Why routine vehicle maintenance matters

Regular maintenance is one of the most important things you can do for your vehicle. Although today’s modern cars are engineered to be more durable and last much longer than cars made decades ago, the key to their longevity is servicing and maintaining fluid levels, parts and systems on a regular basis. A regularly serviced car will run more efficiently, use less fuel, contribute less pollution and last longer compared to a vehicle without regular maintenance.

A list of important auto repair services

Despite seeming like a constant and dependable conveyance, your car is in an almost constant state of degradation. Fluids that lubricate the engine and allow systems like the power steering and brakes to operate properly burn away or become contaminated; brake pads that provide stopping power wear away with every deceleration; filters prevent contaminants from entering the engine via the air intake or fuel lines eventually reach capacity.

RELATED INFOGRAPHIC: Must-do Auto Checkups

For these reasons and others, your vehicle’s manufacturer provides a schedule of recommended service procedures based on the amount of miles driven. The service schedule is designed to help car owners to get the optimum performance, longevity and reliability from their vehicles. The service schedule typically covers the project lifespan of the vehicle and covers a wide variety of vehicle components and systems, including:

These maintenance items are things you can't afford to overlook, if you want to prolong the life span of your car.

Oil changes

Oil, air and fuel filter changes

Spark plug changes

When the engine should be tuned up

Power steering, brake, transmission and radiator fluid changes

Lubrication of heavy-duty drive shaft components

Preventive maintenance saves money

Beyond ensuring your car is operating as efficiently as possible, keeping to your car’s service schedule can save money in the long run. Especially when you use a trusted mechanic, regular maintenance ensures your vehicle is inspected regularly, which can catch costly problems before they become more expensive. Investing in relatively minor maintenance items or check-ups also helps you avoid major, expensive repairs that can arise as the result of neglect. Lastly, if your car is still under manufacturer’s warranty, preventive maintenance as recommended by the manufacturer ensures your car will continue to be covered.

The most important auto repairs

Without out a doubt, oil changes are the most important regular maintenance item for your vehicle. Because motor oil lubricates a wide range of moving parts within the engine, keeping it changed regularly is essential to keeping engine efficiency and longevity. Whether your car uses synthetic oil or conventional or standard motor oil, investing in the relatively minor expense of an oil change as recommended by the manufacturer can save drivers huge amounts of money in the long run.

Video: Signs your car needs to be serviced

Signs that your car needs service

As much as we may try, not every car owner gets their vehicle serviced as frequently as needed. It’s easy to forget how many miles it was since that last oil change, or if you needed a tune-up every 30,000 miles (or was it 40,000 miles?). However, there are some sure-fire indicators when you should absolutely have your car inspected or repaired by an auto service technician – or risk more costly damage if you don’t.

Check engine light or other dashboard warnings. As ambiguous as a "check engine" light may be, your car's on-board diagnostic system is essential to keeping the engine running efficiently. Flashing or blinking warning lights or check engine indicators should be addressed as soon as possible.

Oil spots under the car. Have you noticed dark brown oil spots on your garage floor or driveway? Not only are the stains unsightly, they indicate your vehicle is leaking precious motor oil. The problem could be as minor as an oil filter or drain plug not secured tightly or as major as compromised gasket somewhere in the engine.

Greenish fluid under the car. Your car is leaking radiator fluid. It could be a small issue like a bad fitting on a hose that leads to or from the main radiator body or a major issue such as a cracked or penetrated radiator. Get this problem fixed as quickly as possible or risk overheating your engine and causing permanent damage.

Squealing or squeaking when braking. Many vehicle manufacturers and brake components maker engineer their brakes to emit a high-pitch squeal or squeak when brake pads are near the end of their service life. Squealing or squeaking can also indicate that brake hardware has become too worn. Putting off simple brake repairs can quickly cause more costly damage.

