Modern cars need little routine maintenance, compared with the cars of two or three decades back. However, that doesn’t mean no maintenance. For instance, a car’s radiator can be filled with “lifetime” coolant that never requires changing. But that doesn’t matter much if a radiator hose leaks and the engine destroys itself for lack of the coolant. Catch the leak early and you can prevent an inconvenient and perhaps costly breakdown.
First, peek under your car, which contains a wide assortment of fluids. All should remain in the car, not drip on the garage floor. They’re a colorful bunch—red, green, yellow, orange, brown—and if you spot one of them on the ground, note what part of the car it seems to come from and have your repair shop track down the leak and stop it. The only fluid you should see under the car is clear water—normal condensation from the car’s air conditioner after you shut it off.
Now, with the car on a level surface and the engine off, pop open the hood. Can you see the engine? Good. That’s an accomplishment, given all the covers and paraphernalia automakers put in the engine compartment these days. Find the oil dipstick. If it seems to be missing, consult your owner’s manual, because it might be. Some cars now have an electronic oil-level gauge.
Dipstick or sensor, if the level is down more than a quart, ask your mechanic why. If the oil on the dipstick is a nasty black color, it’s time for an oil change. Look up oil-change intervals in the owner’s manual.
Your vehicle also has reservoirs for windshield washer, radiator, transmission, brake, and power steering fluids; your owner’s manual will tell you where and how to check each. As with engine oil, these fluids should be relatively clean. Coolant that looks like dirty dishwater or transmission fluid that smells burned should be changed.
The manual will indicate what kind of fluids to add, if needed. Be sure to add them in the proper place. An oil company did a survey and discovered that car owners put fluids in the oddest places—motor oil in the radiator, transmission fluid in the engine, and water just about everywhere. Not good. Modern car batteries are usually sealed. But see that the battery terminals don’t have mosslike stuff growing on them and that the cables are tight. Examine any belts you find for cracks or fraying, and any hoses for cracks or odd bulges. Now switch on the engine. Does it settle into a smooth idle? Do you hear any ominous sounds? Close the hood and turn on all the lights. Walk around the car to make sure they work; you’ll need a friend to help check the back-up and brake lights.
Turn the steering wheel to one side and shut off the engine. Examine the tires. Do they have plenty of tread? Are the sidewalls cracking? Are there any nails or screws in the tread that could cause a slow leak? Inspect the front tires closely for uneven wear that could indicate an alignment problem.
With a tire gauge (it costs less than $10 at an auto parts store) check the pressures—including the spare. Correct pressures are listed in the owner’s manual, on the driver-side doorjamb, the fuel-filler door, or the glove box door. Finally, make sure the windshield wiper blades are intact and flexible. Follow this routine once a month, fix any issues you discover in your inspection, and I’ll wager that you’ll avoid trouble down the road.