5 Essential Summer Car-Care Tips

Before hitting the road this summer, make sure your ride is in good condition.

The weak economy is still putting a damper on travel, but low gasoline prices are enticing people into their cars. According to AAA, 27 million people will take a road trip this Memorial Day weekend, up from 26.3 million last year.

Last summer, travelers battled record-high gas prices -- a gallon of regular fuel cost $3.94, on average, on Memorial Day 2008. As Memorial Day 2009 approaches, the national average is $2.24 a gallon. If you drive 300 miles and your vehicle gets 25 miles per gallon, you'll spend about $20 less on fuel.

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Before you pack up the car, run through our checklist to make sure your ride is in good condition:

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1. Kick the tires. And then get out the tire-pressure gauge and check that your tires are inflated to the level recommended in your owner's manual. Summer heat increases the pressure in tires, so test the pressure before driving far. Don't forget to check your spare as well.

Underinflated tires run the risk of a blowout, and overinflated ones make hydroplaning more likely in rainy weather. There's a financial payoff, too: Properly inflated tires increase your vehicle's fuel efficiency by up to 3%.

Check the tread while you're down there. Stick a penny in the tread gaps with Lincoln's head facing down -- if the head is fully visible, you need new tires.

A new line of tires, Goodyear's Assurance FuelMax, are designed to boost fuel economy. FuelMax tires improve fuel efficiency by 4% compared with the current line of Goodyear Assurance tires, and they carry a 65,000-mile warranty.

FuelMax tires are made of a new polymer that maximizes handling and durability, while providing 27% less rolling resistance to improve efficiency. Prices range from $73 to $122 per tire, depending on size, at www.tirerack.com (opens in new tab).

2. Check the essentials. Check the oil after running the car for a few minutes. It should be at a sufficient level and appear clean on the stick. Though many technicians recommend an oil change every 3,000 miles, some manuals recommend 7,500 miles-check your owner's manual for guidance.

New windshield-wiper blades might be a good investment for summer driving. Thunderstorms often crop up without warning, and the previous winter's weather may have taken a toll on the blades' performance. Prices are typically $5 to $25.

3. Make a service stop. We'll leave it to your mechanic to tell you what needs to be done, but a quick tuneup before a long trip is a good idea -- especially because it could improve your fuel economy by 4% to 12%. Prices for a basic tuneup start at around $70 at Meineke and Midas, and both have coupons available on their Web sites.

4. Ditch the junk in your trunk. No hip-hop reference here -- just clean out your car. The more you haul, the more fuel you burn. An extra 100 pounds in your vehicle could reduce your mpg by up to 2%.

5. Prepare for the worst. You should keep an emergency kit with some necessities in your car in case you get stuck. The AAA 73 Piece Adventurer Road Assistance Kit ($55,www.amazon.com (opens in new tab)) includes jumper cables, an air compressor, tools and a first-aid kit. Black & Decker's Start It Jump-Starter ($50, www.bdonlinestore.com (opens in new tab)) can help you get back on the road without jumper cables.

We don't want to be a drag, but keep in mind that driving faster than 60 miles per hour decreases your fuel efficiency -- each 5 mph over 60 is like paying an extra 24 cents per gallon for gas. That money is better spent on a snack at the next rest stop.

Jessica L. Anderson
Associate Editor, Kiplinger's Personal Finance
Anderson has been with Kiplinger since January 2004, when she joined the staff as a reporter. Since then, she's covered the gamut of personal finance issues—from mortgages and credit to spending wisely—and she heads up Kiplinger's annual automotive rankings. She holds a BA in journalism and mass communication from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. She was the 2012 president of the Washington Automotive Press Association and serves on its board of directors. In 2014, she was selected for the North American Car and Truck Of the Year jury. The awards, presented at the Detroit Auto Show, have come to be regarded as the most prestigious of their kind in the U.S. because they involve no commercial tie-ins. The jury is composed of nationally recognized journalists from across the U.S. and Canada, who are selected on the basis of audience reach, experience, expertise, product knowledge, and reputation in the automotive community.