Grinding when braking. Typically indicate the brake pads weren't replaced in a timely manner or that the brake rotor surface has become marred or damaged. The brake pads may be beyond their wear limit, causing other parts of the braking system to come in contact with the brake rotor. Get brake repairs immediately.

Louder than normal operation, or rumbling or sputtering from beneath the car. There’s a problem with the exhaust system. It could be a minor problem such as a hole or disconnected pipe or something more serious such as a bad muffler or catalytic converter.

Chirping or screeching from under the hood. Drive belts, also known as serpentine belts, direct engine power to accessory systems like the power steering or AC. But these belts can become frayed, brittle or glazed as they wear, which can create a chirping or screeching sound, especially on start-up. Belt replacement a simple repair that’s relatively cheap.

Humming, growling or roaring when driving. If you notice these noises, your tires may be worn or deformed, which mean it’s time to replace them (which should help improve fuel economy). Another cause, especially if you notice the sound only when turning or changing lanes, is a bad wheel bearing. If you suspect a bad bearing, get the issue checked out immediately, as a seized or damaged bearing could leave you stranded.

RELATED: 5 Sounds that Signal Your Car Needs Repairs

How to find a reliable mechanic

When you need regular maintenance or a more acute repair for your car, having an established relationship with a trustworthy and reliable mechanic who can provide timely and accurate work can save you time and money. The task of finding an “honest” mechanic can often be frustrating for many car owners based on the sheer number of choices.

Check the following items to help ensure you find an auto shop or mechanic that suits your needs (and your checkbook’s):

1. Dealership or independent?

If your vehicle is newer or still under manufacturer warranty protection, you may opt for service through the dealership, as many service items may be covered by warranty. However, in general, dealerships typically cost more than independent or non-dealership mechanics. As long as the service or repair is performed and documented correctly, having your vehicle serviced by an independant mechanic will not violate warranty coverage.

Regular maintenance provided by an auto shop can help prevent more costly repairs. (Photo by Fred Patton)

2. Look for auto certifications

One of the most common and widely recognized automotive repair certifications comes from the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence or ASE. ASE-certified technicians have passed a basic competency test covering a wide variety of vehicle repairs and maintenance procedures. Technicians also have the option to earn advanced certifications in specialty auto repairs like body repairs, diesel engines or alternative fuel vehicles.

3. Ask for and call references

Ask the shop for references. Call those references and ask questions about the work, cost and timeliness of the shop. Ask about how clearly the shop communicated with the customer, both about the estimated cost of repairs and about what they were doing.

RELATED: The Angie's List Guide to Accidents & Auto Body Care

4. Check the mechanic's equipment

Today's cars are quite complex pieces of machinery, so you need a shop that has the right equipment. Computerized diagnostics are vital to accurate assessment of automotive problems, while online computer systems help technicians further pinpoint problems without spending hours on the clock pulling the engine apart just to diagnose the problem.

5. Don't overlook the local option

While the dealership or big-name shop may be your first consideration when looking for a repair shop, do not neglect to look at the locally-owned options. Often, those repair shops that are not tied to a big name brand have better prices, yet still maintain the certification and training necessary to provide excellent repairs.

6. Check the hourly rate

Automotive repair shops usually charge an hourly labor rate. If two shops have similar qualifications and great references, but one charges $20 more per hour than the other, you may wish to choose the more affordable option.

Keep in mind that those who charge significantly less than others may offer poorer service, so check the rate only after checking all other aspects of the shop. If you can find a repair shop with excellent references, the right qualifications and a reasonable hourly rate, you have likely found the right one for your needs.

Regular maintenance provided by an auto shop can help prevent more costly repairs. (Photo by Fred Patton).

How to get better fuel economy

One of the best trade-offs for getting your car serviced and maintained on regular basis regularly is having a car that runs at peak performance and consumes less gas. Check out how these simple steps can help reduce your pain at the pump:

1. Pump up the tire pressure

Where the rubber meets the road is one of the most important factors in improving fuel economy. Even having one tire that’s below the recommend pressure can easily add a large amount of friction or drag and contribute to poor fuel economy. Consult your vehicle owner’s manual to check the correct tire pressure as recommended by the auto maker. Most vehicles have a sticker listing the correct tire pressure with the driver’s door jamb or on the fuel cap door.

