Top 10 Common Sense Car Survival Tips

How to keep your car looking and running new for at least 15 years and 300,000 miles

I don't know about you, but I've had my share of new cars and trucks and, day-by-day, watched the aging and deterioration unfold one disheartening moment at a time. In your mind, a new car is always a new car even when it's 10 years old and has 150,000 miles showing. And when the last payment is made, you stare at it in disbelief, wondering where all its newness went. Aging happens due to the atmosphere-sunlight, acid rain, extreme heat and cold, wind, dust and dirt-and plain old-fashioned neglect. However, it doesn't have to be this way if you stay on top of care and maintenance with these 10 common sense car survival tips.

Whenever someone comes up to me and says, "They sure don't build new cars like they used to…," I have to snicker quietly to myself and think, "Yeah, they make them a whole lot better." Automobiles of today are the most forgiving creatures on the planet next to man's best friend—the humble dog. We drive them off the lot and run the wheels right off of them for 100,000 to 200,000 miles.

Used to be 100,000 miles was trade-in mileage. Time to unload that old thing before it starts to nickel and dime you to death. Yet, 200,000 miles is the new 100,000 miles just like 60 years old is the new 50 (said he huffing and puffing up the stairs). Today's cars and trucks are engineered to last 15-20 years and 200,000 miles. And, if you take extra good care of your car or truck, it will last you a solid 20 years and 300,000 miles.

I have been an automotive journalist for 30 years. I write articles that teach people how to care for their cars. Yet, my own vehicles could use more of my close attention. I own a '98 Ford F150 Super Cab with 4.6L V-8. It has been driven 225,000 miles in the past 15 years. I've treated it to a steady diet of Mobil 1 5W30 and an array of oil filter types: Motorcraft, Fram Tough Guard, and Bosch. Cooling system has been flushed twice and all hoses replaced once. Brakes and suspension have been replaced twice. Transmission has seen regular fluid and filter changes. Fuel filter has been changed what seems like dozens of times. Third set of tires. One differential rebuild. Imagine how much better condition it would be in had I taken even better care of it.

Keep in mind there are problematic rides out there notorious for reliability issues. In other words, there are poor designs with inherit engineering problems, like failure-prone automatic transmissions, suspension and braking problems, engine failure issues, electrical gremlins, and more. For some, there are permanent fixes. For others, the news will never get better.

You have to give your car or truck the best odds against mechanical failure and increase their longevity by staying on top of regular care and maintenance. What's more, how you drive your vehicle is everything to how it will perform over a long period of time. If you run it hard and in a harsh climate, it isn't going to last. Rule of thumb for car owners is much the same as it is for pilots. Treat your engine and brakes with great respect because you never know when they're going to save your life. Follow these 10 common sense car survival tips and your vehicle might make it to 300,000—and beyond.

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1. Best Life Insurance: Clean Oil

Not all engines enjoy the greatest engineering nuances. However, give your engine a fighting chance with regular oil and filter changes. And, budget permitting, run synthetic engine oil like Mobil 1 following your vehicle manufacturer's directions to the letter. If the owner's manual says 5W30, run 5W30. Newer engines have tighter tolerances, which call for lighter viscosity oil. Although we've been told to change oil every 3000 miles, that's for extreme driving/conditions. Change oil every 5000 miles with conventional oil or every 7000 with synthetics. Always change the oil filter with every oil change.

And while you're at, don't buy a, engine oil filter on the cheap. Go with your manufacturer's original equipment or Mobil, Wix, Bosch, or Fram Tough Guard. You want the most filter material possible and a reliable bypass valve.

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2. Transmission Service Like Clockwork

Transmission fluid and filter must be changed every 30,000 miles whether it's a manual or automatic. Do this every time you change the fuel filter. Again, follow manufacturer's directions on fluid type. Run synthetic fluid where possible.

