* Regularly (at least every three years) change the brake/clutch fluid –
People (most people) understand the importance of regular engine oil changes. And it’s absolutely true. Your engine will live longer (and run better, giving you optimum performance and mileage) if you regularly change the oil (and filter). But the engine is just one part of your car, which is itself a series of inter-related systems. The brakes are one of the major systems and if not properly maintained, can cause major expense – especially in a late model car with anti-lock brakes (ABS).
The fluid in the lines, master cylinder (and ABS pump) degrades over time; if you look at the master cylinder of a new or nearly new car, you will notice the fluid is almost translucent and honey-colored. As it ages and becomes contaminated, it turns progressively darker. That dark color is your first warning that potentially expensive problems are in your future, including a failed ABS pump (that can cost as much as $800 or more, depending on the car), ruined calipers and rusted (internally) lines.
To avoid expensive brake system problems – and limit brake-related expenses to routine pad/shoe changes and so on – have the fluid replaced at least every three years.
And don’t forget the clutch slave cylinder. Most cars with manual transmissions built since the late 1980s have hydraulic-assist clutches. There is a little reservoir filled with brake fluid inside the engine compartment, usually close to the brake master cylinder. The hydraulic clutch system also needs to have its fluid regularly replaced, just like the fluid in the brake system – and for the same reasons.
* Do the Cooling System Flush and Fill –
This is another of your vehicle’s systems that’s often neglected – probably to a great extent because of new-car ads touting “lifetime” coolant. Don’t buy it – unless you want your car’s lifetime to be the equivalent of JFK’s. No matter what type of coolant your car originally came with, it should be purged and replaced every 4-5 years at the outside (earlier, if a simple test that any competent mechanic can do determines there’s enough contamination to warrant it). Otherwise, you risk running hot (which can ruin a modern engine made of aluminum alloy) as well as big repair bills for things like premature radiator replacement, a clogged heater core and so on.
In some late-model cars, a new radiator can cost $500 or more, not counting the install labor. And you don’t even want to know about the cost of digging out the heater core and installing a new one… .
* Be Nice to Your Tranny –
No, not Janet Napolitano. The thing that’s underneath the floorpans you probably never think about. It, like your engine, contains fluid (either gear oil or ATF, automatic transmission fluid) that also should be changed out more often than most people do (which is rarely, or even never).
Manual transmissions in particular are often victims of slim-to-none service. If you’re in it for the long-haul, consider replacing the gear lube or ATF (be sure you know which your particular unit requires) every five years or 50,000 miles, whichever comes first. You’ll notice smoother operation and higher mileage – and the gearbox ought to last the lifetime of the vehicle.
If you have a car with an automatic, be sure (especially with certain imports) that you use only the fluid recommended by the car’s manufacturer. Some have specific (proprietary) additives and if you use some other (probably cheaper) fluid, you could find yourself facing a titanic bill – and declined warranty claim.
So, FYI –
* Avoid crap gas –
Not all unleaded is created equal. Some brands have superior additive packages and these additives will help keep precision (read: expensive) parts, in particular, the parts that comprise the fuel injection system, cleaner longer. This isn’t a shill for the “name brand” gasolines, just fair warning that no-name (or off-brand) gas may not have the same additive package, or as much additives, as the “name brand” stuff. You can research brands online to find out more about who’s got what. Also, pay attention to the way your car runs. If the engine seems more lively (and gets better mileage, starts easier, etc.) when you use Brand A vs. Brand B, then common sense says use Brand A.
The other thing is, avoid buying fuel (irrespective of the brand) at out-of-the way stations that don’t get a lot of traffic. Reason? The fuel in the storage tanks below ground may have been sitting there a long time – and fuel degrades over time, losing both octane value as well as becoming contaminated by things like water from condensation in the underground tanks. Both of these issues – fuel degradation and contamination by water – are more of a problem with modern, alcohol-laced fuels (ethanol). Try to buy your gas at a busy station; the odds are good the fuel you’re pumping will be fresher – and freer of contaminants.
* Keep your seals clean and flexible –
Another item that’s often neglected are the flexible seals (door, trunk, rear liftgate, etc.) that keep water from getting into areas where you don’t want moisture. In late-model cars, these seals are often not made of rubber but rather a synthetic flexible material called EPDM (also used in roofing as well as outdoor pool applications). Whether rubber (older cars) or a synthetic EPDM material, the thing to avoid is using any product that contains petroleum distillates, which can actually cause damage to the seals rather than help keep them pliable and protect against moisture and UV damage.
A really top-drawer product for protecting rubber and EPDM automotive seals is 303 Aerospace Protectant (see here: http://www.303products.com/shop303/index.cfm/category/1/303-aerospace-protectant.cfm ). Avoid oily products that mainly just impart a slick sheen to the surface.
* Drive Smoothly –
If you’re a runner, you know the importance of warming up, easing into your pace. Same with your car. At start-up, be gentle. Don’t immediately load the engine by (for example) turning on the air conditioning, or gunning the throttle. Build speed gradually, then try to maintain your pace without needing to make abrupt braking or throttle inputs. You can learn to judge the ebb and flow of traffic, matching your speed (and the distance between you and other cars) such that you don’t need to hit the brakes as often (or as hard). Ditto the accelerator.
Throw it in the Woods?