Baby the engine, and other saving tips

``I have a two-year-old car,'' a motorist asserts. ``I've just realigned the front end and replaced the shocks, put in new steering and suspension parts, and replaced the wheel bearings. Still, I find my car-operating costs are up even though I'm getting good mileage on my compact.'' But are you really trying to keep your car costs down?

All drivers can reduce monthly operating expense if they follow some common-sense practices. For example, a car uses about 30 percent more gasoline at 70 miles an hour than at 50. But cutting down on fast driving is only one of many suggestions for reducing the cost of owning and operating a car. Here are some others:

Watch out for potholes. A pothole can cause severe damage, not only to the tires and wheel rims, but also to the front-end alignment and other crucial front-end structures on an auto. ``Keep your eyes on the road and keep the wheels out of the holes if you want to keep your car out of the garage,'' the Tire Industry Safety Council advises.

Baby the engine. Harmful carbon deposits build up from an idling engine and from traveling at low, stop-and-go speeds. Before the stress of speed, a cold engine needs a little time for oil that has settled in the crankcase to warm and flow.

Avoid stomping on the gas pedal and racing a cold engine after starting, but rather idle the engine briefly, especially on cold days. Also, avoid racing the engine before turning it off. Racing causes raw gas to wash away protective oil film around the pistons. Instead, let the engine run at idle for a second or two before shut-off, especially after high speeds.

Shop for a mechanic. Pick a car mechanic or service station with utmost care. Look for skilled, reliable service at a fair cost. This type of dependable service could be a great saving to you in the long run.

Buy your own parts. If you want to save even more money, take advantage of service bays that auto-parts jobbers operate (see the Yellow Pages). These jobbers sell to professionals and individuals alike at prices that are 25 to 40 percent below the manufacturers' suggested list price. A quick check of the Yellow Pages should show service stations and independent garages willing to install parts that are supplied by the customer. Some do-it-yourself centers offer trained mechanic guidance or the use of tools at various hourly rates well below garage mechanic rates.

Use auto care stations. Some gasoline service centers operate what are known as auto care stations. They verify that their auto care service is as professional as an auto dealer's but lower in cost. These auto care stations employ mechanics who are certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence to work on brakes, engine tuneup, and front end, along with heating and air-conditioning units. The stations must meet requirements for appearance and management, guarantee service for 90 days or 4,000 miles, provide written estimates, and return replaced parts.

Join an auto co-op. If you're fortunate enough to have an auto cooperative in your community, then sign up. For a modest lifetime membership fee, members get towing and road service at reduced rates as well as free shuttle service while their cars are being repaired. They can also rent a do-it-yourself bay for a minimum fee on weekends. Auto co-op members operate their own repair shop for a nominal membership fee and elect a board that is responsible for operations. Even though repair bills may be as high as at car dealer service garages, members feel they save because repairs are done right the first time. They also share in any profits and receive 5 to 10 percent discounts on parts, labor, or both.

Read the facts. For only a few dollars, you can invest in a light service manual for your car. Clear illustrations and detailed explanations help any do-it-yourselfer diagnose car problems accurately. These auto-company manuals are available from auto dealers and parts suppliers.

Buy a service contract. A service contract offers mechanical insurance against major and expensive car problems.

Bargain for the price. New-car prices vary from dealer to dealer. If you move fast after a price increase, you can buy from a dealer's inventory before cars with higher stickers arrive.

To negotiate any price, you need to know the dealer's cost. You can determine this through Car/Puter, 1603 Bushwick Ave., Brooklyn, NY 11207; (800) 221-4001; in New York call 455-2500. State your preference for make and model. Car/Puter, for a cost of $21, will send you a printout with the dealer's cost for both the car and options. Also, Car/Puter will offer to obtain your choice at its recommended price, which can range from $40 to $50 over dealer cost for US-built cars in some areas (although a limited-production model might run up to $1,200 to $1,500) and 8 to 13 percent over cost for imports, through United Auto Brokers.

Make sure, however, that your local dealer will service the car afterward.

``Break in'' your car. You need to initiate your new car gently. While today's cars don't need as much breaking-in care as in the past, you can protect the engine significantly by holding down speeds, avoiding fast starts, and varying the speed at which you drive during the first few thousand miles.

Read the owner's manual. Study the lists of recommended upkeep suggestions and avoid overmaintenance. Certain areas that require periodic lubrication on older cars now may be permanently lubricated and need no attention.

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