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AARP Smart Guide to Car Maintenance

More than 40 tips on how to keep your vehicle running like new

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With regular maintenance, many of today’s cars and trucks can run for several hundred thousand miles. And since the average price of a new car sold in America now approaches $50,000, keeping your vehicle running as long as possible just makes good financial sense.

But the key is sticking to the “regular” in regular care, as well as being proactive with small issues so that they don’t compound into four-figure problems. This means not only paying attention to your car, but planning for its maintenance the way you might for a grandchild’s college education: consistently setting money aside and considering it a sunk cost.

This AARP smart guide provides actionable advice on how to maintain your car and create a maintenance budget, including what to expect when it comes to the longevity and reliability from various brands and models.


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1. Track longevity

Certain manufacturers, vehicle types and models have a propensity for longevity, which can help in making your purchase, says Steven Lang, a used car broker with an eye toward buying and selling vehicles that are undervalued and long-lasting. Lang runs the Long Term Quality Index, a 10-year-old database that includes independently gathered reliability data on more than 4 million vehicles. (Similar metrics are collected by Kelley Blue Book’s Service Advisor and Consumer Reports’ Auto Reliability Brand Rankings.) In his research, Lang has found that there are four brands and categories of vehicles that tend to run the longest without major issues. These include the following:

  • Chevrolet: Silverado, Tahoe, Suburban, Corvette 
  • Ford: F-Series Pickup, Mustang
  • Honda: Accord, Civic, Pilot
  • Toyota: All vehicles, except GR86 and Supra 


2. Focus on a long-term model

According to Lang, the cars mentioned above are long-lasting for a variety of similar reasons. They are best selling vehicles with generous life spans, meaning hundreds of thousands or millions have been produced in any given generation, giving manufacturers time to iterate powertrains and work out any issues. And their popularity means that they are easy to service, which allows owners ready access to maintenance and repair.

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3. Watch the options

According to Tony Quiroga, editor-in-chief of Car and Driver, the world’s largest automotive enthusiast publication, simplicity tends to track with longevity; the fewer parts that exist on something, the less opportunity there is for failure. “The more things you add, the more complication you add, the more problems you potentially present,” Quiroga says. He should know. He and his staff test hundreds of cars, car parts and automotive products each year, as well as conduct long-term tests on contemporary vehicles, running them for more than 40,000 miles and monitoring issues that arise. That said, “most people probably don't want to buy a car with a manual transmission and hand-crank windows. They want the features that make getting to 200,000-plus miles pleasant,” Quiroga says. Like everything in life, it is a trade off.


4. Choose an under-stressed engine

According to Lang, the longest-running vehicles tend to have engines that are larger and naturally aspirated (not turbocharged) V8s and V6s. These less complicated motors are easier to service, and generally operate without working too hard. This simply means that their mechanical components are not overstressed during regular use. Like a human, a less stressed motor will generally last longer without fundamental issues.


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5. Get to know the owner’s manual

All of our experts suggest that quality long-term maintenance begins with a careful perusal of the service section of the owner’s manual. This section tracks the mileage (such as every 10,000 miles driven) and timing (such as once every two years) milestones at which the manufacturer recommends preventive maintenance. Treat this as your guide. “Find out: When does the manufacturer say I should have an oil change, a tire rotation? When should all the fluids be changed?” says David Bennett, a National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE) certified master technician and the repair systems manager for the American Automobile Association (AAA). These timelines are based on careful testing and awareness of a vehicle’s capabilities, durability and tolerances. “The people that created these [guidelines] are the engineers and the people that work for the manufacturer,” Quiroga says. “They know what it takes to maintain the car.”


6. Join a community

Nearly every car make or model has an enthusiasts’ online club or community dedicated to  sharing user tips. Check out places like Reddit, Autoguide or CarTalk, or just search “Car Forum” and your car’s name on search engines to find yours. They’re full of tips. Once you’ve located your affinity group online, it’s easy to find recommendations. “Look at the enthusiast forum’s ‘Recommendations’ section,” Lang says. These conversations will be full of suggestions for how to pick the right model, how to option (or not option) it for longevity, what its strengths or weaknesses may be, and how to mitigate issues.


