etc.
    (plus of course the stabilizer, oil etc as necessary) On the tractor the main threat is a dead battery and high test seems to start quicker. ( getting the wife to leave the engine running would be cheaper and much, much harder.)

    • Hey Bill,

      My Stihl chain saw owner’s manual says to use premium. I think, though, the same rule applies: Go by what the owner’s manual/manufacturer of the machinery recommends.

  2. Be aware that modern oils may not be suitable for older non-roller cams and lifters since the additive ZDDP has been removed. This seems to be more of a problem with high-performance engines, but some locals with stock aircooled VW’s have had excessive cam and lifter wear. Kawasaki 4-stroke oil still has ZDDP, so does Briggs and Stratton mower oil and Valvoline street-legal racing oil. I noticed that STP still has some, but I don’t know how much. Dr. William Denison of DenCo Engineering Group wrote about this in Jan. ’09 Hot VW’s magazine in their “Tech Talk” section. I have been using an SF grade oil from Dollar General in my older Chevy engines that specified SF, but I don’t know if the ZDDP is still in it. So far, so good!

    • Hi Pat,

      Good point! I use Comp Cams ZDDP additive in my ’76 Trans-Am 455. I also use Royal Purple oil in this car. All the bikes get Motul synthetic, including the ’76 Kz900.

  3. I keep seeing chain service centers & dealers selling power flushes of ATF, coolant, oil, & brake fluid (as opposed to regular drain & refill service). That they’re advertising them to me makes me think it’s no better, and I’ve heard stories of the flushing do damage to hoses, seals, etc. But those stories are always secondhand.
    Anyone have stories good or bad on them?

    • Engine flushes: I’d be very reluctant to do this, especially if any kind of solvent is involved. Strikes me as very likely overkill/not necessary even without solvent. So long as you are using good quality oil to start with and change it at reasonable intervals, you ought to be fine without it. I have not heard of any automaker recommending it. (Maybe someone else here has info on that?) I think you’d be better off spending the money on top-of-the-line synthetic oil/filters instead.

      Transmission flushes. Ok. Reason? Unlike draining engine oil, you only get about a third to half the old fluid by just dropping the pan – so the new fluid will immediately be contaminated by the old fluid. Flushing machines draw out all the old fluid, which is what you’d want. Or what I’d want, anyhow!

      Coolant: Definitely. Flushing is necessary for the same reason as doing the transmission; it’s the only way to get all the old stuff out, plus you’ll remove some of the gunk inside the system if the flush is done right.

      Brakes: Complete changeout every 3-4 years is definitely good policy if you want to maintain peak brake performance as well as retard water-related deterioration of seals and so on.

  4. I would concur with most of what’s here, Eric, but add this:

    – My Hemi “recommends” 89. Although I don’t use it all the time, it does make a discernable difference when towing.

    – Car washes, agreed. Though, when it’s 20F here in Pittsburgh, I do yeild to convenience. With a coupon on certain days, it only runs me $9 and the kids love it.

    – You might be right about tires for the way most people drive but… Many tire shops will not fit a tire with a lower speed rating than the OEM tire.

    – Oil is the cheapest maintenance item you’ll ever put in your car. You’re correct. Don’t skimp. For European cars with extended oil change intervals, it’s important to look at the ACEA specs too, not just the API/SAE stuff.

    – Radiator, again… agreed. I go one step further when I do it. I use distilled water to refill.

    – Wiper blades… funny. I use RainX like crazy. My blades must last two, three years. We bought my wifes van in August of 08 and I just replaced the OEM blades for the first time last winter. Sure, it scares some passengers when I’m driving down the interstate with wipers off in a downpour but it works.

    Re: The brake system comments:

    (Everybody’s an expert on the internet right? But here are my thoughts.)

    I use ATE brake fluid and flush regularly. The same spec fluid is available in blue and amber so that when you flush, you can see when you’re getting new fluid all the way through to the caliper. I just alternate. It’s very reasonably priced and has a much higher dry boil point than “regular” fluid. I also use Speed Bleeders when they are available for my cars. Believe me, when I was tracking my M Coupe and MINI, I spent a lot of time changing pads and bleeding since I had seperate pads and wheels/tires for track and street.

    Ceramic pads do not have a higher coefficient of friction nor does their friction coefficient increase with temperature (to a point) like high-performance pads. The benefit of ceramic is lower noise and dust, not performance. (Carbon-ceramic systems are a different story.) I used to drive my cars to the local track fitted with the track pads as opposed to changing when I got there; It sounded like a train every time I stopped.

    DOT 5 should be considered with care. Since DOT 5 is hydrophobic, it does not absorb water. Instead the water collects in the calipers and lowers the boil point rapidly when it does. DOT 4, being hydroscopic, absorbs water and over time diminishes performance. DOT 5 really isn’t recommended for typical street- (and especially track-) driven cars. It’s a show car thing and I guess the military uses it too but I don’t know about that…

    Sorry for the long post.

  5. Here is a tip that will save everyone around $1000.

    Don’t let your tank run under 1/4 full.

    It will keep your fuel pump from overheating.

  6. Brake fluid flushes every two or three years is a really good thing. Brake fluid absorbs moisture from the air. The moisture gradually accumulates, and settles in the system low points. Like calipers. As the moisture level increases, the point where the fluid boils decreases. Eventually this can lead to brake fade or failure where none was present before under the same circumstances. It also causes corrosion at low points on the lines as well as the calipers and master cylinders. Fluid changes are fairly cheap, so well worth it.
    I also use ceramic pads when available, since better braking should always be the default position. I am always suprised by folks that try to save a buck on something as important as brakes.

  7. Washing off the salt is always a good thing… provided the car wash does a good job of it and just doesn’t create a salt spray.

    I try to flush brake fluid when I change pads. The fluid does absorb water that can rust brake components from the inside. There’s lots of debate if it is required or not. Clean fresh fluid can’t hurt so that’s what I do. Do I get every drop? Probably not even close, but enough to keep things clean. With a simple vacuum bleeder it’s not a huge deal if the bleed screws are anti-seized or packed with grease around the threads.

    • Good point!

      I do my motorcycles every other year; the cars every time I change pads/shoes.

      When I rebuilt the entire brake system in my Trans-Am, I switched over to DOT 5 too.

  8. Two things:

    1. During the winter months, I use the automatic drive-through carwash to get rid of the road salt whenever I get a chance, like during a January thaw. Those are about $5-7 if you get the basic package…which at some places includes an undercarriage wash (which can be helpful…or not, tell me what you think). It does make my car look better, and washing off the salt and cinders can’t be a bad thing, but is it really necessary?

    2. What are your thoughts on higher levels of brake service, such as ceramic pads and brake system flushes? I do know that ceramic pads make for less noise and dust, and that many hi-po cars have them, but are they worth it for everyday driving? Plus, I’ve heard of brake system flushes in the last few years (I have a Subaru wagon, and they recommend them every 30K miles)…is that something worthwhile or wasteful? I do know that at my last flush, the fluid was brownish before and clear afterward. Thanks!


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