Keep Your Old Car Running
Maybe this was the year you'd been planning to buy a new car—or at least a newer used one. But after the latest review of the family budget and a look around at the state of the economy, you've decided that you really need to keep that old car running awhile longer. If so, you need to make sure you're doing everything possible to keep it in good condition.
If you're getting into the car longevity game, you have plenty of company. Aaron Clements, owner of C&C Automotive in Augusta, Ga., and a past chairman of the trade group Automotive Service Association, based in Bedford, Texas, says he is seeing a change in attitude among his customers. "I used to hear people with an older car say they didn't want to spend too much on it because they only planned to keep it another year," he notes. "Now they want to be sure all the maintenance gets done, since they say they plan to keep that car several more years."
Clements and other auto experts say it's common today to see safe, well-running cars in good condition with 150,000 miles on the odometer. That's true, they say, partly because cars are better-made and more durable than they were even 10 years ago. But also, better maintenance by car owners is adding to that longevity.
Not all makes and models of cars are equal. Some will last longer than others. But whatever car, minivan, SUV, or pickup you own, it will run longer if you maintain it carefully. Here are some steps that will help you to keep rolling.
The professionals at your credit union can help you set up a savings plan for car repairs.
Make sure you have a good mechanic
With an older car where the warranty has expired, you're almost certain to get cheaper repairs at an independent auto repair shop than in the service bays of a new-car dealer. In addition to asking family and friends for recommendations, there are other ways to check an auto repair shop's reliability and consumer satisfaction record.
One of the most stringent certification programs is run by the AAA, based in Heathrow, Fla. Mike Calkins, manager of the AAA approved auto repair program, says shops endorsed by AAA have had on-site inspections of the shop and repair equipment and background checks for financial soundness and necessary insurance.
In addition, AAA wants to see that individual mechanics working there have certification in their specialties from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (usually known as ASE).
AAA also conducts a consumer satisfaction survey of shops under consideration and requires a 90% positive rating before putting them on the approved list. This site can help you find a AAA-approved shop near you. Put in your zip code, then click on Automotive, and then Approved Auto Repair.
It's common to see safe, well-running cars in good condition with 150,000 miles on the odometer.
Beyond shops certified by the AAA, membership in the Automotive Service Association, which provides training to repair shops in management and other subjects, is a good sign. Such shops also likely will display ASE certification of their mechanics. If you're considering a new auto shop, start with a simple job like an oil change and see if you have a good experience, counsels shop owner Aaron Clements, adding "The best time to find a mechanic is before you really need one."
Follow the maintenance schedule
Even if you never have paid much attention to the owner's manual for your car, it's time to give it a careful reading. It will set out what maintenance tasks should be done at various mileage levels. And while you don't have to follow it slavishly, it's a good road map to a sound vehicle.
Whatever interval the manual stipulates for oil changes—now often 5,000 miles to 7,000 miles—should be fine for most drivers, says AAA's Calkins. But if you're among the 30% or so of drivers who operate in extreme conditions—towing boats or trailers, driving in high heat or dusty conditions—then move to the stipulated shorter interval of 3,000 miles or so to change oil.
Most car owners are aware they need to be alert for oil change schedules. But don't ignore the often more expensive but less frequent changes of other fluids—for brakes, transmission, and power steering. And watch especially, Calkins says, for when the manual says to change the timing belt—the timing belt makes sure that the valves in the engine open and close at the proper time. Stipulated points for changing the belt can range from 60,000 miles to 105,000 miles; a broken timing belt can stop the car and sometimes cause engine damage.
Not only how you maintain but how you drive your car can affect its longevity.
Don't drop your routine when the car gets oldWhen a car is new and you're still excited about having it, it seems easier to remember needed maintenance appointments. And you'll probably get maintenance reminders from the dealer. But with an older car, it's more important than ever to stick to the maintenance schedule. Calkins adds that, with cars with more than 75,000 miles, you might consider specialized oil that helps moisten oil seals and prevent leaks. The Valvoline version is called MaxLife, and other companies have similar products.
Not only how you maintain, but how you drive your car, can affect its longevity. For instance, Calkins says to avoid the folk wisdom that in cold weather you should let your car warm up while idling. That can damage the catalytic converter that controls air pollution from the exhaust. Instead, says Calkins, start moving about 30 seconds after you start the car in cold weather but go easy on the gas pedal for a mile or two until the car warms up.
Shops endorsed by AAA have had on-site inspections of the shop and repair equipment and background checks for financial soundness and necessary insurance.
In this same vein, try to avoid short trips in your car of 10 minutes or less where the engine never really warms up. Even in normal highway driving, avoiding sharp acceleration and sudden braking also helps prolong the life of your car.
Finally, remember that older cars are simply more likely to have things go wrong. If you have found an auto shop you trust and are sticking to your maintenance schedule, urge the staff there to look over your car carefully whenever you come in for an oil change or other routine procedure. If your mechanic can spot a developing problem, it likely will cost you a lot less to fix now than later.
Consider starting a savings account for potential auto repair. That way, you won't hesitate to make needed fixes. And that just might keep you from needing a tow truck sometime soon. If you don't end up using it for repairs, it can become your down payment and reduce the size of a credit union loan for your next new car. The professionals at your credit union can help you set up a savings plan for car repairs.
Jerry Edgerton is an automotive writer whose work has appeared in Money and other national magazines. He also is the author of "Car Shopping Made Easy."
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