Getting your car ready for summer is a lot easier and less expensive than it used to be.

Gone are the days when the typical “summer tune-up” required you to do a timing adjustment along with replacement of the rotor, distributor cap, spark plugs and plug wires.

“The scheduled maintenance that vehicle manufacturers are now recommending is so much less than what it used to be,” says Glenn Dahl, senior coordinator of technical education of Bridgestone Retail Operations. “Now, it’s mostly a list of items that you have to inspect and check, whereas in the past it was often a long list of items that often had to be replaced. And it’s not at all uncommon for spark plugs, antifreeze, transmission fluids, timing-belts and a host of other vehicle parts and components to have maintenance intervals every 100,000 miles.”

Even so, there are still a few basic steps you can take to better prepare your car for the summer driving season — simple measures that can help you keep motoring happily down the road instead of winding up stranded beside it.

Check tires regularly

Keeping your tires inflated to the proper pressure not only improves fuel economy, but it also ensures that your car will handle optimally in any emergency maneuvers.

“When you check your vehicle tire pressure once or twice a month, that’s also (a) good time to inspect your tires,” says Bruce Woodson, co-owner of Mercer and Woodson Automotive Inc., in Richmond, Va. “If you notice any damage or excessive wear — for instance, if you can see all of Abraham Lincoln’s head doing the ‘penny-test’ — take the car to a tire service center for a professional opinion as to your best options.”

Check cooling and air conditioning systems

“The No. 1 cause of breakdowns to this day is still related to coolant problems and engines overheating,” says Dahl, noting that many common cooling system problems result from poor air flow around the radiator. So, before the summer driving season starts, clean out any leaves, pine needles or other debris that might have accumulated in the fins of the radiator and the air conditioning condenser.

Checking your vehicle’s radiator cap at the start of the summer driving season is also a good idea, he adds. Given the temperatures to which the radiator cap is continually exposed, its internal rubber gasket can end up cracked, deformed, damaged or simply hardened, and the cap’s metal spring also weakens over time. “Replacing a radiator cap that is more than five years old is just cheap insurance,” he says.

“On cars that utilize the conventional ‘green’ antifreeze, the service interval is approximately two years,” says Woodson. “Most modern vehicles, however, now utilize an extended life (orange) coolant that needs to be serviced approximately every five years, so change you car’s coolant on schedule to ensure its anti-corrosion and thermal capabilities remain at their peak.”

Change oil on schedule and keep full

Engine oil must be replaced at recommended intervals using the weight/viscosity of oil required by your vehicle’s owner manual. If your daily driving falls into the “severe service” category, follow all maintenance intervals and recommendations to the letter.

Between changes, be sure to check the oil level on a monthly basis, adding fresh oil whenever necessary.

Check the gas cap

Your car’s humble gas cap is a critical component of your car’s emission control system, and if it isn’t airtight it will trigger “check engine” or “emissions service” lights on your dashboard, says Dahl. Also, check the gasket around the gas cap every time you fill up to ensure that it has no cracks or other damage. If you notice anything amiss, replace it.

Lighting and visibility

Check your headlights to make sure they all work and that there are no hidden wiring problems, says Woodson. Check to make sure that there is no corrosion on the terminals of the car’s battery, too: Many electrical-system issues can be avoided simply by keeping the battery terminals and connections clean and tight.

Finally, clean your windows, replace worn wipers with a fresh set, and check to make sure that the every washer-fluid reservoir in the car is full.

Use a pro for long trips

“Should you be getting ready to go on a longer summertime road trip, have your vehicle inspected by a competent mechanic,” says Dahl. “You really want to make sure your brakes are within specifications and functioning properly. Have all fluids checked and have them look for any leaks, especially in the car cooling system. Also, have a comprehensive check of the vehicle’s fluids, hoses and belts.”

“Everything, in terms of proper vehicle maintenance, really goes back to your car manufacturer’s recommendations, and those will be found in your car’s owner manual,” says Adam Simms, general manager of Toyota Sunnyvale in Sunnyvale, Calif. “That information is often vehicle-specific and it tells you, in clear black-and-white, what should be checked, inspected and replaced, and when all that has to be done.”

<< Back to the 2010 Spring Auto Guide table of contents.

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