by Tony Molla
If you've ever wondered what it takes to be an ASE-certified automotive technician, consider this: In the span of one career, automotive engine technology alone has advanced from purely mechanical devices that need periodic adjustments to sophisticated, computer-controlled systems that can actually compensate for normal wear.
The same can be said for virtually every major system on today’s vehicles, from brakes to transmissions. And the technicians who service and maintain our vehicle fleet have had to learn it all. In fact, to be an ASE-certified automotive technician today is to commit to a lifetime of training just to keep abreast of changing technology.
Maintenance more necessary than ever before
Modern vehicles are wonders of engineering. In just the past decade, maintenance intervals for things like spark plugs, emissions and cooling systems have been stretched out to 100,000 miles in some vehicles.
But the need for periodic maintenance hasn't changed. In fact, given the longer life expectancy of today’s vehicles, the need for periodic maintenance has never been greater if you expect to get the most from what has become the second biggest investment most individuals will ever make.
To protect this investment and to get the maximum reliability and safety from the vehicle you depend upon daily, you need to establish and follow a maintenance plan. The best place to start a maintenance program is by reading your owner's manual. In it you will find the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule.
This schedule is based on "normal" driving, but remember that very few of us drive "normally." The roads are typically dusty and strewn with potholes and speed bumps. Look at the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule as a starting point for your vehicle maintenance plan, not the final authority.
The National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE), the non-profit organization that tests and certifies the competence of individual automotive repair technicians, knows a few things about vehicle maintenance too. ASE offers some general recommendations, which apply to all types of cars and trucks, to help you build a comprehensive vehicle maintenance plan.
Lube for life
The engine is the heart of your vehicle and probably the most costly to repair when something goes wrong. Modern electronic controls have eliminated a lot of adjustments, and what we used to call a “tune-up” has evolved into something akin to a complete physical, where most of the work involved is designed to verify proper operation of computer control systems.
While it's true that new cars and trucks run cleaner than ever before, the engine and all its related control systems must be kept operating exactly as designed to prevent increased engine emissions and a host of driveability problems.
The one thing experts agree on that you can do to add many miles to your engine is regular oil and filter changes. Most auto manufacturers recommend oil and filter changes every 7,500 miles or six months under "normal" conditions, but repair experts believe a better interval is every 3,000 miles or three months. By changing the oil regularly, the inside of your engine will stay clean, and you'll avoid damaging sludge buildup.
Today's cars also tend to run hotter than previous models. With the trend to downsize vehicle components to save space and weight, cooling system components are being asked to do more than their older counterparts.
The best thing you can do to maintain the cooling system at peak efficiency during the life of your car is to replace the coolant according to the manufacturer's recommendations. Although some of the newer coolants last longer, antifreeze does wear out. By replacing the coolant periodically, you insure that the corrosion inhibitors are fresh and are helping to eliminate the scale and corrosion that builds up inside the cooling system.
Probably the most ignored fluid in the car — and the most important — is the brake fluid. Brake fluid is not a petroleum-based product, so it does absorb moisture from the air. This hygroscopic quality diminishes its effectiveness and lowers braking performance.
Sludge will also build up over a period of time, blocking the valves inside antilock brake (ABS) units and resulting in costly repairs or replacement. In addition, this sludge may cause calipers and wheel cylinders to leak, also resulting in repairs or replacement. Experts recommend having the brake fluid flushed and refilled periodically, although manufacturer recommendations vary as to how often.
The transmission fluid also needs to be changed on a regular basis to help keep the transmission in tip-top shape. Here again, some manufacturers have increased maintenance intervals to 100,000 miles for transmission fluid changes, but these systems still need periodic maintenance. Most transmission failures can be directly traced to a lack of maintenance. When planning your maintenance schedule, consider that even one transmission replacement will probably greatly exceed the cost of all the fluid and filter changes for the entire life of the car.
Power steering is another fluid that is often ignored. It is recommended that it be flushed and refilled at least as often as you replace the brake fluid.
Replacing the differential fluid is something that is most often overlooked. A regular fluid change will help the differential last the life of the vehicle. If your vehicle is four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive, change the transfer case fluid as well.
