9 Ways to Save on Car Maintenance

Car maintenance is important. It can also get expensive.

Even as cars evolve to need less-frequent care, maintenance and replacement costs can take a big bite out of your wallet. Don't worry, we're not going to try to teach you how to rebuild an engine or even dirty your hands -- just how to make smart decisions that will keep you rolling for less.

Give regular fuel a try.

Even if your car says premium fuel recommended -- or even required -- few really need it. Most late-model cars can adjust to regular fuel because engines are now equipped with knock sensors, which adjust the engine's timing automatically when they detect uncontrolled burning -- the tell-tale ‘pinging’ -- and forestall any engine damage. You may experience a slight decrease in power and fuel economy, but even the mileage loss won't come anywhere near the difference between regular and premium.

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A key exception: If your car is turbo- or supercharged and specifies super, follow the manual. And for pete’s sake, you’re doing neither your car nor your wallet any favors by putting higher-grade gas in a car that calls for regular.

Don’t change the oil more than you need to.

Sure, Uncle Marvin changed his oil every 3,000 miles and his Studebaker ran forever. But oils have evolved, and so have engines. Even Jiffy Lube’s not running the “every 3,000 miles” pitch anymore. Stick to the manual’s recommendations and refuse all entreaties from service managers and ad campaigns, especially ones for oil additives.

Note that your manual may tell you to follow your car's electronic oil-use sensors rather than go by a specific mileage. Don’t get me wrong. Oil is your engine’s lifeblood and it’s critical to change it. But doing so more often than your vehicle's manufacturer recommends simply doesn’t pay off.

Find a local mechanic you trust and show him your business.

Too many car owners flit from shop to shop, forking over fortunes on major repairs. Here’s a better strategy: Identify a gas station owner or repair shop manager in your neighborhood you like, make sure he knows you are creating business for him, get to know him on a first-name basis and be friendly. It’s amazing how a bond of trust like this can save you money. I work with someone whose trusty local gas station owner came to his house to jump-start his battery in an emergency, and charged him nothing.

Have you considered a warehouse store for your tires?

No, they won’t make you buy a dozen at a time. Costco, Sam’s Club and BJ’s Wholesale Club all offer tires and will mount them for you, too. You’ll be able to tap into your club’s satisfaction guarantees on top of the warranties the tire makers offer, and note that the installation costs include services you’d often pay extra for elsewhere such as lifetime balancing, rotation and flat repair. It pays to do some looking ahead on your club’s Web site to check availability -- the clubs don’t always keep inventory outside some relatively common sizes -- but they can order you just about anything.

Know thy hybrid.

You go out to start up your hybrid and nothing happens. Don’t fret. In addition to whatever exotic chemical composite hybrids have to run the drive system, they have a conventional 12-volt lead acid battery that powers the headlights, radio and dome lights that kids are so good at leaving on overnight. So see if it’s just a jump start you need before you call for more serious help.

Prius owners -- there IS a 12 volt battery in there — you just can’t see it. Consult your owner’s manual for how to jump start.

Keep the right parts dry.

I see this all the time in my neighborhood: Drivers come home and park the car in front of the garage door. Then when rain threatens, they run out to pull it inside lest their car get rained on. Or, when it gets dark, they pull the car in for the night.

Ouch! Here’s what’s wrong with that: Starting a cold engine is when the bulk of its wear occurs. That’s in part because all the oil is sitting at the bottom, rather than distributed around the parts that move. But also, when your engine runs and doesn’t get warm, the byproducts of combustion, including water, collect in the oil and can over time turn it into a noxious sludge that attacks the motor from the inside. On a longer trip, your car’s engine gets hot and the water is boiled out of the oil and the engine -- no worries there. So: avoid short trips when you can -- especially the short and pointless ones.

You bought a car. You didn’t marry the dealer.

Independent shops are fighting back against dealer marketing efforts that play on consumer fears of voiding a warranty. If you have your maintenance done on time with quality parts -- and keep your paperwork -- federal law is on your side if push comes to shove over a warranty claim. Check out the Magnuson-Moss Warranty Act. If your dealer makes you happy by giving you a loaner car, fine. Enjoy it. But it’s frequently the more expensive choice for basic servicing.

One reason often cited for taking a car to the dealership for maintenance work is that dealers —as representatives of car manufacturers — are more likely to see if there are any outstanding recalls on your car. But, you can do a lot of this research yourself, either by checking with your independent shop, or by looking up your car online in the government’s safercar.org database.

Tire rotation? Don’t spin your wheels.

Tire rotation is one of the least critical of maintenance issues. If you don’t do it, your tires will wear out a bit more quickly, true. But here’s a case where you can skimp. I wouldn’t pay extra to have it done. If the car’s already in the air for an inspection or other service, ask your friendly mechanic to put the wheels back on in different spots. Or, if you bought them at a warehouse store as we suggested, they’ll take care of it.

Note also that more and more tires are directional -- which makes rotation less feasible because the tires can only go on either the left or right side of the car. What’s a directional tire? Look for a v-shaped tread pattern.

No ignoring the oil light.

Let’s play this one safe. You see something come on about oil? Pull over as soon as you safely can and turn off the engine.

Sure, it's possible that the light has something to do with oil level or an oil-change interval, but in case it's the oil-pressure light, you need to act in minutes, if not seconds, to keep your engine from destruction.

Now that you’re safely stopped, open up your owner’s manual and look up “oil” to see what you’re dealing with. Maybe it's just an oil change warning and you can keep going to your destination. But if it is the oil pressure, you could have a serious problem and will likely need a tow.

David Muhlbaum
Former Senior Online Editor

In his former role as Senior Online Editor, David edited and wrote a wide range of content for Kiplinger.com. With more than 20 years of experience with Kiplinger, David worked on numerous Kiplinger publications, including The Kiplinger Letter and Kiplinger’s Personal Finance magazine. He co-hosted  Your Money's Worth, Kiplinger's podcast and helped develop the Economic Forecasts feature.