We’re so used to cellphones, TVs, computers, and home appliances that need no regular checks or maintenance, that last until they don’t and then get trashed and replaced, that it’s tempting to think of our vehicles as equally attention-free and reliable. And we’re just so busy every day.
But modern vehicles aren’t electronics. Rather, they’re incredibly complex machines—mechanical devices made of thousands of parts, many of which move up, down, or around. And of course, they roll on inflatable rubber tires.
Some of these components need occasional attention to keep them operating properly, and others eventually require replacement.
There are many reasons to take care of your daily wheels. Regular maintenance is quick, easy, and cheap, while major repairs are expensive. It’s also comforting to know that your car, SUV, or truck is in good shape regardless of its age or mileage, with no need to worry about delays or breakdowns on long trips or your commute. Well-maintained vehicles last longer and hold more of their resale and trade-in value than neglected ones. In other words, take care of your car and it will take care of you.
The good news is that you don’t have to be a car enthusiast or even marginally mechanically inclined to keep your car in top shape. And it takes hardly any time. Here’s a list of six easy things to check that have the potential to prevent costly problems and keep your vehicle humming happily for many years. We’ve provided illustrations to help you find the components under the hood that need to be examined. But it’s always a good idea to read your owner’s manual to locate these items on your particular vehicle and to know the manufacturer’s service recommendations for them.
How’s the Oil Level?
Oil is the lifeblood of your engine. Oil lubricates all the moving parts in your car’s engine, so you never want to let it run low. Almost all of today’s cars have engines that are so well built and thoroughly sealed that they won’t use any significant amount of oil between the recommended oil and filter changes. But you won’t know for sure if your car is an exception to the rule unless you check. Or maybe you drive an older car that does use some oil. Here’s how to check your oil:
- Make sure the engine is off. Open the hood. The release is usually found under the driver’s-side dash; the safety catch is under the lip of the hood.
- Find the (usually well-labeled) engine-oil dipstick, and pull it out. (It’s often yellow, for easy spotting.) Wipe the end with a clean cloth, replace the dipstick fully back into its sheath, and pull it out again.
- Now look at the tip; the markings indicate a range from full to one-quart low. You will see a light coating of oil on the end of the dipstick. If it’s between the minimum and maximum lines, you’re good. If it’s at or below minimum, add a quart of your vehicle’s recommended oil. (You’ll find that listed in the owner’s manual.)
- You add oil by twisting off the cap marked with the oil-can symbol (which often also has the word “oil” on it) that sits in plain view atop the engine and pouring in a quart of oil.
- Be sure to wipe any drips off the engine; oil can smoke when it gets hot.
Your engine doesn’t just need enough oil, it needs clean oil. So be sure to get the oil and oil filter changed at the mileage intervals recommended in the owner’s manual.
Make Sure You Have Windshield-Washer Fluid
It’s never fun to run out of washer fluid, but it’s particularly bad in winter, when road muck and salt mess up the windshield and play havoc with visibility. How often you check the windshield-washer reservoir depends on the season and the weather. Here’s how to check it:
- The windshield-washer reservoir is located under the hood.
- Washer tanks are often made of translucent plastic, allowing you to check the level visually. But many are also tucked out of sight, so there’s no way to tell how full they are—except when you fill them to the brim.
- Pop the reservoir cap. It’s marked with the icon of windshield-wiper spray. Fill the reservoir with washer fluid.
- Do not use pure water; freezing temperatures will cause the water in the reservoir to turn to ice, rendering your wipers useless. Commercial washer fluid has alcohol in it that keeps it from turning solid in all but Alaskan-winter temperatures.
Check the Tires’ Air Pressure
Newer cars have a tire-pressure warning light to let you know that your tires are low on air, but older cars do not. In any case, it’s best to purchase a tire-pressure gauge at an auto-parts store for a few dollars and check your tire pressures to make sure they’re set correctly. Here’s what you need to know:
- A sticker on the driver’s door pillar lists the proper inflation pressure for when the tires are cold (meaning that you haven’t yet driven on them that day).