Get out the grit
Filters play a critical part of a regular vehicle maintenance plan. Air and fuel filters keep dirt and abrasive grit out of the engine. Problems arise when these filters get dirty and start to clog up. Many driveability problems, such as hesitation and rough idle, can stem from dirty air and fuel filters. For maximum effectiveness, they should be replaced about every 15,000 miles, but driving in dusty conditions can require more frequent air filter changes.
A filter that is often overlooked is the carbon canister filter. It is an important part of the emission control system and filters the incoming air that this system uses. The canister is an integral part of today's engine management system, and a clogged canister filter can also result in driveability or emissions problems.
Some cars still have a positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) filter, also called a breather element. This filters the air for the PCV system to ensure clean air enters the engine crankcase. Most cars today draw air for the PCV system from the air cleaner housing so this filter is not needed, but if your engine has one, replace it at 15,000 mile intervals as well.
Speaking of the PCV system, the PCV valve (if equipped) should be replaced on a regular basis, too. When you put the new PCV filter in, replace the PCV valve as well. Many cars now use a metered orifice instead of a PCV valve and this should be checked periodically for free flow.
Ignition systems have become much more reliable over the years. Many engines don't even have distributors anymore; they use a DIS or Direct Ignition System. These systems can either mount one ignition coil on each spark plug, or share one coil for two plugs, thus eliminating the need of a distributor.
On engines that still use a distributor, it is a good idea to replace the distributor cap, distributor rotor and ignition wires according to the manufacturer's recommendations.
The spark plugs need to be replaced on a regular basis as well. Even though some manufacturers have extended those intervals to 100,000 miles, this doesn't apply to all engines. The best plug to use is the one the manufacturer recommends. This information is usually found on an engine decal located under the hood.
Perhaps the most critical engine component these days is the timing belt. Most manufacturers suggest replacing the timing belt every 60,000 miles.
Not all engines use a timing belt, but on those that do, it's critical that it be replaced before it breaks. If your car has an interference engine where the valves and pistons occupy the same place in the combustion chamber at different times, serious engine damage can occur if the belt breaks while operating. If your car has a non-interference engine, the worst that will happen is you get stranded somewhere.
Other engine drive belts should be checked on a regular basis — about as often as you change oil. In general, you should look for excessively cracked, glazed or frayed belts. Many accessories — including the alternator, power steering pump and coolant pump — are operated by drive belts. If these belts break or slip, the components they drive will fail to work, leaving you stranded.
One more thing to check while you're looking at the belts is the battery. Virtually all batteries are maintenance-free these days, except for a periodic terminal cleaning and inspection for cracks or leaks. In addition, ensure the battery is mounted securely.
Tires are one of the most important maintenance items under your car. The best way to get the most out of your tires is by having them rotated and balanced on a regular basis, about every 7,500 miles. This ensures they wear evenly and last as long as possible.
Balancing is important to eliminate vibration at road speeds, and a properly balanced tire reduces the stress and strain on shocks, struts and steering parts. Keeping the tire pressures set to specification will also go a long way in extending tire life and fuel economy.
Finally, you should get in the habit of replacing your wiper blades once a year. The Car Care Council recommends replacing them each spring, when you set your clocks forward for Daylight Savings Time.
Wiper refills are the most inexpensive safety feature on your vehicle. And if you doubt having good wipers is a safety feature, try driving with bad ones in a downpour at night.
If you live in an area that suffers cold and snowy winters, you may want to change to winter blades in the fall and go back to regular blades in the spring.
Following a regular vehicle maintenance program is the best insurance you have against unexpected breakdowns and expensive repairs. It also pays dividends by allowing you to get the most out of your transportation investment.
With a little forethought and TLC, that family chariot can reliably deliver a couple of hundred thousand miles of service.
Non-Warranty Work Most Commonly Postponed
Minor manufacturer-recommended scheduled service
Wear items (e.g., break pads, tires)
Body or other exterior damage
Major manufacturer-recommended scheduled service
Replacement of exterior light bulbs
Repair of mechanical issues
Source: Consumer Reports’ National Research Center survey, Nov. 3-7, 2011.