Car Maintenance Checklist

You depend on your car and your car depends on you. It starts and runs every day thanks to your efforts to maintain it. What does it take? The first thing any mechanic would tell you is to keep the engine oil and other fluids clean and topped up and follow the maintenance schedule. Changing oil and fluids is always cheaper than repairs caused by a lack of or dirty oil/ fluid.

How do you know if your engine oil is low?

Many modern cars consume oil between oil changes and most don’t have a warning light to warn you if the oil level is low. Even in many cars with an oil life monitor, you won’t see a warning if the oil level drops. Driving low on oil can cause engine problems. This means, check the engine oil level with the dipstick regularly.

The oil level should be between the “Low” and “Full” marks. We recommend keeping it close to the “Full” mark. If the level is low, top it up; see how below. Some cars and trucks have a crossed section on the dipstick instead of the marks. It works the same way; your owner’s manual will show the pictures how to read the dipstick in your car.

Check the oil condition: If it’s way too black, it’s time for an oil change. If it’s dirty and low, have the oil change done or at least top the level up. If it’s more or less clean but low, top it up. If the level is OK and the oil is not too dirty, good job! Keep following the maintenance schedule. Of course, in a diesel or turbocharged gasoline engine, even fairly fresh oil will look dark.

How to check the oil level on a dipstick:

Warm up the engine. Park your vehicle on a level spot. Set the parking brake. Make sure the transmission is in Park. Turn off the engine. Wait for a minute or two to let engine oil flow into the oil pan. Find the engine oil dipstick, usually it has a bright handle saying “Engine Oil”. Careful, the engine is hot. Check for precautions, read the instructions and find the location of the oil dipstick in the Maintenance section of the owner’s manual for your vehicle. Pull the dipstick out and wipe it off with a clean towel. Insert it back until the dipstick is fully seated. Pull it out again and check the oil level.

How to top up engine oil

Open the oil filler cap and add a small amount of oil. Wait for a couple of minutes to let oil flow into the oil pan. Check the oil level again with the dipstick. If it’s still low, add some more, but don’t overfill it. Don’t forget to install the dipstick back and close the oil filler cap when you are done.

Battery: Check the battery condition visually. Look at the battery terminals; they should not be loose or corroded. See the photos. Corrosion or loose connection at the battery terminals can result in a no-start, Check Engine light, lack of electric power steering assist and many other problems. If your engine turns over slower than before and dash lights dim when you are starting your car, it’s an early sign that your battery is getting weak. It might just need to be charged or it has permanently lost some of its capacity. Your mechanic can do a battery test to check its capacity. If your battery is more than 5 years old, and you notice that it’s getting weaker, it might be a good idea to replace it instead of servicing or testing.

Keep engine coolant (antifreeze) topped up: Visually check the engine coolant (antifreeze) level in the overflow tank. Your owner’s manual has instructions. The level should be between the “Low” and “Full” marks.
Caution, don’t open the radiator cap or the pressurized overflow tank cap when the engine is hot! The cooling system is under pressure when hot.
A low coolant level can cause the engine to overheat and the heater to blow cold air from the vents. If the coolant level is low as in the photo, it needs to be topped up, using the recommended type of coolant. Check your owner’s manual for safety precautions and the proper way to do it. You can also request to top it up during a regular service. An oil change service usually includes topping up fluids. If the coolant level drops soon after topping up, the vehicle needs to be checked for coolant leaks.

Engine Air Filter: The engine air filter keeps the air entering the engine clean, but over time the filter gets dirty and restricts the air flow. The engine air filter is recommended to be replaced every 15,000-25,000 miles or 24,000-40,000 km, depending on the roads you drive on. Mechanics check your air filter when you bring your car in for an oil change. If you want to check it or replace it yourself, on most cars and trucks it’s a fairly easy task. Your owner’s manual has directions or you can find instructions on YouTube. It’s best to use an original air filter that you can buy at your local dealership parts department; it costs around $30-$80. When you are installing the air filter, make sure it’s installed correctly. If the filter is not installed properly, unfiltered air entering the engine could damage the airflow sensor.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Many modern cars no longer have a transmission dipstick. In this case, a mechanic at your local dealership can still check your transmission fluid. If your car does have a transmission dipstick, you can find the procedure in the owners manual. It’s different for some cars. This is how it’s done in this Toyota and most of other cars:

  1. After the vehicle was driven for at least 20-30 minutes and the transmission fluid is warmed up, park your vehicle on a level spot. Set the parking brake. Make sure the transmission is in “P” (Park) position. Leave the engine running. Pull out the automatic transmission dipstick.
  2. Wipe it off with a clean lint-free towel. Insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the fluid level.
  3. A transmission fluid expands when warmed up, so if the car has been driven for 20-30 minutes, the transmission level should be between the “HOT” marks. If the transmission fluid level is low, suspect a leak and have it checked out.
  4. Today’s cars have very strict requirement to the transmission fluid. For this reason, we recommend visiting your dealer when you want to change your transmission fluid.

