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Your Checklist for a Spring Car Tune-Up

Checking tires, wiper blades and filters will get your vehicle ready for warmer weather

spinner image red car on Highway 107 in Porcupine Mountains Wilderness State Park
Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo

Winter conditions can wreak havoc on your car. That means your automobile could likely use some sprucing up as the weather gets warmer. After being coated with salt, slush and sand, a car's exterior requires attention, and many parts and systems need some love, too.

"Doing preventative maintenance will improve the performance, lifespan and safety of your vehicle's most important parts. It's also going to help ensure you don't have a breakdown at an inconvenient time or place,” says David Bennett, 52, manager of repair systems at American Automobile Association's national office in Heathrow, Florida.

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To get your vehicle road-trip ready, here are some things you can do on your own and what you should hand off to the pros.

Do some DIY detailing

Spring car tune-ups are no joke to stand-up comedian Shaun Eli, 59, who has been doing his own car maintenance since he was in high school. Eli keeps his car in top shape because pre-pandemic, he spent a lot of time on the road driving to comedy gigs from his home in New York City.

Eli starts his spring tune-up by washing off winter's leftovers, including the salt that can corrode the metal on your car. Deep-cleaning your vehicle top to bottom, inside and out — also called detailing — can be pricey at $100 or more, but you can do it yourself easily.

First, hose down the exterior, spraying underneath the car and into the wheel wells, getting as much dirt and salt off as you can.

Using car-washing soap or mild dish soap and a wet sponge, wash the car's exterior from the top down. Dry the car thoroughly, and then apply automotive wax with a soft cloth to protect the finish.

"I'm a big fan of using Rain-X on the windshield; it's helpful when driving in the rain because it coats your windshield so the rain blows right off when you're moving,” he says.

Once you're done with the exterior, tackle the interior. Because salt can erode your car from the inside out, especially after months of winter boots tracking granules inside the vehicle, it's important to thoroughly clean it out. Remove the floor mats and hose them down, leaving them outside to dry.

"If it's been awhile since the carpet has been shampooed or vacuumed, make sure to do that,” advises Bennett.

Wipe down the seats, steering wheel and dashboard with a damp rag, and clean the insides of your windows, too. But never open the hood and hose off the engine, warns Bennett.

"You can wipe the engine area down with a rag, but spraying it to remove all the sediment is not a great idea,” he says. “There are way too many electrical components under there that could be damaged.”

Inspect wiper blades

spinner image person checking windshield wiper blades
Noppon Kobpimai/EyeEm/Getty Images

Windshield wiper blades work nonstop during snowy, slushy, icy months. Since more than 90 percent of your driving decisions depend on what you can see, it's important that your wiper blades work well.

"Run a wet paper towel over them a few times to clean them, being careful not to cut yourself on any metal edges,” suggests Eli.

Then, hit the windshield wiper fluid and see how the sprayers are working, suggests Mollie Lewis, 51, a certified ASE Master Automobile Technician and owner of All in the Wrist Auto and Diesel Repair in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

"If you get a lot of streaks or noise, that means the rubber is torn off, and you'll need a wiper change,” she says.

Don't forget to check your back windshield wipers, too.

Top up fluids

While the car is cool, open up your hood and check the engine oil, brake fluid, transmission, power steering and engine coolant levels. You can find instructions in your owner's manual or find DIY information online.

"Follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule for when to change those out and get those fluids topped off as necessary,” says Bennett.

While you're checking the fluid levels, look around the engine compartment to determine whether your belts and hoses are dry or cracked, adds Bennett. If so, they'll need replacing.

Freshen up filters

Dirty air filters can reduce your gas mileage by up to 10 percent: Grime stops air from getting into the combustion chamber, which then prevents the engine from running efficiently, says Bennett.

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"Changing the cabin air filter, which is usually right behind the glove compartment, is simple, yet dealers charge a lot for this,” adds Eli.

If you don't have a replacement filter, you can at least clean it: Remove it, bang it on a hard surface a few times to dislodge dirt and dust and reinstall.

