Car Essentials

I recently bought my first car. Before that, I’ve never interested in cars, thus I practically have no knowledge about car with the exception of driving. So, what are the must-know things about car ?

Here are some in my mind

  • When and how do I know the tires need some air

  • When and how do I know the car need oil change

  • How to look at the engine, when I open the hood, what I see is meaningless

  • Car brands ranking

  • Some must-know models. Think of it likes knowing who Britney Spears, G.Bush,… are

Whenever any tire looks more bulged-out than the other three, it needs air. Tires need air about every couple weeks - I just inflate them to the pressure I want at every refueling. Take the factory rating and add a couple PSI to tighten up the handling a bit.

Until about 1995, cars needed an oil change every 5000 miles. Later-model cars need one every 7500 miles, and the really new stuff only needs it every 10000. If you think you’ll forget, use a Purolator filter and synthetic oil - those are good for close to 25000.

The big black or grey block with the wires leading into evenly-spaced holes is the engine. It’s essentially a combination air pump and furnace. It sucks in air (usually through a set of tubes at the back of the engine), burns a little fuel in it, and blows it out via a set of steel tubes on the other side of the engine. If you look down to the left or right of the engine, you’ll see a smaller grey or black block with a couple shafts leading into it. That’s the gearbox. Hopefully, there are a couple cables leading out of it for the clutch and gear-change lever. If there aren’t, I hope you live in a state with a buyers’-remorse law, because I recommend that you take the car back if it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, it’s either a Citroen, which you don’t want for your first car, or an automatic, which you don’t want at all.
Way in front of the engine is the heat exchanger, often called a “radiator”. Its purpose is to get rid of engine heat via convection and conduction; very little radiation happens at all. It has two hoses, one leading in and one leading out. They both go to the engine. Off to one side is a series of belts. If they break, various things stop working; except for the timing belt, which you can’t see, none of them are particularly safety-critical if you can turn the wheel without power steering.

I wouldn’t rank cars by brand. Every automaker has a great model and every automaker also makes a couple trashboxes. Consumer Reports’ annual auto buying guide is out this month. It lists every model under about $70,000 sold in the US and provides a brief description and opinion on the car. I’m not sure what you’re talking about with the “G. Bush” of models, but what I can tell you is that the President, when he drives, drives a top-of-the-line Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck, and John Kerry drives an old Dodge 600. They’re both lousy cars.

I’d say there are about 100 car models that anyone should be able to recognize and know something about. This might take a while…

You can also check with your local school district or community college. Many of them offer adult evening education courses which address the questions you’ve posted.

How to change a spare tire by yourself.

How to handle (or at least a contingency plan for) driving emergencies – tire blowout, skids, brake failure, etc.

How to drive under less-than-ideal road conditions.

The normal sounds your car makes while it’s driven; odd noises are often an early warning sign of problems.
As for the maintenance stuff, you can get by a lot with just knowing how to watch for underinflated tires, to refuel it with whatever grade of gas the manufacturer recommends, to have the oil changed every 7,500 miles, and to take it to the dealer for intermediate/major service as scheduled in the owner’s manual.

Not being schooled in how to maintain a car is not a big stigma, IMO; but knowing how to keep your car under control when there’s a crisis while you’re driving can save someone’s life.

Also run to the store and get yourself a set of jumper cables. It doesn’t matter if you don’t know how to use them, they come with instructions.

Keep a couple of old rags (or a roll of paper towels) in the trunk to check your oil with. Get some funnels for adding oil and transmission fluid.

If you’re a lucky dog you have an owners’ manual. It will tell you what PSI your tires should have and what weight oil to use. It will also tell you if you need to fuss with the coolant fluid or if you have a closed, “maintenance-free” system. If you don’t have a book, go to an auto parts store and get a Chilton’s or Haynes guide. There’s also a sticker on one of the door posts with this information on it but sometimes the sticker is too faded to read.