7. Establish a relationship

Find a repair facility you like, and stick with it. Then they’ll get to know you and, more importantly, your car. According to Bennett, it’s like your relationship with your primary care physician. “You don’t want to go looking for a doctor when you have a problem,” Bennett says. “You want to know, Hey I already trust this person. I want to go to them because they've already been taking care of me.”


8. Take detailed notes

You know your car’s behavior best, because you drive it regularly. If you begin to notice that something is off in the way it sounds or behaves, Bennett suggests making notes (when you’re safely parked). When does the issue occur? Under what conditions? Then, when you take it to the shop, you have detailed information to present. Again, it’s much like your relationship with your physician. “The doctor is going to ask you a series of questions, because it's going to lead them down the path to figure out what is your proper diagnosis, so they can treat you. Same thing with the car,” Bennett says. Being open and specific with the repair facility will save you money and time, and result in better care.


9. Beware of over-servicing

According to Quiroga, car dealerships will sometimes set up their own service requirements for a vehicle that go above and beyond what manufacturers recommend in the owner’s manual. These can often include unnecessary practices like throttle body cleaning or additional inspections, which will leave your car over-serviced. This is not harmful to the car. “It doesn't hurt to over-maintain the car,” Quiroga says. “It just ends up costing a ton of money.” Money that could be better used conducting useful and necessary maintenance. Stick to the manual’s recommendations and you should be fine.


10. Match maintenance to driving

Most car manufacturers have what they call a “normal” maintenance schedule as well as a supplemental “extreme” or “severe” maintenance schedule. If you live in a harsh climate — with excessive heat, cold or dust — drive your car enthusiastically (using quick starts and stops and intense cornering, or stress it regularly with extra payload or frequent towing), it’s important to use the more extreme schedule. “The extreme maintenance schedule brings your oil changes closer together. You change filters more often,” Quiroga says. So, you can offset your location or driving style and practice by “doing more maintenance.”


11. Budget for repairs

Sites like AAA, Edmunds and Kelley Blue Book all have calculators that allow you to enter your location and the year, make and model of your car and determine average maintenance and repair costs. “If you do the calculator and you figure out, this is what it costs to maintain over a five-year period, break that into 12 months and then set that money aside for maintenance,” Bennett says.


12. Follow your heart

If you’re planning to keep a car for hundreds of thousands of miles, Quiroga says that it is important to select a vehicle that you think will maintain your happiness, and continue to fit your life, for all of those years. His advice is simple: “Buy what you love and treat it with love.”


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13. Filtration is key

Filters restrict unwanted material from entering your car’s mechanical components, like using a quality paper mask to limit exposure to contagions. “If you regularly change your oil filter, engine air filter and transmission filter, that will provide excellent screening of your core systems,” Lang says. Changing a filter can be very quick, but most shops don’t prorate their labor by the minute, so they may charge you a half hour of labor for a five-minute task. Follow your owner’s manual’s instructions for timing intervals on filter changes, and check YouTube tutorials for how to change them. Learning to accomplish these relatively simple projects yourself can not only save you money long term, but help you become more familiar with your car’s core systems, and help you be aware when issues are arising that may affect its longevity. “You learn to intimately know what's going on in your car,” Quiroga says.


14. When to opt for premium

If the manufacturer suggests premium gasoline, it can be relevant to use it, but only if you’re interested in maximum engine output and horsepower. Otherwise, Quiroga says, there is little benefit, for longevity or otherwise, to using premium gasoline. “The car itself is not going to be harmed. Modern cars have plenty of safeguards to allow them to run on less than premium fuel.” He adds that those octane listings on the inside of your fuel filler door are generally not doctrine: “They're not requirements. They're just recommendations.”


15. Consider Top Tier gasoline

To extend the life of your car, Bennett recommends that you use Top Tier gasoline, a brand-name premium fuel that meets or exceeds standards for added detergents – cleaners that help prevent carbon deposits from building up in your motor. Such deposits can damage engine health over the long term. “As carbon deposits over time, they can build up, and then they can cause performance issues with the engine itself,” Bennett says. You can determine which brands offer Top Tier gas by visiting the site associated with the standard. Most familiar gas station brands adhere to these standards, and while you should expect to pay a bit more than you would at discount or unknown stations or chains, it’s worth it. “It may not be the cheapest gas. You may be able to find gas for 5 cents a gallon less over here, versus Top Tier,” Bennett says. “If it's reducing the carbon deposits, you may save money in the long term.”


