Life Advice: Car Maintenance 101


Our schedule leading up to the long weekend got even more hectic after Harriet’s car broke down, forcing her to miss a day of work. Fortunately we’re almost back on top of things; and the ever-resourceful Jane Fairfax, who recently bought her own car, has plenty of suggestions on how to avoid car troubles in the future. Safe travels, everyone!

– Emma

As much as I love public transportation, there are times and places when having your own car makes life exponentially easier – especially when you have a job that requires a lot of city travel. While it may not be as glamorous as fashion advice or confidence-building exercises, there are a few things that every career-minded man or woman should know about keeping their vehicle in good shape. The last thing anyone needs is to be stranded on the side of the road in the middle of the work day, with no way to get yourself out of trouble.

So before you drive off to your next big work project or job interview, here’s a basic checklist you should know off the top of your head. Find a trustworthy mechanic and your car manual and go through this list to learn where everything is located in your car, and discuss what products and brands are best for your particular make and model.

  • Engine oil – This is one of the essentials, vital for keeping your engine running smoothly. Check the oil every 3000-5000 miles by opening the hood, finding the dipstick (a plastic ring connected to a long flat metal rod), pulling it all the way out, cleaning the end with a paper towel, and pushing the rod all the way in and out again. If the oil level is below the bottom ridges of the dipstick, it’s too low and needs to be refilled.
  • Engine coolant – Coolant is a heat transfer fluid that removes excess heat from the engine. Without it, your car will overheat and stall. Replace this every two years or 24,000 miles, and make sure you’re using the right coolant type and water/mixture ratio (typically 50/50) for your car.
  • Transmission fluid – Much like oil keeps your engine running smoothly, transmission fluid keeps the system running by fighting friction and keeping everything within safe temperatures. Ignoring this will lead to expensive repair bills at the mechanic. Check the fluid periodically and top it off with the kind recommended in your owner’s manual. Replace your transmission fluid, along with the filter, every two years or 24,000 miles.
  • Power steering fluid – This lubricates your car’s system and keeps steering feeling consistent. Check it every time you change the engine oil, and top off as needed. Talk to your mechanic if the level drops considerably or if you feel surges of resistance as you turn the steering wheel.
  • Tires – Your tires are literally where the rubber meets the road, so it’s crucial to keep them from wearing down too much. Your best bet is to have a tread depth gauge in the glove compartment; you can also stick a penny upside down in the grooves. If you see the top of the president’s head, it’s time to replace the tire. You should also rotate the tires every 5,000 miles so they wear evenly, and check the tire pressure often, ideally every week, to ensure you’re getting the best fuel mileage, handling and comfort.
  • Battery – Replace this every 48 to 60 months, or as needed. Only use batteries that match the manufacturer’s specifications.
  • Brakes – It’s pretty clear why good brakes are important for driving. Keep a close eye on the brake fluid level and brake pad condition. Replace the fluid every two years or 24,000 miles, and the pads before they reach their minimum safe thickness.
  • Filters – These prevent grime, water, bugs and other contaminants from getting into the engine and clogging things up. The air filter should be replaced every 12 months or 12,000 miles and the fuel filter every two years or 24,000 miles, or as needed.

Once your car is ready to hit the road, make sure that you have the following items stored in the trunk and glove compartment, and that you know how to use them.

  • Jumper cables
  • Extra oil
  • An extra bottle of coolant and a jug of water
  • A flashlight
  • A tire jack
  • A spare tire and a tire repair kit
  • Food and drinking water
  • A blanket
  • Dry clothes and sturdy shoes
  • Road maps and roadside assistance contact information

If worst comes to worst and the car stalls while you’re driving, pull over to the side of the road, wait a while for your engine to cool down and give the car a quick check. A common problem, especially in the summer months, is the car overheating, in which case the thermometer gauge on the dashboard will be in the red.

Check the clear plastic coolant tank in your engine, and if it’s empty, look for leaks or pools of fluid under the car. If you do have a leak, carefully open the radiator cap and refill the tank with spare coolant and/or water (but be careful to avoid pouring cold water into a still-warm engine, as this may cause the engine block to crack). The water should be enough to get you to your destination and then later to the mechanic for a tune-up.

If overheating isn’t the problem, you may have an electrical or mechanical issue, in which case you’re going to need a tow truck – so make sure you have a fully-charged mobile phone, a list of phone numbers with you, and a membership to AAA.

– Jane