Doug Adams was right: a towel is a handy thing to have. I keep one in the trunk and use it for many things, such as a pad to kneel on while I’m changing tires. You can also throw it over the steering wheel when you park the car so you don’t burn your hands or sit on it so you don’t burn your bum on the leather/vinyl seats.

If you live in an area of the country where it gets cold and snowy in the winter, it is wise to toss an old pair of boots, a pair of wool socks, an old sweater and a couple Clif bar type food products in the trunk (powerbars freeze solid, not a good choice). For “just in case” your car decides to have trouble in the snow, at least you’ll be warm, dry and full, instead of cold, wet and hungry.

AAA Membership. Costs very little, worth a lot in peace of mind to the inexperienced driver. You call them to fix your flats, tow your car if needed, get your keys out when you lock them in, etc.

Since you already bought a car, why do you want to know now what the best cars are? The most popular and well-regarded in terms of reliability & fuel economy are probably the Honda Accord and the Toyota Camry (IIRC, the latter is the best-selling car in the US?). They are 4-door sedans.

40% of the cars on the road are various kinds of SUV, or Sport-Utility Vehicles. They look like small trucks with enclosed backs. The most popular brands are Jeep Cheokee and Ford Explorer. Ford also has a “hybrid” SUV – it runs on a combination of gasoline and electricity – that made a big splash last year. It’s called the Escape Hybrid (the Escape also comes in a “normal” gasoline version).

American car companies do well with full-sized trucks. Ford has the F-#50 series (150, 250 & 350) while Dodge’s fullsize truck is called the Ram . Chevy, as already mentioned has the Silverado. Recently, Toytota started selling fullsize trucks in the US. Theirs is called the Tundra.

I hope this is the kind of info you’re looking for.

The best cars are the little, efficient ones. They carry the same 5 people a much, much bigger one does, and if everyone who bought a heavy car or truck so they could tow a trailer actually did there’d be a lot more U-Haul rental places. There are some GREAT cars available on used-car lots if you know what options to look for (specifically, the trimeline with the most powerful engine, a manual 'box, and no other options). These include the Honda Civic (EX or Si) from 1992 to 2000, the Mazda Protege (ES or LX 1.8) from 1991 to 2004, the Nissan Sentra (SE-R or SE 2.0) from 1991 to 1998, and the Honda Accord from 1990 to 1998. All of these are tremendous cars - dead reliable, capable of 30-40 miles per gallon, and very quick on the road.

I’d say the best practical sedan sold today is the Mazda6i. It gets good mileage, is quite reliable, and handles like a sportscar. Same goes for the Subaru WRX and to a lesser extent the Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution.
After that, the Toyota Prius is the breakthrough hybrid everyone’s been waiting for - 40 miles per gallon without too much compromise. Anyone who buys a Camry is a fool.

Americans have VERY bad taste in cars. If it doesn’t handle, guzzles gas, rides like a dinghy in a storm, and provides less interior space than a much smaller car, we’re all over it like flies on a manure pile. We buy automatic-transmission base models with all sorts of heavy, fragile, energy-guzzling options.

If you can, try a Mazda Miata, Honda S2000, Toyota MR2, or Chevrolet Corvette to find out what a sportscar should feel like.


My car is a 1995 Ford Probe, with 92000 miles when I bought (94000 now). What do you guys think about it ? How long is it gonna last before I have to spend a large chunk of money on it ?

Yeah, I bought AAA Plus Membership, but haven’t got a chance to use it though. But I also wonder if my car broke down on the road, how do I know where I am so that I can tell AAA people to get me (beside the highway or the route’ names, of course).

Another questions:

  • What is so special about BMW, Ferrari and other big scary names ?
  • What qualities make a car a good car ?

the probe is a less-reliable version of the Mazda MX-6, the Mazda version is apparently quite reliable, but ford did something to mess up the reliability of it

personally, i loathe ford vehicles with a burning passion, so take my next statement with a grain of salt :wink:

it’s amazing the thing made it to 92K in the first place, it might make 95K if you’re lucky :wink:

seriously though, the most important thing to keep in mind on an old car is to keep up on the maintenance, i change the oil in my '02 Neon (see, another car with a reputation for nonexistent quality…)every 3K, and it may be more often than needed, but the car has never given me a problem, make sure you keep up on the routine maintenance and it should be ok…

if you’re driving in an area with snow and ice in the winter, a set of four snow tires are worth their weight in gold, having snows on all four corners insures your car has the same traction coefficient on each wheel

if you’re driving in the snowbelt, find a large, empty parking lot (get permission from the lot owners first) and practice snow/ice handling, yes, you heard me right, deliberately put your car into a skid and attempt to recover from it

in a front-wheel-drive car, you want to steer into the skid, if the tail of the car is sliding to the right, steer to the right, and whatever you do, don’t SLAM on the brakes, it’ll just exacerbate things, it’ll cause the car to enter the skid more rapidly, either take your foot off the gas and steer into the skid, using light pressure from the brakes

do this until you feel comfortable with the way the car handles in the snow, that way, when your car does enter an uncontrolled skid (and it will, just a matter of when it will happen), you’ll know how to respond

I’ve used AAA in SoCal. There, they have call boxes every ¼ mile. The call box signs have codes on them. If you’re in an area without call boxes, you should have at least a rough idea of where you are; for example, you should know the name of the road you’re on (not just ‘the freeway’) and what the nearest/last intersection/offramp is/was.

BMWs are finely-made vehicles. Such cars offer more luxury, power, etc. than a typical Korean import. Having owned a couple of Porsches, I can attest that they’re wonderful machines. If you’re into luxury, you can get a BMW or a Mercedes Benz. If you’re into extremely tight handling and gobs of power, you can get a Porsche. (Man, I miss my 911!) A Ferrari is considered an ‘exotic’. They don’t make many of them, and they’re very expensive. (Many older used ones are quite cheap, though.) A Ferrari gives you gobs of power and extremely tight handling, but in a form that’s more ‘raw’ than a Porsche. It’s really an enthusiast’s car. There’s also the prestige thing.

A ‘good car’ depends on what you want. I’ve gone off-road in the Jeep Cherokee, but I wouldn’t have tried it in the Porsche. First, choose your mission. Next, how reliable is it? A Ferrari takes more maintenance than a Porsche. Which is ‘better’? My current mania is English sports cars. They have a reputation for unreliability. And yes, I have been stuck at the side of the road! Generally speaking, a Honda or a Toyota will be considered more reliable than an American car. Also, the fit and finish of Hondas and Toyotas are better than a Chevy or Ford.

I have had six flat tires in the past 2 years, so I think I can answer this.

First off, it’s probably very rare that you have NO idea whatsoever where you are when you are driving. I mean, that you don’t know the street name, you don’t know the town, you don’t know what main road you just came off from, etc.

If you know the street name, you tell them that, and the nearest cross street (if you know it or saw it). If you don’t know where the cross road is, then perhaps there is a landmark of some sort nearby, or a building, or a restaurant, etc.

If there is NOTHING nearby, tell them “I was on the I-40 East and took the exit just past the water tank - I don’t know what number - about 20 miles from Springfield. I turned right off the ramp and am 5-10 miles down the road on the right. I have a '95 Ford Probe, blue, CT plate AB-1234G.”

They will find you. Don’t worry. It would help if you had a cell phone, which you should probably get anyway if you don’t have one already.

Consider switching to Better World Club. They match AAA prices, give you refunds on gasoline, and are generally pro-environment. I’ve had a grand time with them so far and I’m pleased not to be supporting AAA’s lobbying efforts.

Well, your Probe is essentially an old Mazda 626. Those last forever, 200k easily, - if they’re the manual version. The automatic box is a timebomb and usually lasts less than 50,000 miles per rebuild.

Telling the AAA dispatcher the road, the direction you’re going, and the name of the town you’re near should be enough. If you can see a mile marker, tell them which one it is.

