If you haven't checked under the hood lately, fall is the time

You're buzzing along Interstate 80 at night, or just poking your way through traffic at the end of a busy day. Suddenly the fan belt snaps, the engine overheat light blinks on, the air conditioner stops, and you wrestle with the steering wheel to get over to the side of the road. You're not going anywhere until the belt is replaced. If you had kept a cautious eye on the belt system beneath the hood, you might not be in such a fix.

With the proliferation of fill-it-yourself gas stations, too many motorists ignore their cars, waiting for the vehicles to let them down before they look under the hood.

Preventive maintenance in the fall can save you an expensive and untimely repair later on. Harsh winter driving conditions will be less likely to cause a breakdown if you or your mechanic have performed the following checks:

Engine tuneup. ``A tuneup at least once a year will help assure the best fuel economy and performance, protection against pollution, starting difficulties, and expensive repair,'' says George Giek, managing director of automotive engineering at the American Automobile Association (AAA). A misfiring spark plug, for example, can reduce fuel economy by up to 2 miles a gallon.

Oil. Check the level often. Since the car's choke system operates for longer periods in the winter, the excess gas contaminates the engine oil more quickly. Thus, change the oil and oil filter more often during the cold months. A multi-viscosity oil is your best choice for most driving conditions.

Battery. Since battery efficiency decreases at lower temperatures, car-starting problems are only compounded in cold weather. If the battery is fairly new and the charge is low, have it recharged; otherwise, replace it.

Even if your car has a so-called ``maintenance free'' battery, it still should not be ignored. Only Chrysler and General Motors/AC Delco Freedom batteries are truly sealed, according to the AAA. Sears, Ford, and most Japanese models can be opened. In a sealed battery, the electrolyte solution can be checked through a small window or ``indicator eye.''

Scrub the terminals occasionally with a wire brush and check to see that the battery is firmly secured. If the battery requires water, make sure it's distilled, not tap water.

Tires. Check the owner's manual for proper inflation. At least once a month, or before any long trip, use a good-quality pressure gauge to make sure the tires conform. Check also for uneven wearing and thin spots. On front-wheel-drive cars, the front tires wear and age faster because of the up-front turning and pulling of the front-wheel design.

Proper inflation not only extends tire life, but also saves fuel. Underinflation results in excessive heat, which reduces tire life and can lead to premature failure. Too, underinflation can increase rolling resistance and thus lower miles per gallon.

Air filter. Check at least every two months and replace it when dirty.

Brakes. Have the brakes inspected to ensure proper pad thickness on shoes and disc-brake pads. Check the brake-fluid level once a month.

Cooling system. Fall is the time to empty and flush the cooling system of your car, replacing it with the proper mix of coolant/antifreeze and water, depending on the climate.

At the same time, check the cooling-system thermostat to be sure it opens at the right temperature. Inspect for leaks as well as loose and frayed belts and hoses. A cracked hose means trouble ahead. Keep an eye on the coolant level and make sure it protects the cooling system for your area of the country. Also, look into the radiator and make sure the liquid is clear. If it's cloudy, have it drained and replaced.

The rule of thumb is to check the condition of the antifreeze mixture every year and change it every two years.

Door locks. Lubricate or treat with antifreeze lock compound.

Drive belt. The common accessory drive belt, or ``fan belt,'' is one of the most neglected parts of your automobile.

Whether one belt or several, the belt system drives not only the engine fan, but also the alternator, water and air pumps, power steering, and air conditioner. Periodically, take the time to check the belt drive for wear or separation of the cord from the rubber. Are the belts heat-hardened and glazed? Oil-soaked? If you're not sure, ask a competent mechanic to check them out.

If you can depress a belt more than half an inch, have it tightened or replaced. It's a good idea to replace the belts about every four years.

Lights. Do all of the lights work when they are supposed to? If not, don't take a chance on confusing another motorist.

Transmission. Pull the transmission dipstick often to see if the fluid is up to the proper level and whether the color is light pink or red.

``If the fluid starts to turn brown,'' warns Bill Torrance of Precision Tune, Inc., ``it is an indication that the fluid is burning, which might be caused by a restricted transmission filter or low fluid level.''

In either case, the transmission should be serviced.

Power steering. Check the fluid level.

Windshield wipers. If your vision is blurred by worn-out wiper blades, replace them. Blades are cheap, compared with the risk of inadequate vision.

Winter washing. A thorough washing followed by a good wax job in the fall will help to protect your car's finish until spring.

If you value your car, then keep it clean all winter. To avoid premature rust-out, a thorough, high-pressure hosing is a good way for the motorist to fight back, especially if you drive on snow- and mud-encrusted roadways. Despite the rust-through assurances from the car manufacturers, a frequent car wash can help to keep rust at bay.

``Ice chips and slush can accumulate on steering rods and build up in the wheel wells,'' says David Bowman of Allied Automotive.

Mr. Bowman suggests not using hard objects to break up under-fender ice chunks. ``You can't see through the buildup, and you've got a good chance of whacking a brake line or something else you don't want to hit,'' he adds.

``Warm water from a coin-operated car wash is a better choice. What you want to do is wash away salt deposits and melt large chunks of ice. Concentrate on cleaning inside the fenders and underneath the car, the places where mud and salt are likely to accumulate and cause deterioration.''

The object of winter washing, Bowman notes, ``isn't to make your car look pretty. But by keeping salt from rusting through your car body, winter washing helps to ensure that you'll have enough sheet metal left so that the car can look pretty when the nice weather returns.''

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