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Be sure to put it back the same way, Eli says. If you put it in backward, you'll blow dirt and dust into your car's interior.

Swap out snow tires and check all-weather tires

Winter tires don't perform well in hot temperatures, so if you have tires on your vehicle specifically designed for cold weather, have them changed when spring rolls in.

If you live in a warmer climate, check your all-weather tires for tread wear or any signs of strain, suggests Bennett.

"Look for bulging in the sidewall, the inside and the outside of the tires. If you hit a pothole incorrectly, you could have caused damage to the structural parts of that tire, so see if there's a bubble or a gash and if so, have that tire replaced,” says Bennett.

Inspect your tire rims to be sure they're not bent or damaged from potholes or rust, he adds.

Check tire pressure

If your car has been parked in the driveway for weeks at a time, that can affect the tires, say Lewis.

"Tires lose their air pressure and you can get a little dry rot on them, so if your car's been sitting because of the pandemic, have it looked over,” she explains.

Underinflated tires wear out faster and reduce gas mileage, so it's important to add air when needed. You can get air at your local gas station or pick up a portable air compressor that runs off your car's power port. They cost “less than $40, and is something worth keeping in your trunk,” says Eli.

The correct tire pressure is listed in your owner's manual and also usually on the driver's door jamb. But be aware that it's not the maximum pressure listed on the side of the tire, he says.

You can measure your tire pressure with an inexpensive tire pressure gauge.

Check out the spare tire

Most people forget about the spare tire hidden away in the trunk, says Bennett.

"A lot of cars don't come with spare tires now, so be aware if your car has one or not,” he says. “If it does, take it out of its storage compartment and make sure nothing looks dried or cracked, that you don't see any bubbles or slashes in it, and that it's properly inflated."

Boost the battery

Heat is worse for a battery than freezing cold, so in hotter climates, batteries last between two and four years, says Bennett.

"Make sure your battery is tightly secured in place; you don't want it rattling around, because the interior components of the battery could get loose, shake around and become brittle,” he says. “That would decrease the life of the battery.”

Clean and tighten your battery terminals, and then have your battery load tested at your local garage to ensure it's working properly, he adds.

"Most times, batteries don't give you any notice; you'll go out one morning, and the car won't start,” he says.

Take your car out for a diagnostic spin

During the winter, cars take a beating from many slide-to-stop maneuvers and hard braking, causing wear on your brakes, brake pads and rotors. Worn-out shock absorbers can also impact your emergency braking distance. Salt and sand can affect the seals and lubrication that keeps your suspension working properly and provide proper control of the car. Check your car's alignment, suspension and brakes by hitting the road, suggests Bennett.

"As you're driving, is your vehicle pulling to one side? If so, have the alignment checked,” says Bennett. Hitting potholes can cause alignment problems and steering issues.

spinner image Man connecting the car battery to the vehicle with a wrench
Stefan Tomic/Getty Images

If your vehicle pulls to one side when braking, get the brakes checked. A mechanic will “pull the wheels, look at your brake pads and rotors, and make sure there are no leaks or bulges in the brake lines," he says.

Listen carefully to your car while you're on this test drive, adds Bennett. If you hear noises or feel vibrations, try to describe them carefully when you take it in for repairs: “When does the car make that sound — when I turn right or when I'm applying the brakes? The more information you give them, the easier it'll be to find the problem,” he says.

Prepare for extra-hot weather

In warmer climates, a spring tune-up will focus on your cooling system to make sure your vehicle can perform well under the blazing sun, notes Lewis.

"You'll need a coolant flush to clean out the radiator: We'll run clean fluid through it and get a new mixture back into the system,” explains Lewis.

Test your air conditioner by turning it on, making sure it's getting cold and that you don't hear any unusual noises, adds Bennett.

"If you hear the compressor clicking on and off very quickly, that indicates low refrigerant,” he explains.

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close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

AARP Auto Buying Program Powered by TrueCar

Shop for a car with safety features you want. Buyers can get a free AARP Smart Driver course.

close up of a gold car parked near the water during sunset

Please Select Make

Please Enter ZIP Code

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