What preventative car maintenance is TRULY necessary?

(Mods - I realize this may hover near the borders of IMHO - please move if appropriate.)

When I bought my Honda Civic back in 1996, the dealer gave me a maintenance schedule. It was a long list of things to have checked and/or replaced, at frequent mileage intervals throughout the car’s life. If you added up the costs of these “checkups,” they weren’t far from the price of the car to begin with!

Now, I’ve been pretty rigorous about getting my oil changed every 3000 miles, and the car has just reached the 100k mile mark. While I’ve had to get a few things fixed or replaced over the years (brakes, muffler, tires, AC), I haven’t been following the “official” maintenance schedule.

My question for the car experts here is: other than the oil and oil filter changes. are there any pieces of preventative maintenance I really shouldn’t be neglecting? What’s truly important, and what’s just the dealership (or other places*) trying to get me to spend unnecessary cash?



*(Jiffy Lube (where I get the oil changed), for instance, keeps trying to convince me to buy a new air filter. They always take out and show me the existing one – “Look how dirty this is! You’re losing gas mileage!” But I keep track of my mileage, and it’s held steady for years, so I’m not sure if it’s something I really need replaced.)

Change everything when you’re supposed to. But make double-damn sure that you keep the lubrication and cooling systems in the best possible condition. Heat and friction are your enemies.

Of course, one good electrical fire could also scrap all of your hard work…

Air filters are cheap, and you can easily change your own. Likewise, fuel filters in most cases.

After 100K miles, both are probably nasty. And that is causing your fuel pump and your engine to work harder. That’s not good for your car.

Drop 8 bucks for an air filter, 15 to 20 for a fuel filter, and install them yourself if possible.

Proper tire pressure is safer, makes a better drive, and can extend the life of your tires. Air is often free at gas stations so there is no need not to. By an air gauge or borrow one and you are on your way. Inspecting your belts pretty often is good to do. A broken belt may not actually daamage your car all that much but sitting beside the road waiting for a tow truck isn’t much fun. Jiffy Lube tends to be pretty aggressive on that however.

If you have an automatic: automatic transmission fluid changes.
You should do AT LEAST the interval recommended by your manual.
If your transmission has a bad reputation, do it twice as often.

One thing you really should have checked now is the timing belt. If that sucker breaks, valves and other good things in the engine can be trashed.

Every 3-4 years it would be wise to flush the cooling system and replace fluid. You can easily do this yourself with a hose and a couple of bottles of anti-freeze (make it a 50 percent solution).

Be SURE to check the brake fluid level at least yearly. Juffy Lube should check all fluids, including transmission, rear end, etc, but who knows?

What does the owner’s manual say about oil changes? I think even for a '96, every 3,000 miles is more often than necessary. Most cars of that vintange can get by very well with one every 5,000 miles, unless you are driving under really bad conditions (heavy dust on dirt roads, really bad stop & go traffic, etc).

As the poor little thing is not worth much now, you can just let it go until it dies, but if you want to keep it for a lot longer, it’s about time to have a good mechanic check it out. Finding a “good mechanic,” of course, is not easy!

What I do, and why:

Checks: oil level, tire pressures, brake fluid level, power steering fluid – every couple of gas fill-ups. The last two can be done visually, and the first two are a good way to keep on top of trends that your car experiences.

Oil & filter every 5k miles – it’s a nice round number, and a little more aggressive than the manuals usually call for. Putting it off to 7.5k miles means that you run the last 2.5k miles with the oldest oil.

Air filter – whenever it starts looking more grey than white (or whatever color it was when new). The filter is there to keep crap out of engine, and it does that by filling up with said crap. Be nice and change it so it stays most effective.

Coolant, brake fluid, auto trans fluid – maybe every 5 years on a car built since the mid-90’s. Those fluids will lose effectiveness with time, so balance that against the hassle/expense of changing the fluids.

Timing belt – when the manual calls for it. Particularly on a Honda, which is an interference design, I wouldn’t feel comfortable neglecting this.

Plugs, plug wires, other ignition components – when the manual calls for it, usually pretty infrequent, like every 60-100k miles. These will degrade (or the insulation will age/harden), and by pulling the plugs you get an idea of what’s going on for the engine.

Other “tune-up” stuff – maybe at the major service at 60-100k miles.

Good luck.

I would love to be your mechanic if the cost of maintenance is approaching the cost of the car.
Exaggerate much?

The people that know the most about your car are the guys that wrote the maintenance schedule. I would suggest that you follow their advice.
Now a few things. The guys at Iffy lube are not experts in car maintenance. They are more like ex-spurts (ex as is has been spurt as a squirt under pressure) Those semi trained yahoos are taught to sell stuff and that is about it. I don’t think they could recognize a real car problem if it bit them in the ass.
About those air filters they are selling. If you gas mileage is holding steady, your air filter is fine. Also even if the filter gets a little dirty the O2 sensor will compensate for this.
A couple of things many people overlook. Antifreeze does have issues after time. if the additive package in the antifreeze wears out, the antifreeze will start to corrode the aluminum head, and leave a deposit in the radiator. If this gets bad enough, you will need a new head, and radiator.
Brake fluid absorbs water vapor, and can become corrosive over time. Check the maintenance schedule and change as listed. If not listed, go every two years or so. Cheaper than new brake calipers.
Midas Muffler loves to sell all new calipers on brake jobs regardless of the condition of the old ones. They are not much better than Iffy Lube and their air filters.
As has been mentioned the T- belt is important. ignore that at great peril to your wallet.
Change plugs at the interval recommended by your manual. If the car starts to run rough before that point consider new plugs as a first step.
Fuel filters on injected cars do not need to be changed very often. I know of some cars with a 150,000 mile interval.
Putting a new fuel filter on every 10Kis a waste of money.

