A spring training checklist for super automotive performance

Just as a baseball player goes through spring training to get ready for the season ahead, so your car should be put into ``training,'' too, regardless of its performance the year before. Here's a checklist for super-performance in the summer ahead:

Change the engine oil and check the automatic-transmission fluid. Clean, well-filtered oil will help the engine survive the heat. Checking the transmission is especially important if you are planning to tow a trailer on a vacation.

Check the battery to see if it is fully charged. Add water if required. Heat can cut your battery's performance. Check it often.

Top off the power-steering and brake-fluid reservoirs.

Check the air pressure of the tires often. If low, inflate the tires to the recommended pounds per square inch in order to get better fuel mileage, sharper handling, and longer tire life. Make sure there's still plenty of tread on the tires.

Have the front wheels aligned. You'll not only get better gas mileage, but less tire wear and easier steering as well.

A 50-50 mix of antifreeze and water will cool the engine more effectively than any other mixture. Replace the coolant once a year, because the anti-rust additives wear out.

Visually inspect the car. Replace any brittle, cracked, or soft radiator hoses, wires, or belts. Drive belts should have the proper tension.

Check the body. Remove all corrosive agents and touch up any chipped or scratched paint to prevent rust.

Do a complete engine tuneup, which can amount to more than a 10 percent average improvement in gas savings over an engine that is out of tune. This is most important for 4-cylinder cars, where just one misfiring spark plug will cut engine performance by more than twice as much as a V-8 and increase fuel consumption by at least 25 percent.

Listen to your car. Roll down the driver's-side window and pay attention to any unusual noise that could be a warning sign of a pending vehicle failure. Audio Diagnostics Inc. of Waco, Texas, has a tape recording of more than 40 noises to help weekend mechanics recognize the audible warnings.

Now about all those chemical elixirs for your car:

Chemical cure-alls range from engine cleaners to cooling-system sealers. There are engine-sludge solvents, oil thickeners, carburetor cleaners, and fuel-system gum dissolvers. If you look past the exaggerated claims and wild promises, you'll find that many provide at least temporary relief until the problem can be fixed.

Ignore those products that promise an increase in gas mileage or say they will prevent a radiator from overheating.

Make sure the right product is used on the right part. Penetrating oil frees stuck parts and lubricates them as well, but leaves an oily residue and should not be used on parts that need to be left clean, such as the carburetor linkage. Belt dressing silences noisy belts. If overused, however, it can shorten the life of a nearby belt that gets the residue spray. Spray-on aerosol undercoating seals, but don't get it on the shock absorbers, linkages, drive shaft, or the exhaust system.

Whether you spray, pour, or shake them from a can or plastic bottle, the new auto elixirs can be as much a tool for your auto's spring training as a socket wrench.

If you have any of the work done by someone else, take the time to explain your problems carefully, but avoid diagnosing the problem and requesting specific repairs. Check the car methodically when you pick it up. It sounds like common sense, but many people drop off their cars on their way to work when they are rushed and pick it up in a similar situation on the way home from work.

Once the car is in shape for the summer, avoid problem situations. Don't sit in stalled traffic for long periods with the air conditioner running. The a/c unit puts an extra load on the engine and can cause overheating.

With the air conditioning off, rev the engine slightly and occasionally to keep the air flowing through the radiator to increase the fan speed. Overheating can seriously damage the engine block and other major components.

Preventive maintenance can pay big dividends.

For more tips and literature on car care, send a stamped, self-addressed envelope to the Car Care Council, 600 Renaissance Center, Detroit, Mich. 48243.

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