Automatic transmissions are hydraulically controlled. If you feed your automatic a steady diet of clean fluid and fresh filters every 30,000 miles, you can count on life of the vehicle service. Where possible, install a shift improvement kit to firm up your shifts. Why? Because smooth automatics slip to keep shifts almost unnoticeable. With slippage, however, comes clutch and band slippage and unnecessary wear. And with slippage, clutch and band friction material goes into the fluid, which damages clutch piston seals. As clutch piston seals wear, they leak internally causing even more slippage and wear. Ultimately, failure. Clean fluid on a regular basis is cheap life insurance. While you're performing transmission service, install a Filter Mag in each rear corner of the pan, which will catch ferrous metals that can also do damage. While you're servicing the transmission, change differential lube. If you have a locking differential, don't forget to add a friction enhancer for the clutches.

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3. Be Brake Friendly

How you treat your brakes on a regular basis determines how they will treat you in an emergency. Modulate your brakes, meaning drive ahead of yourself and anticipate stops to where you can begin slowing down ahead of time. You can't always anticipate a panic stop, however, you can learn improved driving technique to where your driving is seamless.

Flush and bleed your brake hydraulic system every two years because mineral based brake fluid absorb moisture through hoses and steel lines. As brake fluid absorbs moisture, moisture boils in the fluid and performance suffers. When moisture boils, it creates air pockets in the fluid, which hinders stopping power. Change out all brake hydraulic components-hoses, calipers, wheel cylinders-every 100,000 miles or every six years. Repack wheel bearings and replace axle seals (where applicable) every time you reline brakes. Absolutely never turn new rotors or drums. Clean them up with a high-evap' solvent and install them as is out of the box. Brake rotors and drums need to "season" with heat cycling before they are turned. Without heat cycling prior to turning, they warp.

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4. Let's Keep It Clean

Washing and waxing your car isn't just about aesthetics; it is also about corrosion control. Clean surfaces are less likely to oxidize, fade, and corrode. Plastics deteriorate with dirt and other contaminants. Composite headlights and parking lamps bleach with intense sunlight and road film. Weatherstripping and seals dry out and become cracked if you don't keep them clean.

Wash your car at least once a month. Wax your car in the shade at least every six months. Use a toothbrush to remove wax in seams. Wash out your door jams and wipe down soft rubber parts with a damp cloth.

Once a year, wash down your engine compartment, taking extra care not to get soap and water on ignition and electrical components. Never wash down a hot engine. Always do this cold. Cold water on a hot engine can crack castings from thermal shock. Blast the radiator and air conditioning condenser with water to remove bugs and road film, which hinder cooling.

Inside, wash cloth upholstery with a scrub brush or damp, soapy terrycloth. Dust and dirt are what damage fibers and make cloth upholstery wear out and tear. Keep your cloth upholstery clean and marvel at its longevity. Although vinyl protectants are popular, I discourage the liberal use of them. Vinyl protectants void some tire warranties because they actually attack the rubber. All you need inside is a damp cloth on your dash pad and door panels. Instrument lenses are made of soft plastic and are easily scratched. Blow the dust off first, then, use a wet terrycloth towel to wipe the lens down. Use a toothbrush on those hard to get to places like stereo buttons, knobs, and the like. The reason to keep things hospital clean is deterioration when we don't keep things clean.

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5. Keeping the Cool in the Cooling System

Cooling system maintenance should be an integral part of your maintenance schedule. Every two years, perform a flush and fill with fresh coolant. Use a corrosion inhibitor. Add a coolant enhancer like Water Wetter to improve coolant surface tension and heat conductivity. You have a couple of choices when it comes to cooling system upkeep. There's the traditional 50/50 antifreeze/water mix and a flush every two years.

When you flush and fill, replace the thermostat. Every four years, replace all hoses, water pump, and thermostat. If you perform regular cooling system service every two years, your radiator should virtually never require cleaning or replacement. However, for good measure, have a radiator shop examine your radiator every four years and service as necessary. Remember, your car's radiator is a heat exchanger. When corrosion becomes significant, it cannot transfer engine heat efficiently to the atmosphere.

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6. Never Let Your Car Know It's Paid For

We have scientific proof cars last longer when they don't know they're paid for. So even though you're thrilled with having made that last car payment, never let your car see that "don't laugh, it's paid for" sparkle in your eyes. Keep admiring and taking care of it, and it will likely return the favor with less expense than a new car (insurance is cheaper, too).