For a clue on your % of costs associated with maintenance, check out the “TOTAL COST OF OWNERSHIP” fields on Edmunds.com new car reviews.
For example, this is the page for an '06 Civic in Akron, OH:

Here’s what a Civic is expected to run you over 5 years:
Depreciation $8,460
Financing $2,757
Insurance $3,960
Taxes & Fees $1,200
Fuel $6,485
Maintenance $3,460
Repairs $586
Totals $26,908

So, you can expect to spend about 15% of the money that goes into the car on maintenance and repairs, at right around $4K for the first 5 years.

I keep a very nerdy record of car expenditure, mainly for petrol costs - if this changes unexpectedly then there is a problem looming.

In the almost three years I have had my current car ('94 Accord), petrol has accounted for £4,041, other expenses including taxes, insurance, MOT testing, one major service - everything changed, replacement tyres, exhaust components, wipers, bulbs, tyres, a radiator and all the oil, filters and plugs to do the minor servicing total £1,076.

A very cheap car to keep running.

One strange thing about this vehicle is the consumption figures. In direct contradiction to all the available wisdom, it does 32 MPG regardless of how it is driven.
Drive all week like a little old lady and never exceed 50mph (damned hard to do!) - 32mpg.

Drive with tyre-burning take-offs, average 80mph with a few bursts of up to 130mph - still 32mpg.

Has me wondering.

And another thing - the VW chirping thread reminded me. Since it got rear-ended a couple of months ago, it ‘chirps’ like an old VW when it accellerates hard and above 3,000 rpm.
Which is nice.

I just wanted to pop back in and thank everyone who replied to my OP. I appreciate the advice.

Rick, regarding the cost of maintenance: when I bought the car new in 1996, the dealership game me a service schedule that included a basic list of stuff to do every 3750 miles. There were increasingly larger lists at every overlapping increment of 7500, 12,000, 15,000, and 30,000 miles. I recall doing some quick math in my head at the time, and figuring that, given the prices quoted for the service, and assuming the car gave me 150,000 miles, I’d be spending something like $7,000 on an $11,000 car – and that didn’t include any emergency repairs. So, call that exaggeration if you wish, but I stand by my claim.

From the responses, it sounds like at very least I should get the timing belt, cooling system, brake fluid and sparkplugs checked. (I do regularly get the oil and oil filter changed, and keep my tires at the correct pressure.) The car is a stick-shift.

I have a local mechanic who seems trustworthy, but I’m still a bit leery of showing up and giving them carte blanch to find things to fix. (Alas, I know nothing at all about the inner workings of cars, and at this point in my life simply do not have the time to learn.) That said, given that the car has just passed 100k miles, perhaps I should bite the bullet and just ask for a full check-up.

Thanks again,


Getting wear & tear parts replaced is probably a good idea.
However, whenever I look at a dealers “35,000 mile maintenance” that he wants to charge me $400 for and the checklist consists mainly of the word “inspect” rather than “replace” then I feel like I’m getting hosed.
If my brakes squeal or feel soft I’ll get them adjusted or replaced. I don’t need to pay the mechanic $$s to inspect them.

Yeah, but that’s dealership prices. Only saps or the most utterly obsessive types go to the dealership for basic nuts and bolts maintenance like fluid changes. And everything can be done cheaply if you just look for specials.

Around here, Iffy Lube charges $80+ for a coolant flush and fill. A competitor of theirs mailed me a coupon yesterday to do the same for $45. Similarly, the dealership wants $40 for an oil and filter change, but the same guys with the cheap coolant flush will also do an oil change for $25.

Other things are part and parcel of other work - brake inspection should be free when done at the same time as a tire rotation or balancing, since the wheels are off and the brakes are right there for anyone to look at.

Look at it another way. Spend $11,000 on a car and put no maintenance into it. Within three years, you’ll probably need a new car again, and it won’t cost $11,000 that time. In two years, I probably haven’t even spent $300 in maintenance on my new Jeep - just a handful of oil changes plus a wheel balance/rotate and alignment.
In another two or three years, I’ll be looking at the big money of needing a coolant flush and inspection of transmission fluid. More likely, I’ll just go ahead and have the tranny fluid changed. If that goes too long without change, you’re better off not changing it and saving up for a new transmission.

Parthol, do you have teenaged kids? Do you know any? The reason I ask is that high school auto shops will do a lot of the basic stuff for cost, if you have a contact. Since I teach at one, I get my oil changed, brakes done, fluids changed, etc. for not much cash. Hell, on my old truck I had them replacing the head gasket and all that intails. Of course, I had a student who was the Auto shop TA, so that helped. Ask around.

Another mention for the 100k timing belt change, I’ve had it done on my own Honda (albeit at 80k miles) and that should be that for major maintenence.

Just a quick note on timing belts - not all cars have them (some have timing chains, which don’t require the periodic, preventative-maintenance replacement), and for those that do, the replacement interval varies (IIRC, e.g. 60k miles for some older Civics, like 105k miles for newer Accords), and not all cars have interference engines - which means that if the belt fails parts start banging against each other. The timing belt replacement interval should be featured prominently in your owner’s manual, or you can find it easily via Google. Good luck.

A few years ago the timing belt broke on my wifes T-Bird. The cams stopped, the valves stayed in their “down” position and the pistons came up to slam into them.
Bent/broken valves, cracked head, damaged cam, and cracked pistions.

Do the timing belt.

We went with what our mechanic reckoned, he now earns his keep being paid to nudge a few extra horsepower out of Porsche 911 engines for weekend ralliers, so we thought he probably would know best about our Honda :slight_smile: