Car care may be easier, but it still can't be neglected

If you live in a cold-weather part of the country, keep your eye on the calender and get your car prepared for what lies ahead. You know - freezing rain , snow, rutted roads, and, all too often, a slow-starting or nonstarting automobile.

Procrastination can lead to big repair bills and, perhaps even more distressing, lost time as you call for a tow truck.

No one wants his car to break down on the road.

Motorists today are less in tune with automobile upkeep than they were a few years ago. The greatly lengthened maintenance intervals on new-model cars has encouraged some motorists to neglect their cars.

''The cars of today have unsurpassed reliability, which is another factor causing the motorist to overlook proper maintenance, but no mechanical product can go forever without care, especially one as complex as an automobile,'' points out the Automotive Information Council of Southfield, Mich. A car has about 15,000 parts, some 5,000 of which are moving parts.

''Without proper care, something is going to have a premature failure.''

Everyone knows that a bald tire is bad news all around. But how about bad shock absorbers.

If you think of your car's shock absorbers as nothing more than an added luxury, much like air conditioning or FM stereo, then you'd better think again.

''There is a popular misconception that your car's shock absorbers are there to merely ensure a smooth, comfortable ride,'' asserts Walter Alley of the Midas Muffler Institute of Technology, in Palatine, Ill.

''Since they are regarded by many as luxury devices, there is a tendency not to check them often. However, shock absorbers are essentially safety devices that should be checked regularly for wear and tear,'' he goes on.

''Shock absorbers work with the car's springs to control the weight of the car. The shocks keep the car balanced by helping the springs return to their original position and the car to its normal height.''

Simply put, a car with worn shock absorbers is a car that could go out of control if it hits a pothole or changes directions abruptly. Besides the safety implications, if the shocks are worn, the car gives a bouncy ride that is tiring and uncomfortable for everyone inside.

If you suspect that the shocks are worn, take your car to a service person and have them checked.

But there's a lot that you can do yourself. Raising the hood of your car on a sunny afternoon, you can check the fan belts for cracks and wear - a broken belt means a stopped automobile - while a few other checks can head off more serious engine problems. Check the battery, make sure the brakes are properly adjusted and the linings and disc pads in good shape, and don't let the windshield-washer reservoir run out of fluid.

A streaked windshield can severely impair road visibility on a stormy night. Perhaps the windshield wipers themselves should be replaced. Too often they're not. It's worth the $15 or $20 before the wipers become useless, and you have to wipe down the windshield glass repeatedly by hand.

Keep snow and ice off the the hood and roof of the car so that blowing snow won't hinder your own visibility or that of the motorist behind you. Too often after a big snowstorm, motorists hit the road with a foot of snow still on top of their car. That's bad news for everyone around.

Make sure you know how to start your car in cold weather. The owner's manual should include tips on what to do when the thermometer dips below freezing. Maybe you should read the manual all the way through at this time, anyway.

Check the engine oil at least every other time you fill up the car with fuel - and don't add oil until you're down a full quart. If you value your car, put in only premium-grade, all-weather oil. Don't take a chance if the low-oil-warning light snaps on while you're on the road. Add oil and avoid premature engine wear or worse.

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

Check the tire pressure at least once a month, but only after you've driven a few miles to warm up the tires. The pressure changes between hot and cold tires, you know.

Why not learn how to ''read'' the tires themselves while you're at it? If the tread is worn on the edges, it tells you the tire is underinflated, while wear in the middle indicates overinflation.

Maintaining the correct air pressure not only prolongs tire life, but it also improves gasoline mileage.

By a visual inspection, make sure the hoses on the engine aren't worn. When you take your car into the garage for its next routine maintenance, ask the mechanic to examine the hoses for soundness as well as the fan belts for wear and the right tension.

If you can't do it yourself, ask a mechanic or service-station worker to check the antifreeze-water mixture in the radiator so as to avoid a winter freeze-up or boilover.

In case your car ever does overheat while you're moving down the road, pull over and turn off the engine to let it cool off. If you're stuck in traffic and can't pull off to the side, shift into neutral and press the accelerator pedal about one-quarter of the way down and turn on the heater. This will drain some of the excess heat away from the engine while you look for the chance to pull off the road and turn off the ignition.

Keeping a car in shape is good advice all year long, but it is especially true in the wintertime.

Besides giving a vehicle the once-over on a regularly scheduled basis, it's good advice to keep a couple of flares in the trunk in case the car acts up on the highway, plus a flashlight, a set of quality-designed booster cables, a shovel, and a window scraper.

Adding a bag or two of sand in the trunk, however, may not be such a good idea, the National Safety Council reports. It may help traction, the council points out, but it could be at the expense of steering control and, because of the extra weight, a longer distance to stop.

If you reduce the pressure in the tires, steering again can be affected, and it will cost you more money because tire wear is increased.

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