Improving vehicle fuel efficiency starts with good driving habits - click for more fuel-saving tips.

2. Set those wheels straight straight

Wheel alignment is another easily corrected contributor to poor fuel economy, but it’s often overlooked. Unless your tires are visibly worn unevenly, it may be hard to tell if they’re in correct alignment. Bumps in the road, accidental contact with curbs or parking blocks and potholes can all cause bad alignment. Get your wheels checked and aligned to help improve your vehicle’s fuel economy.

3. Keep up with schedule maintenanceCopy

Engine oil that’s overdue for change causes increased friction and wear, resulting in reduced fuel efficiency. Worn spark plugs can cause inefficient combustion, wasting fuel. Over time, these and other neglected maintenance items can add up to bad fuel economy. Keeping to the maintenance schedule helps ensure hidden problems don’t unnoticed.

4. Ease up on the gas pedal

The easiest fuel-saving tips doesn't cost a single penny, just a few slight alterations to driving habits. Avoid hard accelerations, which are inherently fuel inefficient. Drive at or around the speed limit – you won’t arrive any later. Combine multiple trips into one pre-planned route.

RELATED: Do You Need to Change All Four Tires at the Same Time?

DIY car maintenance

If you're looking to save a few dollars, there are several DIY maintenance projects.

Changing your own oil. Changing your car's oil is a manageable project, but you need to have the correct tools and a little know-how.

You should first check your owner's manual to find out the type of oil you need. Be sure to bring all of the tools you'll need, including the jack and jack stand, drain pan, socket wrench, funnel and oil filter wrench.

It's recommended to have someone with you that has experience changing oil if it's your first time.

Jumping your car. Jump starting you car is another relatively simple task and a handy skill to know. But make sure you know what you're doing. Jumping a car can release hydrogen from the battery, which could cause an explosion if it comes in contact with a spark.

Changing a tire. Auto expert say many people today don't take the time to learn how to change a tire and, instead, rely only on roadside service.

Changing a tire typically takes less than a half hour. Tools and materials needed include a properly inflated spare tire, jack, lug wrench, jack stand, flashlight, reflective vest, gloves, tire block and tire gauge.

Changing brake pads. Changing your own brake pads is more difficult that some of the other DIY projects and generally takes about an hour to complete. But learning how to change your brake pads can save you hundreds of dollars.

Your brake pads will generally let you know they need replaced. When the pads wear down, it causes a squealing sound when you brake.


Brakes are an essential component in every vehicle. Properly maintaining and repairing your car's brakes and brake systems not only ensures that you can safely stop your vehicle, it can also help you avoid more costly damage and subsequent repairs.

To read more about the signs your brakes may need repaired and the type of brake repairs, go to the Angie's List Guide to Brakes.

Radiator service

A radiator is an essential component in any internal-combustion engine. Your car’s engine relies on coolant passing through the engine block to absorb and transfer heat.

To learn more about how a radiator works and some potential problems associated with radiators, go to the Angie's List Guide to Radiator Service.

Classic car restoration and service

Although the definition of a classic car varies from person to person, repairing and restoring vintage vehicles is a passion for many Americans.

Classic cars come in a variety of makes, models and eras. To find out more about classic car restoration, go to the Angie's List Guide to Classic Car Restoration. Visit the Angie's List Guide to Classic Car Service for more information on finding a mechanic for your classic car.

Winterizing your car

Driving your car in the winter is a whole different ballgame the any other time of the year. Slick roads from snow, ice and sleet can make winter driving hazardous.

For winter car maintenance and driving tips, visit the Angie's List Guide to Winterizing Your Car.

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