16. Create your own oil-change schedule

Most contemporary cars have an onboard, computer-controlled oil-life monitor that takes into account how you drive, and recommends oil-change intervals based on that. But our sources concur that, given the importance of oil changes in encouraging engine longevity and the affordability of oil changes, it is worthwhile to change your oil more frequently — every 5000 to 7000 miles, or twice a year. “There are certain recommendations that make me nervous, like 10,000 or 15,000 miles. Personally, I wouldn't do that to my own car that I paid five figures for,” Quiroga says. “Cars are a massive investment. Oil changes aren't really that expensive relative to the cost of the car. And so it's pretty cheap insurance to do it [more often].”


17. Look into using synthetic oil

Although it’s more expensive than traditional motor oil, according to Quiroga, synthetic oil is worth the additional cost, because it is better engineered and offers superior, longer-lasting lubrication for your engine. “If I'm choosing between synthetic and conventional oil, I'm always going to go synthetic,” he says. “The protection is better and the protection is there. And the most modern technology is in the synthetic oils.”


18. Check your fluids

Your car has a trio of fluid reservoirs — oil, engine coolant and transmission fluid — that allow for simple diagnoses of larger issues. Each of these has a dipstick with a normal fill range indicated, or a marker in the reservoir under the hood, that will tell you how high the levels should be. Check them whenever you fill up, or at least once a month. “If those levels change between gas stops, it likely indicates a problem,” Lang says. You need to get the car to the shop to determine what’s causing the loss — a loose seal, a leaky hose, a worn part — before it becomes something larger.


19. Don’t forget to check the brake fluid

Brake fluid is obviously key to your car’s ability to slow itself. But clean fluid also helps your entire braking system last longer. “People often forget about their brake fluid. It needs to be replaced once every two years,” Quiroga says. It’s so important, and oft neglected, he uses it as something of a signifier of proper maintenance. “If I'm shopping for a used car, I look at the brake fluid, and if it’s clean, I'm like, Oh, this person knows what they're doing,” Quiroga says. “They're taking care of their car.


20. Don’t fall for the hard sell

Auto-parts stores offer products or supplements that you can add to your gas tank, your motor oil, your coolant reservoir, or elsewhere that promise to increase your fuel economy or extend the life of your engine or radiator. Our sources agree that these are generally ineffectual. Quiroga says that some may even serve to delay necessary repairs until they become major issues. “There are really no miracles in a can,” Quiroga says. “You can put Band-Aids on things temporarily, but you're not really fixing the core problem.”


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21. Take it easy

Lang suggests that if you go easy on your car, you will put less strain on its components, and this will help extend its life. “Be light on the throttle [accelerator pedal]. If you see a stop sign or a stoplight ahead, coast so that you're not pressing the suspension or brakes,” Lang says. “Think about maximizing your fuel economy because if you focus on that it will usually also be able to maximize the vehicle’s lifecycle.” 


22. Stop idling for long periods of time

Running your car while it is sitting still for extended periods places additional and unnecessary stress on the engine, so try to avoid idling for extended periods of time. “If you're stuck in a traffic jam and it looks like you're going to be sitting there for a while — if the weather's good — go ahead and put it in park and shut it off, open the windows,” Bennett says. If you need to cool down or warm up the cabin, turn it back on briefly and run the heat or AC.


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23. Keep it tidy

Lang recommends that if you bring something into your car, take it out when you’re finished using it. “If you are in the mood for a fast food run, take all that junk left after you eat your meal and throw it out,” Lang says. “Think about cockroaches and nasty smells. They only get there if you are not taking care of your car.”


24. Wash regularly

Quiroga reminds us that, as with your car’s interior, leaving grime on the exterior of your car can contribute to issues, so wash your car regularly. “It is important to remove this stuff from the car’s body because it traps moisture, which can lead to corrosion of metal or rubber seals,” Quiroga says. “And if you live in a state that uses salt on the roads in winter, keeping the underbody clean puts rust off for a longer time.”


