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5 Inexpensive Ways to Extend the Life of Your Car

By Myles Kornblatt, AARP Dec 2021

DIY strategies keep your vehicle running longer amid automobile shortages. ​

Replacing a vehicle right now can be expensive. A shortage of new cars has pushed demand higher for quality used automobiles, resulting in premium prices. So consider spending a few dollars to keep your current car in top condition rather than paying thousands extra to replace it.

Keeping your car on the road longer is about being mindful of the way it operates when it comes to both efficiency and safety, says Trish Serratore, senior vice president of communications at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE)

“Regular maintenance is essential in keeping a car running,” Serratore says. “As you drive every day, your brakes, oil, coolant and other essentials get used — and eventually that also means getting used up.”

Paying attention to the small things has paid off for Taylor Fleury, of Suffolk, Virginia, who has a special relationship with a 1988 Toyota Tercel. Fleury and his nine siblings bought this car for his parents’ 30th anniversary because it was just like the one the couple had on their wedding day.

The car has around 111,000 miles on it, and Fleury’s father is responsible for about 13,000 of those. Fleury has taken responsibility for maintaining the car and keeping this gift on the road.

“Treating an old vehicle with respect — not viewing it as a ‘beater’ and simply performing routine maintenance will go a long way in preserving older vehicles,” he says.

Not all of us are driving cars that are more than 30 years old, and Terry acknowledges keeping the Toyota going can be a bit different because of the older technology. “It does help to understand how older vehicles were built and engineered differently than modern vehicles as well,” he says.

You may not want to keep your car on the road for three decades, but here are five inexpensive ways to keep your car running longer.

Let the car warm up

You wouldn’t ask an Olympian to hop right out of bed and run his/her best 20-mile time, so don’t expect the same from your car. Just as an athlete would warm up with some light exercise before a big race, your vehicle needs to do the same.

That means allowing the car to idle a few minutes during the first start of the day. This lets the moving parts begin at a leisurely pace and gets the essential fluids flowing properly.

People who live in colder climates know about “warming up” a car on a winter morning. That often can get mistaken for just getting the interior nice and toasty. But when a heater is working on a cold day, it also means your car’s engine has warmed up enough to be ready to hit the road.

Even if your car is parked in the Florida sun, if it sits overnight or longer, take a few minutes to let it idle and get comfortable. It helps ensure all components are operating at their proper temperature, and less stress equals longer automobile life.

Keep your car clean

A good-looking car is always nice to have, but there are real benefits to keeping it clean. A full wash every few weeks and a full waxing every few months gets rid of debris and protects the paint. This helps prevent corrosion on the body panels.

There’s another benefit here, too. A car that looks good commands more of your time. There’s extra pride and motivation to keep up maintenance for a good-looking vehicle.

Oil is the car's lifeblood

One of the most important basics in engine maintenance is locating your dipstick and reading your oil level. The owner’s manual can help you with this process and also show you where to add lubricant if necessary. Don’t have your owner’s manual? It would be a smart investment to go online to download it and/or get a used one from an online auction. It’s a great first step to answering “where is that?” on the car.

It’s essential to have oil, but the right type of oil is key. A car with 75,000 miles on it has driven around the earth’s equator three times. With a car that’s been working hard for a while, it becomes even more important to keep it well lubricated.

Synthetic oil is an attractive option to explore on higher mileage cars. It does a better job of bonding with components and reducing friction on well-used motors. Your local shop may charge $30-$60 more per service, and synthetic oil is not a one-time fee. The way it interacts with your car means it’s difficult to switch back to a conventional oil without a system flush. The good news is synthetic oil goes longer distances between services.

A less expensive option is a synthetic blend that’s middle-priced at an oil change shop. It doesn't have the commitment or coverage of a full synthetic, but it is specially formulated for better protection than conventional oil.

Learn to check all your fluids

Oil is essential, but your owner’s manual will show you ways to check your brake fluid, transmission fluid and coolant. It’s good to confirm every few months that it all looks normal. If it isn’t, it's an early warning sign to try to catch issues before they become expensive repairs.

Remember, your car has many metal parts moving in unison. The only thing keeping sparks from flying are all the lubricants that smooth it out.

Don’t ignore the little things

Make sure to keep an eye out for little problems that may increase over time. There might be a slight vibration that grows stronger each week. But since it only happens once in awhile or for a brief time, you barely notice the change.

Some components are designed to tell you when it’s time for a replacement. For example, your brakes can have a squeal or a scrape when it’s time to change the pads. Don’t ignore signs like these because safety is another key to keeping a car longer. After all, an accident and a need for a replacement vehicle can catapult you immediately into the current high-priced car marketplace.

Any time that you feel out of your depth either for knowledge or terminology about your car care, it’s time to see a mechanic. If you don’t already have a trusted one, finding an ASE-certified technician is a great place to start. The ASE’s Serratore notes that finding a good mechanic doesn’t have to be a gamble.

“Start with an oil change or smaller check to know if you’re comfortable with your technician and the shop before committing to any larger services,” she says.

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