- If you set the pressures after you’ve been driving for a while (more than a few miles), they should be raised by three pounds per square inch, as tires warm up and pressures rise when they are driven on.
- Check your tire pressures once a month for a couple of months. If the pressures remain steady, you can check them quarterly, as you know the tires are holding air.
Is the Radiator Full?
The radiator contains that keeps your engine’s temperature under control, and it can be checked visually. Here’s how:
- Find the coolant reservoir under the hood. It’s made of translucent plastic, marked with “min” and “max” lines, and is, in all likelihood, holding a green fluid.
- When the engine is cool, the coolant level should reside between the lines.
- If it’s low, buy some antifreeze and top it off.
- Never attempt to refill the cooling system through the radiator cap! If the engine is warm, loosening the radiator cap—the black cap located atop the radiator as shown in the illustration above—can cause it to spit back scalding water. Always refill through the reservoir, which is not under pressure.
- If the coolant is low during your initial check, recheck it monthly. If it keeps disappearing, you have a problem and need to bring the car to a dealer or repair shop.
- If the coolant level remains in the zone, you’re good to go for a long time. Coolant lasts for years, but not indefinitely. Replacing it is a job for a repair facility. Check your owner’s manual to see how often the manufacturer suggests it be replaced.
When you push on the brake pedal, you are pumping brake fluid through the system to the brakes. For most cars, the brake-fluid reservoir is translucent plastic, so you can see if it’s full. And like most other systems, today’s brake systems are well sealed and almost never leak. Almost. Here’s how to check the brake-fluid level:
- If the brake reservoir is full when you check it, your brake system has integrity.
- If fluid is low, purchase brake fluid and refill the reservoir.
- Check it weekly. If the fluid level continues to go down, however slowly, take the car to a repair facility. You have a problem that can make driving dangerous.
- Like coolant, brake fluid has a working life and must be replaced at regular, long-term intervals. Consult your owner’s manual to see at what mileage point it should be replaced. That should be done by a shop.
The other brake items that wear out are the brake pads. Pads can last for 20,000 miles or more—sometimes much more—depending on your car and driving conditions. But this isn’t something that can be easily checked at home. When a car is under warranty, an inspection of the brake pads is usually part of the routine scheduled maintenance.
If you drive an older car, you’ll need a shop (or a mechanically inclined friend who knows brakes) to establish how much meat there is on the pads. It’s valuable to know the remaining pad life because you want to anticipate when you’ll need to replace them. If you wait too long, the pad linings can wear through to the metal backing plates and do big damage to the car’s brake rotors. So get a handle on remaining brake-pad life.
Tires are the all-important connection between your car and the road. You don’t want to let them wear until they’re bald. At that point, tires act like water skis when the road gets wet and ride on the film of water, making it much easier to lose control. Tread should be visible across the tire. Better still, use a penny to check if the depth of the tread is adequate. Here’s how:
- Insert the edge of the penny into the tread, making sure Lincoln’s head is upside down (the top of the president’s head should be touching the tread), with the head facing so you can see it.
- If you can see all of Lincoln’s head, the tread grooves are too shallow (about 2/32 of an inch or less) to drive in wet weather; those grooves channel rainwater away and keep the tire in contact with the road. Replace your tires!
- If you’re unsure about whether the tires are due for replacement, see a tire dealer. It’s also a good idea to rotate your tires front to rear annually to even out the wear. And if you live in the cold-weather states, it’s smart to invest in a set of winter tires.
That’s the easy stuff, and if all you do is occasionally check these six areas, you’ll be fine a long way down the road—literally and figuratively. Leave the rest to the experts.
Don’t Be A Tool: Make Working on Your Car Easier
Ready to pick up the wrench yourself? From washer fluids to tire pressure gauges to jack stands, here’s a collection of great products and tools every garage needs.