Extending your car's life and your investment

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.

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