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7. Be Mindful Of Leaks

Leaks can be a broad issue, but we're going to narrow it down for you. Oil and coolant leaks must always be taken care of instead of just being a pesky nuisance that includes stains on the garage floor. Oil leaks generally leave a trail of road dust and crud on the undercarriage. Coolant leaks indicate your engine is not only losing coolant, but also suffers from hot spots, which are destructive.

Body leaks are a bad thing because moisture accumulation causes corrosion. Corrosion, if it goes undetected, leads to rust through and bigger problems. Whenever you wash and wax your ride, examine carpet for wet spots, trunk floor and well for water, and even doors and window pockets for poor drainage. These are all ugly gremlins that can rob us of longevity if they go unnoticed.

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8. No Such Thing As Maintenance-Free

Back in the day, we traditionally performed tune-ups, filter changes, and more to our vehicles on an annual basis. With the advent of high energy ignitions, platinum tip spark plugs, and unleaded fuels, we've fallen into the mistaken notion cars don't need tune-ups anymore. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Although automakers have convinced us spark plugs can go 100,000 miles between changes, spark plugs still suffer the effects of powerful electrical pulses, high chamber temperatures, and harsh fuel additives. Ignition components like coils and harnesses deteriorate from underhood heat and eventually lose their edge. No matter how clean today's unleaded fuels burn, you still face the issue of ever-widening spark plug gaps from the wallop of a high-energy spark. Replace spark plugs every 50,000 to 75,000 miles. Lubricate the threads with a high-heat lubricant to prevent ceasing.

Electronic engine control components like sensors and vacuum switches need to be replaced every 100,000 miles whether they need it or not. Your engine's electronic control system is only as effective as its components. First to typically fail are oxygen sensors, which provide air/fuel mixture feedback. Next in line is anything EGR (exhaust gas recirculation) related due to heat and carbon build-up. When you replace sensors, replace the EGR valve and make sure all passages are clear.

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9. Battery Check

I recall my F150's original Motorcraft battery. It lasted nine years. However, while I was busy beaming in amazement over its incredibly long life, my battery actually needed last rites and retirement because as the plates sulfided, battery acid was quietly boiling out of the vents, doing extensive damage to wiring and vacuum hoses. What did I learn from this unfortunate experience? Replace a vehicle's battery every five years and properly recycle no matter its condition. And, while you're at it, examine cables and connections for cleanliness and good continuity. Use a thin film of wheel bearing grease over terminals to keep corrosion to a minimum. Never ignore corroded terminals no matter how slight. Terminal corrosion these days indicates acid fumes and the possibility of overcharging.

When you perform battery service and/or replacement, use a rubber liner between the battery and tray to prevent corrosion. You would be amazed at how quickly a battery tray can rust through doing serious damage to the body.

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10. Take Good Care Of Your Tires

This is an old, old saw, but you'd be amazed at how many of us overlook something so important to our safety. Tires need to be inspected and pressure-checked once a month. Examine tread wear for proper alignment in all four corners. Keep inflation closer to the maximum for less rolling resistance and friction.

Tire age is also an issue because tire life is roughly five years no matter how much tread wear there is. When you wash your car, scrub tires as thoroughly as you can to remove oxidation. Brake dust, sunlight, and ozone bleed life out of tires. This is even more serious if you live in the hot, dry, dusty desert, because tires deteriorate quickly in places like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, Tucson, El Paso, Albuquerque, and other southwestern cities where ozone levels and sunlight are high.

And finally, stay on top of tire rotation and balancing. The greatest favor you can do your tires and pocketbook is rotation and balancing every 8,000 miles. And while the wheels are off, inspect tires for foreign-object damage and look at your brakes.

An automobile can last a lifetime with dedicated, common-sense maintenance and care. Parts may become obsolete and those creature comforts will surely become dated. But think how much money you can save in new-car payments and lower insurance premiums. Follow these 10 common sense car survival tips and your vehicle will not only last longer and save you money in the long run, but you might end up one day the proud owner of a pristine classic or collectible.

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