There’s no debate that owning a car can be a pricey proposition. According to the Automobile Service Association, or ASA, Americans spent $37 billion on general maintenance for their autos in 2005. But how can consumers avoid paying too much while still keeping their car well-maintained?

Start with oil and filter changes every 3,000 miles if you use conventional oil, or every 5,000 miles if you use synthetic oil. Proper lubrication prevents wear on expensive engine parts and can even save you money on gasoline by improving your engine’s efficiency.

Make sure that with every oil change, your mechanic checks your transmission fluid (the liquid that lubricates your transmission), coolant (the blend of water and antifreeze in your radiator) levels, and brake-fluid levels. Cars lose some of these fluids over the course of normal driving, but big drops in the levels can clue you in to problems before they become serious.

Also, make sure your mechanic inspects your brakes, suspension and exhaust systems with every oil change. Diagnosing problems with these components early can often prevent the kinds of catastrophic breakdowns that lead to big repair bills and even car accidents.

Because these regular inspections are so important, it’s better to get your oil changes done at the same full-service garage you go to for your major service. It may cost more than a drive-through specialty shop, but meaningful, regular inspections by an experienced mechanic can save drivers thousands of dollars over the lives of their cars.

“It’s better to go to a full-service mechanic for regular maintenance, because they’ll actually look at your car and see what you need,” says Danny Vogt, a veteran mechanic and owner of Danny’s Automotive in Lake Worth, Fla.

Auto maintenance
While the prices for common car chores will vary depending on where you live, these are the ranges of prices you can expect to pay, according to mechanics and dealers we contacted.
Costs of routine maintenance
1. Conventional oil and filter change: $20 to $30
2. Synthetic oil and filter change: $40 to $50
3. Replace transmission fluid: $50 to $70
4. Total transmission fluid flush: $120 to $140
5. Replace brake pads (depending on car make): $140 to $200
6. Coolant flush: $70 to $100

This works the other way, too. Sometimes parts last longer than your car’s manufacturer says they will. A full-service mechanic often pays closer attention to the actual condition of a part when deciding to replace it than a drive-through oil-change specialist, who will typically try to sell extra parts and services by simply reading you a list of parts that are due to be replaced according to your car’s maintenance schedule.

In addition to regular oil changes, it’s also a good idea to have your tires rotated at 6,000-mile intervals, or with every other oil change, to avoid the excessive wear in one spot that can lead to blowouts.

Beyond these basics, every car has maintenance needs specific to its make, model and mileage. The beginning of the new year is a perfect occasion to dust off that owner’s manual and check your car’s maintenance schedule. If you’ve misplaced your manual, schedules for most vehicles are also available on the manufacturer’s Web site. In the meantime, here’s a general idea of what you’ll need to do this year at various mileage levels to maintain your car.

Zero to 29,999 miles:
Most cars still under warranty. Find a good mechanic for afterwarranty upkeep.
Typically, cars in this category are still under warranty. Most cars will not need any major repairs or maintenance during this time, and if they do, the dealer will be obligated to take care of them. It’s not too early, however, to start looking for a good mechanic to use over the long term.
AAA and the
ASA both publish online databases of approved mechanics. Tom and Ray Magliozzi, the hosts of NPR’s “Car Talk,” have also published an
index of good independent mechanics.

But, for many, the best way to find a good mechanic is to talk to car-savvy friends and family. “Word of mouth is still the best way to find an honest mechanic,” says Gary Searles, owner and operator of My Chauffeur, a West Palm Beach, Fla.-area transportation service. “Don’t believe advertising.”

This is also a good time to start keeping track of major maintenance you have done on your car.

Not only can it help keep you from missing important maintenance events for your car, but it can also save you money. Some mechanics may try to replace fluids and parts more often than is strictly necessary. Having some kind of record helps make you a smarter consumer.

30,000 to 59,999 miles:
Check spark plugs, air filter, coolant, brake shoes, pads and transmission fluid.
This is when most warranties begin to expire and the burden of major repairs shifts to the owner. An important milestone for nearly all cars is 36,000 miles. This is usually the last service a car gets before the general warranty runs out, so if there are any major repairs to get done, do them now.

If you haven’t replaced your spark plugs yet, have them checked by that aforementioned trusted mechanic. If they do need to be replaced, save time and money by getting high-mileage, platinum plugs that can last up to three times longer than conventional plugs.

