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Your Guide to Modern Auto Maintenance

Vehicles have changed a lot since you started driving. Here's what you need to know

diagram of a car with maintenance points highlighted and numbered

Illustrations By Nicolas Rapp/AARP

En español | The cars we grew up with had little more complexity than a lawn mower. Accelerate to today, and the technical changes are almost unimaginable. Here are the rules of car care and how they've changed over the years.

1. Cabin air filter

Then: What?
Now: Cabin air filters, made to improve interior air quality, only became common in 2000. The filter is tucked behind the glove box, under the dashboard or under the hood, and it needs to be replaced about every year. You can do this yourself, but you may twist yourself into knots to reach it.

2. Fluids

Then: Dipsticks showed if you had enough oil and automatic transmission fluid. For brake, power steering and windshield washer fluids, you just eyeballed the reservoir. For coolant, you'd pop the radiator cap and look.
Now: Some cars no longer have oil and transmission dipsticks, relying on sensors to notify you if there's an issue. Hands off the radiator cap; instead, go to a separate reservoir tank under the hood that lets you see if the coolant is low. Mechanics top off all fluids during routine maintenance.

3. Engine air filter

Then: You'd pop open the hood, spin a wing nut, pull off the air cleaner cover and drop in a new filter.
Now: It's not quite so easy. You need to be careful not to damage the electronic air sensor wiring that is often built into the air cleaner housing. Figure on a new filter every year or two, depending on your driving.

4. Wash and wax

Then: Used dish soap and water, a sponge to wash, hose to rinse. Used a leather chamois to dry. Applied wax several times a year.
Now: The only right thing about the earlier way is the hose. The rest could dull and scratch car paints. Buy specially formulated car-wash soap (less harsh) and use a wash mitt and microfiber drying towel. And research whether ceramic coatings would work better for your car's body than conventional wax.


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5. Air conditioner

Then and now: Needs attention only if there's a leak in the system. If a technician says you need a freon recharge, either there's a leak that should be fixed first or you're being scammed.

6. Brakes

Then and now: Have your brake pads checked with other regular service. When they get worn down, have them replaced. It will depend on the car, but that's likely somewhere between 30,000 and 50,000 miles of driving. How you drive also plays a factor. City driving — especially in stop-and-go traffic — will tend to wear out brakes faster than cruising the highway.

7. Tire tread

Then: If there was enough tread left to touch Lincoln's head on a penny, upside down, you were good.
Now: A penny still works, but to get a more precise reading, it's easier to buy a tire depth gauge from the auto-parts store for a few bucks. Usually, a 2/32-inch tread or less is considered unable to pass safety inspection. To prolong tread life, get tires rotated every 6,000 to 8,000 miles.


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8. Headlights, taillights and signals

Then: You'd pull out the bad bulb and push in the new one.
Now: Modern vehicle lights — halogen, xenon or LED — may last for as long as you own your car. And if not, many remain pretty easy to replace.

9. Tire pressure

Then: If it looked low, it probably was.
Now: Modern radial tires always look a bit low; their flat-bottom stance gives the tire a wider footprint for better traction. So don't eyeball it; check tire pressure once a month (or every other refueling), using your own dial-type or digital tire gauge. Use the tire-pressure number printed on a decal on the driver's door jamb to determine the right levels; the side of the tire gives maximum pressure, not recommended pressure. Front tires often require different pressure levels than back tires in newer cars.

10. Wiper blades

Then: You'd buy a rubber insert and slide it on to replace the worn blade.
Now: Buy a package that has the blades already fastened into their springy holders. It comes with a batch of adapters to make it fit the wiper arm on your car.

11. Oil changes

Then: Changed oil every 3,000 miles; easily done at home.
Now: Schedules vary by car; changes could be once a year or wait as long as 15,000 miles, particularly for newer cars requiring synthetic oil. Check owner's manual (or trust your dashboard service reminders, which should be set to match the manual). Have it done professionally; it's difficult to remove a modern vehicle's underbody panel.

check engine light on vehicle dashboard

Douglas Sacha/Getty Images

What does the “check engine” light really mean?

It can mean anything from a loose gas cap to major engine problems. If the light is flashing, or red instead of the usual orange, that's bad trouble; get to a shop right away. If it's steady, or comes on and goes off intermittently, you have some headroom. Check that the gas cap is tight; that's a freebie fix you can do. Shut off the car and restart, several times if necessary, to see if the light stays off. If it stays on, let a shop diagnose your vehicle with a scanner that reads the “trouble codes” stored in the vehicle's electronic memory. A 2020 survey by diagnostic site CarMD.com said the most common problems associated with the “check engine” light, and their average repair costs, were:

1. Catalytic Converter: $1,376 for replacement

2. Oxygen Sensor: $246

3. Ignition Coil and Spark Plugs: $387

4. Loose Fuel Cap: $25 for replacement, if broken

5. Mass Airflow Sensor: $346


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Is “timed maintenance” — using mileage intervals between service — still a valid way to care for your car?

Yes, but those intervals are not the be-all, end-all. More and more cars have sensors to measure the need for service based on your driving. For example, oil life sensors track the engine's running conditions, and brake wear sensors can tell when the brakes are close to worn out.

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