25. Get the junk out of the trunk

Additional weight inside the vehicle leads to additional and unnecessary wear on all systems — tires, brakes, suspension, power train. So if there’s stuff in the cabin or trunk that you don’t need, or aren’t moving somewhere immediately, remove it and store it somewhere else. “Get rid of that bowling ball from last week’s league game, and all that sand from your household project. There's no reason to carry that on board,” Bennett says. 


26. Fix the rips

If you notice a rip or a seam beginning to separate on one of your seats, consider fixing it yourself or take it to an upholstery or body shop and have it looked at. “If you have a small tear, go ahead and fix that as soon as you can before it becomes a large tear,” Bennett says. “That’s for cloth seats, leather seats, the same thing.”


27. Avoid cabin fever

The cabin air filter assists with in-car ventilation and screens particles, fumes and unwanted scents from entering the cabin, where they can linger and accumulate, causing long-term degradation. If it’s dirty, “that can have an impact on how efficient the climate control system is,” according to Brian Moody, an executive editor at Cox Automotive, where he helps provide content for a range of publications, including Kelley Blue Book and Autotrader. Follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for changing these filters, and have them checked if you notice a change in the function of your heat or AC system or odd smells in your car.


28. Keep it covered

Lang suggests that the ideal way to protect your car’s paint and bodywork, as well as its interior materials, is to keep it inside and covered if possible. “The best thing for your car is a garage,” Lang says. “A garage will take care of nearly all your needs in that area.” If you don’t have a garage or carport, a quality waterproof, dust-resistant, fitted car cover will help.


29. Consider ceramic tinting

Ceramic tinting is a new, long-lasting product intended to coat the glass of your vehicle. According to Moody, “The tinting cuts down the heat and the UV rays that come through your windows,” lowering the damage — fading, drying, cracking — to your interior’s fabric, plastic and leather. Detailing shops can provide this service.


30. Get the bugs off

If you live in an area with lots of bugs, it could be advantageous to clean your car’s exterior more frequently. “The acidity levels within these bugs can eat into the paint,” Bennet warns. Use a bug and tar remover for stubborn dried splats.


31. Seal it up

Applying a car sealant — the most up-to-date incarnation on the idea of car “wax” — can help protect your paint from grime, bugs, tar, sap, road salt and sand. It also makes it easier to remove these things when you wash your vehicle. After a thorough cleaning, Bennett suggests sealing your car, or having it sealed professionally by a detailer, twice a year. “Typically before winter and after winter are good ways to time it,” he says. Your car’s horizontal surfaces — the hood, roof and trunk lid — absorb the greatest impact from sunlight. So if you only have time or energy to seal a few areas, Lang recommends that you start with these. “The five minutes of work on those panels will do more for your car's looks than inflicting 100 quickie car washes on it,” Lang says.


32. Search the crevices for creatures

Small animals — mice, rats, squirrels — seeking a warm and safe space can nest in your car, so when you detail your car twice a year, make sure to check under the hood, inside the fender panels and in the spare wheel well. Rodents can chew through wiring and hoses, or eat through upholstery and paneling. They can also surprise you, emerging when you’re driving, and a shock while driving is never a good thing. “It wasn't until the mouse ran right in front of me while I was driving, and scared me, that I realized that it was living in my car,” Bennett says.


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33. Have a re-tire-ment strategy

The original equipment manufacturer (OEM) tires that come with your car off the dealer’s lot were chosen for an optimal combination of handling, ride quality, fuel efficiency and noise. If you want to optimize for longevity, Lang recommends looking online under your specific make and model — Tire Rack, Discount Tire and Pep Boys all offer this option — and buying the tires that have the best overall rating from owners. “OEM tires usually don't last as long as the ones that you can buy that have exceptional durability to them,” Lang says.


34. Buy name brands

Tires affect every nearly aspect of your vehicle’s performance, from handling and braking to road noise and fuel efficiency. So purchasing quality tires like those from Michelin, Bridgestone, or Goodyear is worth the investment to keep your car running at its peak. “If you buy a name-brand tire, you're going to be in good shape,” Quiroga says. “It's when you start delving into tire brands you've never heard of, ones that are really inexpensive, that you will see things suffer. So spending more on tires is never a bad thing.”