The engine’s air filter and coolant should be replaced sometime this year. Your original brake pads and shoes will probably be close to worn-out as well. If your car is making a squealing sound during breaking, this is probably the case. Change them to avoid having to replace the brake rotors, a much more costly repair.

Also, ask your mechanic about replacing your transmission fluid. A car’s transmission is one of the most expensive and complicated components to replace, and regular flushing and replacement of transmission fluid can help extend its life dramatically.

“I change mine every 25,000 miles,” says Searles. “It’s the reason a lot of my cars are on their original transmissions well past 100,000 miles.”

60,000 to 89,999 miles:
Check brake pads and shoes, tires, transmission fluid and coolant.
If it’s been 30,000 miles or more since your last set of brake pads and shoes, you’ll probably hear that tell-tale squeal again soon. Before you replace them, though, just make sure that they’re actually worn out. Sometimes a buildup of rust or dust can cause brakes to squeal even if there is still wear left on the pads and shoes. This is when having a good mechanic is essential, as a bad one might try to do unnecessary work.

If you haven’t replaced your car’s original tires, this may be the year. If you can
stick a penny (Lincoln’s head first) into the tire’s grooves and see the top of Honest Abe’s head, you need new tires. You can save money on a new set by shopping around online. Sites like
TireRack.com and
Sears.com offer an opportunity for consumers to compare prices and specs to find the best tires for their car. Tires sent from an online store can always be installed for a reasonable fee at a local shop. Just make sure they’re the right size for your car.

Don’t forget to replace your transmission fluid and coolant if you haven’t done so recently.

Car owners often say they’re taking their cars in for a “tuneup.” This term is fairly general and it usually means changing spark plugs, installing a new filter, changing the PCV filter (a part of the ventilation system for the engine), and some parts of the distributor. If you opt to do this, it should be done every 60,000 miles.

A better approach, though, is to take the manufacturer’s recommendations for routine maintenance and do those jobs in the time frame suggested.

90,000 to 119,999 miles:
Check timing belt, water pump, transmission fluid, coolant and spark plugs.
For most cars at this mileage, it’s time to change the timing belt, if you haven’t done so already. Many automakers recommend replacing the timing belt between 90,000 and 100,000 miles, and it’s best to heed the manufacturer’s recommendations.

“If that belt fails while you’re driving, you can bend your valves and cylinder heads,” says Vogt. “If that happens, you’re looking at $1,000 or $1,500 in repairs.”

Replacing the belt can be expensive because of the labor required to access it, but it beats rebuilding a mangled engine. Save time and money by having your mechanics replace your water pump at the same time so that they won’t have to take your engine apart again to replace it later on.

If you haven’t done it yet, replace your car’s transmission fluid and coolant. Depending on your driving habits and your car’s make and model, you may also need new spark plugs.

120,000 to 149,999 miles:
Check oil, air filter, tires, brake pads and shoes, fluids and CV joints.
Changing your oil and filter regularly will become increasingly important for extending the life of your engine this year. You may be due for another set of tires, as well as new brake pads and shoes. Check to see how long it’s been since you had your car’s transmission fluid replaced. If it’s been a while, chances are you should do it again. At this mileage, many transmissions begin to show their age.

If your car is front-wheel drive and makes a rhythmic clicking sound in tight turns, your car will probably need new constant velocity or CV joints this year. Get them both replaced at the same time to avoid premature wear on the new parts.

150,000 and up:
Check oil and air filter, transmission fluid, tires, spark plugs.
Congratulations! If your car is in this category, it has or will soon exceed the
U.S. Department of Transportation’s average lifetime mileage for a passenger car (152,137 miles). You must be doing something right. Continue regular oil and filter changes and inspections. Many engine-oil manufacturers such as Castrol, Quaker State and Valvoline have introduced oil specifically designed to keep high-mileage engines running smoothly. If it’s been more than 30,000 miles since you last had your transmission flushed and the fluid replaced, consider doing it this year. Check your tires for wear and have your mechanic inspect the car’s air filter, spark plugs, brake pads and shoes.

Hopefully, these general guidelines will help you save money on the care and keeping of your auto in the long term.

Claes Bell is a freelance writer based in Lake Worth, Fla.

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