Buy a haynes or chiltons manual and at the very least read the first section(minor and major tuneups).

A cell phone.

Maps can be useful, but frankly i’ve never used them. (the joys of the internet and at least one friend who is always at a computer =) )

Buy good tires. Those 4 for a hundred dollars tires may look tempting, but you get what you pay for.

at near 100,000(90,000? 120,000?) miles I think you may be running into a major maintenance soon. (timing belts? Buy a haynes or chiltons manual, it’ll tell you what you need and what to look for)

Change your spark plugs, spark plug wires, fuel filter and air filter. If the previous owner was like 90% of the people on the road they’ll have never touched these things. Doing so will greatly improve your gas mileage and power. Again see haynes or chiltons manual(worth their weight in gold)

Buy a digital tire guage (11 dollars at costco!). Those cheap 2 dollar ones are pretty inaccurate in my experience.

Change your transmission fluid too. It’s unlikely that the previous owner did. (don’t do it yourself. Have a reputable transmission shop do it. They have a special machine which sucks out all the transmission fluid. Not something you can do. Expect to pay around … 50-75$)

Not to hijack the thread, but what lobbying efforts are these? I’ve been considering getting AAA for the missus, but I’m open to alternatives.

Do have your brakes checked for wear and fluid level now, if you haven’t already, and at least once a year.

Is there any play in the steering wheel at all? Can you move it back and forth without turning the wheels?

/me reads everything ChapparalV8 is saying, shakes my head in incredulity and backs slowly out of this thread.

Tires, you need a tire pressure gauge, they cost about $3. Since the car is new, you should check them weekly, and familiarize yourself with the shape the tire holds when properly inflated. Use the owners manual to tell you what pressure to use. When the tire looks flatter, or more bulgy at the bottom, it’s low, and probably 10psi too low, you’re better off checking regularly and filling it up before it gets that bad. You should also inspect the tires regularly, make sure they are solid, have good tread depth and are not damaged or cracked on the sidewalls. Tread depth should be greater than the distance from the edge of a penny to the top of Lincoln’s head.

Oil, check the owner’s manual for the # of miles and/or time between changes. You can’t go wrong following their recommendation. You should also check the oil regularly, there will be some brightly colored sticks with loops on the end inside the engine. These are dipsticks, used to check the levels of oil, transmission fluid, that sort of stuff. Check your manual for which one is oil. You pull out the stick, wipe it clean, then fully reinsert and remove the stick to check the level. It should be between the two marks on the stick. The same goes for the other dipsticks, whatever they measure.

Under the hood, let’s stick to the basics. At the front is the radiator, where your engine coolant is cooled down by air, so the engine doesn’t overheat, it looks like the back of an air conditioner. Check your manual on how to fill the radiator. Do not ever open up the pressure cap (the metal cap with little wings) when the engine is hot. Always use a proper mix of antifreeze and water in the radiator, not pure water or pure antifreeze, the bottle will give you the recipe. You can use pure water in a pinch, but it will freeze in winter, so you want an antifreeze mix. Check the hoses coming from the top and bottom of the radiator to be sure they are in good condition.

Cooling the radiator is a fan, which is either powered by a motor or a belt attached to the engine. Which brings us to belts. There will be one or more black rubbery looking belts wrapped around pulleys, these power various things in the engine, like your alternator and air conditioning unit. Inspect the belts to be sure they are not cracking, fraying or falling apart. The manual may advise changing them at specific intervals.

There will be a plastic tub filled with blue liquid, that’s your windshield washer reservoir. Make sure it’s full with a proper washer fluid, you can top it off with water in a pinch.

The rubbery wires that attach to the engine are your sparkplug wires, they should be clean and in good condition. You should also have the plugs changed regularly (again… the manual)

There’s probably a big square plastic box with a big channel going to the top of your engine, this is the air intake and the box has a filter in it. This could also be a big round thing on top of the engine. You simply open the compartment and swap out the filter when it’s dirty.