Here's auto-care checklist

By , Automotive editor of The Christian Science Monitor

It's spring and, as a motorist, you know what that means. Right? Put your car in shape for the soon-to-arrive warm weather in the North and even hotter weather in the South.

Regular maintenance is a crucial part in protecting your car, no matter what the season. Too, it can save you money in the long run and perhaps avoid a costly breakdown when you least expect it.

A few easy checks for cracks and wear can help you avoid a broken fan belt, for example, while other checks can forestall more serious engine problems, urges the General Services Administration (GSA) which is responsible for the federal government's automotive fleet.

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It's a good time to flush the radiator and add new rust-inhibiting antifreeze. Too, check the battery-fluid level and, at the same time, clean off any corrosion on the terminals.

How about the air cleaner? When was the last time it was cleaned? If the air cleaner is clogged with dust and grime, the filter should be replaced. A clogged filter inhibits air flow to the engine, thus causing poor combustion and wasted fuel. Performance is reduced as well.

Check the engine oil at least every other time you fill up the car with gas. Don't add oil until you're down a full quart, but when you reach this point, put in a can of premium-grade all-weather oil immediately. And if the oil warning light should ever come on while the engine is running, turn off the ignition and add oil. Continued operation could result in major engine damage.

Periodically check the fluid in your manual or automatic transmission. Remember that cars with automatic transmissions must be checked while the engine is running. If the car whines while it's shifting, it could mean your car's transmission needs service.

Check the tire pressure at least once a month. Buy a quality tire gauge and learn how to use it.

Keep the windshield washer bottle filled. Make sure the wiper blades do their job. If not, replace them. Winter weather can crack and deteriorate the rubber in the blades and thus streak the windshield when you operate the wipers.

Learn how to ''read'' the tires while you're at it. Wear on the edges indicates a tire is underinflated, for example, while wear in the middle means it's overinflated.

Maintaining the correct air pressure not only prolongs tire life, but it also can improve gas mileage as well.

When you take your car in for routine maintenance, ask the mechanic to check the hoses for soundness and the fan belts for correct tension.

If your car ever overheats while you're driving, pull over and turn off the engine to let it cool off. If you're stuck in traffic and can't pull over, shift into neutral and press the accelerator pedal about one-quarter of the way down. Then turn on the heater which will drain some of the excess heat away from the engine while you look for an opportunity to stop and turn off the ignition.

A booklet published annually by the GSA also contains tips on how to get the best service for your car. Write to the Consumer Information Center, Department 104K, Pueblo, Colo. 81009, and ask for Car Care and Service. The cost is $2.50.

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