How to keep your car in tip-top shape

Having your car repaired today is not the simple task it was in the 1960s, nor is it as comparatively cheap. Still, with some forethought and about 15 minutes of loving attention to your car a month, it need not be an unmanageable or unaffordable task. By adopting just three rules, you can substantially lower the cost of owning a car.

First, practice the same preventive care on your car as you would on any other expensive possession.

Second, never select a repair shop by using the pin-and-yellow-pages method. Choose the shop with care.

Third, give your chosen mechanic the benefit of your input. Tell him precisely what your car is doing wrong, not what you think is wrong.

Aside from your own hard-earned experience with cars, the owner's manual is your best friend when it comes to car advice, but watch for the small print.

A whole lot depends on how you use your car. If it's all city driving, short trips, and start-and-stop traffic, you should change the oil and filter much more often than for general usage.

The same holds true for the transmission oil. If you pull a trailer, for example, you may need to change the transmission fluid and filter at 12,000- to 15,000-mile intervals. Somewhere in the fine print there should be a note to this effect.

How important is it? While it may cost you $100 or more to have the transmission serviced, it could cost at least five times as much to have a rebuilt system put in. So don't neglect the transmission.

Look to the car manual for general guidelines. Then use your own common sense as to how often to follow the manufacturer's schedules for upkeep. You know the car needs a tuneup when the idling becomes ragged at a traffic light, when the car loses some of its responsiveness as you accelerate on a freeway on-ramp, and when the gas mileage drops off.

Be your own mechanic when it comes to such easy jobs as checking the belts and hoses, lights, radiator coolant, and oil and transmission fluid. Listen to your car when it squeaks and groans. It may be telling you it's time for a lube job.

A good habit to get into, and one that will save you not only costly repairs but inconveniences such as a freeway breakdown, is to schedule the check-ups you do on your own.

On the first of each month, for example, you could check the hoses for leaks and bulges, the belts for wear or looseness, the radiator coolant, oil, and transmission fluid for being up to the mark, the tires for unusual wear and proper pressure, and the lights for braking, turn signals, and high and low beams.

This is something that anyone can do in less than 15 minutes a month. It can prevent expensive repairs for a blown engine, burned-out transmission, broken belt, or burst hose, or simply keep you from being stopped by a police car because the brake lights don't work.

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