Tune-Up Tips

Tuning out poor performance

From the days of the first horseless carriages up until relatively recent times, automobile engines have required an inordinate amount of attention to keep them running in top shape. The various springs, relays, screws and gizmos that comprised engine control systems of yore went haywire on an alarmingly regular basis. All manner of things had to be resprung or adjusted, tightened up, replaced, or smacked with a hammer to keep in line. This regular ritual of automotive maintenance was known as the tune-up. As time and technology marched on, systems improved; but, even well into the 1980s, the tune-up was a regular ritual of the modern motorist.

Today's fully digital fuel and ignition systems have largely supplanted more analog devices such as carburetors, mechanical ignition points, and distributors full of rotating springs and weights. As a result, a tune-up is not required on some vehicles for 100,000 miles or more. If you have one of these rolling miracles of modern technological achievement, then the tune-up may not be anything to worry about. For the millions of other vehicles still on the road, however, a tune-up can help restore performance and fuel economy. The trick is figuring out what to tune.

All Things Relative

While most of the turning of screws and hitting with hammers went out of style with disco and wide lapel two-tone polyester sport jackets, there are still things under the hood that can wear out and cause a loss in engine performance. If the vehicle in question is otherwise running well but seems to have lost its pep, a tune-up may be the answer. The various parts that comprise the ignition, intake, emissions, and fuel systems all wear out as they do their jobs.

Spark plugs can get fouled with carbon deposits. Distributor cap contacts get corroded and ignition rotors wear out. Spark plug wires can fray and crack causing weak spark delivery or arcing. Air filters can get clogged and cause the engine to lose its breath. While none of these problems is major enough to stop an engine cold, together they can add up to a loss in efficiency that subtracts from the overall engine performance and economy.

This loss is seat-of-the-pants noticeable, and it will seem as if the get up and go has got up and went. Keep in mind that a tune-up will not solve serious issues stemming from a worn out or internally damaged engine. Serious engine issues will manifest themselves in ways other than a mild loss in performance or decreased gas mileage. The tune-up is not a cure-all for an engine that has spun its last revolution-or has problems beyond that which can be cured by replacing a few worn out parts.

Name That Tune

While today's tune-up is different from that performed in the Sixties and Seventies, there are still a few wear components under the hood that need to be replaced on a regular basis. The scope of the tune-up depends largely on which type of components and systems that reside under the hood of the vehicle in question. Some modern engines don't have anything to keep the shade tree mechanic very busy. If an engine compartment features a powerplant with a one-coil-per-cylinder computerized ignition, iridium-tipped spark plugs, and a hermetically-sealed engine, then technology has prevailed and the tune-up is likely not required.

If, however, an open hood reveals a set of crusty spark plug wires, a ready-to-crack distributor cap, drive belts that look as if they need a haircut, corroded battery posts, and an air filter with an uncertain replacement date, then the tune-up can help bring back lost performance due to normal wear. Determining which components and parts need to be replaced is as easy as turning to an owner's or service manual maintenance schedule or consulting with a mechanic. The procedure for replacing them varies by vehicle. Follow along with the step-by-step for some clues to staying in tune.

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