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R emember when cars needed tuneups every six months? How did we ever make time for all the maintenance our cars needed? Car maintenance has changed, for the better. Still, being savvy can save you some car maintenance money.
       Car maintenance is distinct from car repair. Together both make up car service. You don't have to take your vehicle to the same shop for both maintenance and repair. A shop that has a high labor rate sometimes can justify that with better equipment for diagnosis, more highly skilled technicians, or faster access to parts when your vehicle needs repairs. Maintenance, though, doesn't call for those skills and equipment.
       Driving today's cars to 50,000 miles is easy. For people who get a new car every few years, following the maintenance schedule line by line benefits them little except perhaps in resale value. The second or third owner will reap the durability down the road. Frequent fluid changes, often preached from auto service pulpits, won't show their benefits until 100,000 miles and more. Nevertheless, the manufacturer's schedule is the place to start.

The oil change is key
Right now the most frequent maintenance remains the oil change. Car makers are working diligently on reducing the need for oil changes. And longer intervals between changes are a priority for the next generation of oils, expected on the market by the end of the 1990s.
       You gain little by changing the oil yourself. Disposing of the used oil safely, cleaning up the inevitable spills--it's just not worth it. Thinking about time, not miles, is one way to make those oil changes more convenient. Too often maintenance schedules emphasize only the miles. It's easier to plan car maintenance around other events on your calendar.
       There is nothing magical about doing maintenance as close to, for example, every 10,000 miles as possible. That's a target, not an absolute maximum. If you miss or must postpone scheduled maintenance, don't shorten up on the next interval to make up for it. "That's like trying to catch up on lost sleep," says Dave Van Sickle, director of automotive and consumer information for the American Automobile Association (AAA) in Washington, D.C. An extra 3,000 miles, for example, on one oil change is not critical.
       Van Sickle says having your car put on a service lift once a year is an important part of maintenance. "Something could have been damaged from a road hazard. Or, something could be loose, but not making any noise yet."

Whose schedule?
Being specific is important when you're trying to save money on maintenance. Big bills arise when owners say, "Gimme the 12,000-mile service." The question they never ask, or mechanics never answer, is "Whose 12,000-mile service are you talking about?"
       The service department accounts for a significant profit share in a large automobile dealership. Cars, though, come in to service departments less frequently because of manufacturer programs to reduce routine maintenance.
       So, to see customers more often, many repair shops make up their own maintenance schedules. Their forms push more-frequent servicing, or servicing systems that are maintenance-free. One argument in the sales pitch is more-severe driving conditions occur locally than the manufacturers use in designing their schedules. With a laugh, John Ochs, Ford Motor Co.'s spokesman for its parts and service division in Detroit, quips, "I don't know how we could have more-severe local conditions at every outlet in the United States!"
Part of a shop's package of extra services often includes oil additives or fuel system cleaners. The owner's manual usually cautions against using such products:

  • "Don't add anything to your oil."

  • "All gasolines are required to contain additives that will help prevent deposits from forming in your engine and fuel, allowing your emission control system to function properly. Therefore, you should not have to add anything to the fuel."
       Use name brand gas and oil products and you will save money and have many trouble-free miles.
       Maintenance operations or frequencies that differ from the manufacturer's requirements are suggestions only. When a mechanic confronts you with maintenance beyond what's in your car's schedule, "Just say No!" That's the advice of AAA's Van Sickle.
       Repair shops have to tread a narrow path keeping a customer satisfied with reasonable maintenance costs and keeping a customer satisfied with a durable, reliable vehicle. As a result, "We counsel our dealers to safeguard against selling the customer something that the customer doesn't need," comments Lin Peacock, executive director for dealer operations, National Automobile Dealers Association (NADA), McLean, Va.
       When considering maintenance needs on a new car, Peacock says it best: "Use your best judgment on whether you need $500 worth of work on a car that's not that old."
      When a shop suggests some extra work, ask if the vehicle needs this work immediately or whether you can postpone it for a while if household finances are tight. Here, a trusted relationship with your repair shop will let you make smart buying decisions.

Doubling up
Sometimes you can combine two tasks for some savings. For example, a radiator hose replacement should be less costly when done during a coolant change. The technician has to drain the coolant in either event.
       Remember that the warranty only requires you to follow certain parts of the manufacturer's maintenance schedule. Some car makers have required maintenance items, and other suggested or recommended maintenance points.
       Avoid the lure of an advertised tuneup as a cure-all for car care. Adjusting ignition timing, idle speed, and fuel mixture "just isn't possible anymore," AAA's Van Sickle warns. "There is no such thing as a tuneup today, yet the word continues to be used."
       Using a higher-octane, more-expensive gasoline always has been a money waster. Now, though, it even could mean more cost down the road. Ford's Ochs cautions, "There's a fallacy out there. If I put a higher octane in my car, I'm doing it a favor.' Wrong! You can create carbon deposits that would not otherwise form."
       Some maintenance items are more critical than others for short-term benefits. Tire rotation every 6,000 miles to 9,000 miles is one of those. Rotation evens out tire wear on front-drive cars. Failing to rotate tires has another consequence: Uneven wear may increase tire noise to an intolerable level, approaching that of full snow tires. Combined with monthly checks of inflation pressure, tire rotation can be the difference between getting 40,000 miles or 50,000 miles on a set of tires.

Timing is everything
One maintenance item, though, is very important when it's needed. Many engines have "timing belts" that keep internal moving parts synchronized. Replacement intervals range from 60,000 miles to 100,000 miles. Engine damage usually occurs when these belts fail while the engine is running. It's instant depreciation should the timing belt break.
       Some maintenance, such as monthly tire pressure and cassette deck cleaning, is your responsibility. At each refueling, check levels for engine oil, coolant, and windshield washer fluid. You have to go under the hood occasionally yourself, if you're buying self-service gasoline. If that's too much trouble, look for vehicles with dashboard indicators to remind you of these checks.

       When there's more than one vehicle in the family, different family members may drive them differently. That changes maintenance frequency. And a car that gets mainly highway driving can go farther, miles-wise, between oil changes than one used around town.
       Being thrifty with auto maintenance means doing jobs on your car that you also do in your home. Changing light bulbs is an example. Do you call a handyman to change the kitchen light bulb?
       While auto bulbs are not as standardized as household bulbs, the owner's manual usually describes ones likely to burn out. You can be certain procedures like this have minimum risk for damage, or they wouldn't be in the manual. Unless paying $25 to change a $1 bulb strikes you as a good deal, be a bit adventuresome and tackle small jobs like this yourself.
John Fobian is an automotive writer and former director of automotive engineering for the American Automobile Association.

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