Windshield wipers: Replace the wipers at least once a year or earlier if they don’t clean properly. If you still have the original wipers installed, you can just replace the rubber refills; they cost just a few bucks and can be purchased from your local dealership’s parts department. Check if the windshield washer jets are working properly.

Lights: Your brake and other lights are important for safe driving. How do you know that all your lights are working? Once in a while, check all your lights.

Tires: Check the tire pressure regularly. If you don’t have the tire pressure gauge, it’s worth buying a good one. Most gas stations have an air pump with a tire pressure gauge. You can find the recommended tire pressure in the owner’s manual or on the tire pressure sticker (see photo), which is in most cars located on the driver’s door jamb. In other cars, it could be located inside the gas tank lid or inside the glove box.

  1. Measure tire pressure when tires are still cold. Pump or deflate to the recommended pressure. The maximum pressure listed on tires is NOT the proper pressure!
  2. There is a safe limit of the tire tread wear. If a tire is worn below this limit, it’s unsafe to drive. Your owner’s manual has the directions on how to measure the tire tread wear or your mechanic can check your tires for you.
  3. How do you know that your tires are close to the minimum limit? Tires have wear bars (indicators) molded into the tread.
  4. You can also check the tread with a tire tread gauge. When your tire tread wears out to around 4/32-nd of an inch, it’s time to start shopping for new tires. At 4/32″ of the tread remaining, tires are still considered safe, but you may start noticing that your car is sliding a bit when roads are wet.

Tire Rotation

In front-wheel drive cars and car-based SUVs, front tires wear faster. Rear tires often wear more on the inside. Regular tire rotations help equalize tire wear. Some manufacturers recommend rotating tires at every oil change, others specify different intervals.

Recommended tire rotation patterns are also different. In most cases, tires are rotated front to back on the same side (for directional tires) or front to back and side to side. Another benefit is that your mechanic can catch problems with your brakes, suspension and other components while rotating your tires.

Does your car need tire balancing or wheel alignment? Tire or wheel balancing is the process of adding little weights to the rim to equalize weight distribution around the wheel. Wheels are balanced at the factory or when new tires are installed. If you feel a vibration at higher speeds, have your tires balanced, although this will not solve a vibration caused by flat spots on a tire or a bent rim.

The wheel alignment is adjusting suspension and steering angles. Your car needs a wheel alignment if your steering wheel is off-center when driving straight or if the vehicle pulls to one side, or if tires wear unevenly.

Does your car need a tune-up?

At some point, your car will need a tune-up. Spark plugs wear out. Even long-lasting iridium- or platinum-tipped spark plugs might have to be replaced after 80,000 miles, because sometimes they get contaminated, see the photo. If your car has spark plug wires, they might be showing some cracks too.

A serpentine belt will need to be replaced, as it stretches and cracks with age. If your car has a timing belt, it will also need to be changed. Your car will break down if either of the belts fails. If a timing belt breaks while driving, it may also cause damage to the engine. All these services don’t have to be done at once. Your mechanic can check the condition of your engine, belts and other items and advise you if anything needs to be done.

4WD maintenance

4WD cars and trucks have a rear differential and a transfer case or power transfer unit (PTU). These devices are filled with gear oil or special fluid. Some trucks have a separate front axle that also has gear oil in it. These components wear too, so they too will require fluid (oil) change.

Many modern SUVs require special fluid, so it’s best to check with your dealer or consult the owner’s manual. Many trucks also have grease points on propeller shafts, u-joints and some other chassis components that need to be greased with a grease gun.

Recognize problems and repair them before they get worse

Timely repairs can save a lot of money and keep your car safe. Look for any signs that may indicate a problem. Check this photo, the owner noticed something that didn’t look right under the hood, so he had it checked out. Turns out, his radiator was leaking coolant. If he hadn’t repaired this problem in time, the coolant would leak out and the engine would overheat. This would cost a lot more than a new radiator.

Regular mechanical inspection

For your safety, we recommend having your car inspected regularly, at least once a year, by a trusted mechanic. We mean not just a quick visual inspection by one of the drive-through fast lube places, but a mechanic that can lift your car and check major components such as brakes, suspension, etc. This is because many components (e.g. ball joints, tie rods, sway bar links) cannot be inspected visually.

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