100,000-Mile Tuneups? Let's Look Under the Hood

Steve Parker is the auto expert on KCBS-TV Channel 2 News' "This Morning" and host of "The Car Nut," a call-in program airing Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. and Sunday from 9 to11 a.m. on KXTA-AM (1150)

You've no doubt seen a lot of new vehicles advertised as not needing an engine tuneup for up to 100,000 miles. Frequently, consumers come to me and say they've got one of these cars and yet have had to take them into the shop long before they've hit that magic mileage mark. So what's the real story with these "100,000-mile" cars and trucks?

Well, if you think you're going to buy any new car or truck and go 100,000 miles--or even 25,000--without some service, I have some prime Playa del Rey wetlands for you at a bargain price. Certain engines today--the GM Northstar and Ford Duratec lead the way in this regard--can indeed go 100,000 miles without a "tuneup," but as with so many things in life, it all depends.

For instance, I can tell you that a manufacturer's version of the modern tuneup doesn't mean a lot more than changing the spark plug. The plugs in these new engines are expensive, high-tech platinum-tipped models. And, indeed, they can go 100,000 (or more) miles without needing a change.

But what about all those other things we used to consider essential at tuneup time? Valves always needed adjusting. The mysterious engine "timing" had to be "set" by a mechanic sticking a strobe light into the engine bay. And then there were the "points," whatever they were. All you knew is that they always had to be replaced--or gapped, or something.

All this and more (spark plugs were replaced routinely) had to be done as often as every 15,000 to 20,000 miles. If you owned a British sports car, as I did (a 1974 Triumph Spitfire), you simply kept all the parts and tools in your trunk--and explained to the cop who joined you at the side of the road that you hadn't really knocked over an auto-parts warehouse.

Well, modern cars and trucks don't even have points. Valves rarely need adjustment; in fact, some engines have variable valve timing, which self-adjusts continuously depending on your driving style. And the "timing" in one of these 100,000-mile engines is monitored, controlled and "set" a few times every second by a computer so sophisticated that Mir cosmonauts are rumored to have called mission control and requested one.

But don't expect an auto maker to extol the virtues of its engines with "Doesn't need a spark plug change for 100,000 miles!" That's not as sexy as saying, "100,000-mile tuneup!" is it?

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But 100,000-miler or not, every car and truck engine needs some regular maintenance. It all falls into three basic categories: fluids, belts and hoses, filters.

* Fluids. The most obvious fluid is fuel, whether you use gasoline or diesel. Use the gasoline with the right octane rating for your vehicle. How to tell what gasoline is best for you? It's as simple as checking the owner's manual. If it does not specifically say to use the highest-octane (read: most expensive) gas, there is no reason to use the top-dollar stuff, especially if you are having no problems with the less expensive gas.

With diesel, it's still best to buy, when possible, at a large truck stop, where prices might be lower and quality higher than at a local gas station.

Next is oil. Changing the engine oil regularly is the most important thing you can do to get the longest life out of your vehicle. Conventional or synthetic? Single- or multi-weight? These questions are less important than the fact that not changing the oil on the right schedule can easily cost you the price of a new engine. The basic lesson: Change it every 3,000 to 5,000 miles.

Other vital on-board fluids you need to monitor include automatic-transmission fluid, brake fluid, gear and differential oil (in older vehicles and those with manual transmissions) and, of course, the radiator coolant.

And if you're one of the seeming millions in Southern California who have bought gigantic sport-utility trucks, apparently in expectation of the Great Flood (Part II), there may be other lubricating fluids that you need to check to keep the family 4x4 in shape.

* Belts and hoses. These are fairly easy and straightforward to deal with--just change them all every 50,000 to 60,000 miles. If you're fairly handy, you can do a lot of the work yourself. If you're like me, you let a mechanic do it and pay about $300 to $400 for the privilege.

It's worth it. Snap a belt or blow a hole in a hose, and in most cases you're dead in the water. Rubber can rot from the inside out, so even a belt or hose in apparent good condition under inspection could be just a few miles from disaster.

There is one crucial belt inside the engine--it's called the timing belt. In an overhead-cam engine, a snapped one of these babies can cost you a new power plant. My recommendation: Change the timing belt every 40,000 miles. It's expensive--$400 or more--but worth it. Ask if your engine has a rubber timing belt or metallic timing chain. The chain can be adjusted by a technician.

* Filters. They're all over the place--gas, oil and air filters. Change the oil filter every time you change the oil; that's the easiest way to remember to do it. With fuel-injected engines, a clogged $10 fuel filter is often the culprit in complex problems that all the computer diagnostics in the world won't solve. Change the air filter every 20,000 miles, or sooner if you're driving in the desert or other high-dust areas.

And if these costs seem outrageous to you, let's face facts. We live in Southern California. For the vast majority of us, a car is a necessity. Look at it this way. Is it worth the cost of regular maintenance to keep you from ever having to care about the bus schedule?

Case closed.

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Car Care Checklist

A clip-and-save consumer checklist for car and truck maintenance. This week's 10-step checklist is for regular car maintenance. Future checklists will cover tire buying, changing your oil, preparation for mountain driving, emergency equipment, the perfect car wash and more.

Weekly

* Check oil level.

Add oil if the dipstick reads low. Consult your owner's manual for the recommended oil and oil change frequency. Generally it is wise not to exceed 5,000 miles or six months between service.

* Check radiator fluid level.

When the car is cool, twist off the radiator cap and check the fluid level. Add water if needed. Have your radiator checked if you find you have to add water regularly. Replace antifreeze / coolant at least every other year with a 50 / 50 solution of coolant and water.

* Check tire pressure.

Keep tires inflated to recommended pressure. (Follow tire manufacturer's recommendation.) Inspect tires monthly for cuts and excessive tread wear. Replace if worn.

* Check battery level and cables

Old-modal batteries require water; newer ones show their condition by color indicators. Also check cables to make sure they are free of corrosion and firmly attached. Protect yourself and the car paint from battery acid.

Monthly

* Check brake fluid

Fill if low. Test brake pedal to be sure it is firm and high.

* Inspect drive belts, hoses ad clamps.

Replace and tighten where needed. Average life expectancy is approximately five years.

* Check air filter.

Replace if dirty.

* Check automatic transmission fluid level.

Add fluid if dipstick reads low. Vehicle should be warmed up when level is checked.

* Check windshield wiper solvent and blades.

Refill fluid and replace blades as needed. Clean wiper blades and windshield before considering replacement.

* Test lights.

Turn on ignition and check front, rear, brake and parking lights, low and high beams and turn indicators. Replace burned-out bulbs and fuses and keep lights clean.

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Source: Automobile Club of Southern California

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Steve Parker is the auto expert on KCBS-TV Channel 2 News' "This Morning" and host of "The Car Nut," a call-in program airing Saturday from 8 to 10 a.m. and Sunday from 9 to11 a.m. on KXTA-AM (1150). He invites your questions and comments via e-mail at steve@steveparker.com; or in writing: Car Care, Highway 1, Business Section, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053.

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