35. Keep them properly inflated

To keep your tires lasting as long as possible, it’s import to make sure they’re properly inflated. The proper inflation pressure is in the owner’s manual, as well as on a sticker inside the driver’s door jamb. You can test the tire pressure with a tire pressure gauge, which is available at most gas stations or any auto parts store. You simply unscrew the cap on the tire and fit the gauge over the opening, allowing a tiny bit of air to leak out. This moves the gauge and tells you what the pressure is. “That's going to ensure that they're wearing properly,” Bennett says. “Underinflated tires wear more on the sides, where an overinflated tire will wear more in the center.” Additionally, tire pressure affects your gas mileage. “An underinflated tire takes more energy to move,” Bennett says. “It’s probably going to decrease your gas mileage by around 10 percent.”


36. Rotate regularly

Another tip for making your tires last longer is to rotate them regularly. Your owner’s manual will have the proper instructions — it varies depending on whether your car is front-, rear- or all-wheel drive, among other things — and your mechanic will be able to do this job. Plus, Bennett says, “When you rotate, the technician can look at your tires and make sure there's no nails, no puncture wounds, make sure they’re wearing evenly.” The tires will also demonstrate if a car’s suspension is in or out of balance.


37. Don’t wear down tires unnecessarily

Squealing the tires may sound exciting and remind you of your youthful days cruising and drag racing, but that noise is the sound of your tires leaving behind rubber, and thus wearing out. “Always drive looking ahead, to anticipate the stop,” Bennett says. “So that way you're not doing this quick stop, which can create extra wear on the tires and vehicles themselves.”


38. Don’t cheap out

Remember that your car will only wear as well as the parts you put on it. “If you buy cheap parts, you usually get bad results,” says Lang. “So if you're planning on keeping your car for decades instead of years, don't focus on the price. Look at it as an investment, and buy what will yield a quality product for you in the future.”


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39. What to know about EVs

Electric vehicles have far fewer moving parts and less need for regular maintenance than petroleum-powered cars. And the cost of electricity per mile traveled is typically much lower than the cost of gasoline. So there may be significant savings in operating an EV. But when things go wrong — for example, with the battery pack or motors — repairs can be catastrophically expensive.

If you’re considering an EV, Lang suggests focusing on vehicles that have been in existence for an extended period of time. As with long-lived engines, he says that this duration gives manufacturers time, and incentive, to work out kinks and bugs to extend their life. “It's no mistake that Tesla has remained so strong in this respect,” Lang says. “Because they stay with whatever they make. Tesla Model S is over a decade old and they still make them today. So they are doing what other automakers are not doing.”


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40. What to know about longevity

Many electric cars come with a longer warranty than gasoline powered cars, around 8 years and 100,000 miles on the battery and motor. But once it is out of warranty, a battery pack is an extremely expensive fix. Electric car batteries degrade just like in your phone — but on a much larger scale. “I would have a difficult time recommending to someone to buy a 10-year-old electric car,” Moody says. “Whereas if someone wanted to buy a 10-year-old 100,000 mile Honda Civic, it’s probably going to be fine.”


41. Know how to charge

EVs are often advertised with an alluring maximum range and batteries that can be charged quickly. But according to our sources, filling up the battery to 100 percent charge and using fast charging regularly will degrade your battery and diminish its longevity. Some EVs will allow you to adjust how much of the battery you are charging in order to extend battery life. “So, if you want to extend the life of your EV, you don't fully charge it, and you don't use fast charging unless you really need it,” Quiroga says.


42. Understand the braking system

Most electric cars have a regenerative braking system that engages when the driver’s foot is removed from the accelerator, allowing the car to recoup energy during coasting or slowing down and store it in the battery. But these “one pedal” driving systems — so-called because, in many circumstances, they allow you to drive using only the accelerator — can be so effective that the regular friction brakes don’t need to be used as often. This can cause the rotors to rust and wear out. To prevent this, Quiroga says, “every once in a while make sure you're hitting the brake pedal hard enough to actually use the friction brakes so that you don't have premature corrosion.”



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