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How you might be killing your car

A survey of auto mechanics reveals the most common mistakes we make with our wheels. Ignore them at your peril.

By Donna_Freedman Jan 31, 2013 2:22PM

A former co-worker noticed a funny noise in one of the family's two cars. His wife said she'd heard the sound, too, but "just turned up the radio." Problem solved.

Logo: Car being towed (Digital Vision Ltd., SuperStock)Here's hoping you aren't quite so dismissive when your own car tries to tell you something. There's a reason the "check engine" light was invented, and there's a darned good reason not to ignore it: Because when minor problems aren't addressed they can turn into huge, expensive problems.

Your best defense is a simple one: following the maintenance schedule found in your car's service manual. "Putting off recommended/scheduled maintenance" was the No. 1 mistake cited in a survey of 20 ASE-certified master technicians.


The second-biggest mistake was "ignoring the 'check engine' light." Mistake No. 3 was "not changing the oil, or not having it changed on time" -- however, that doesn't necessarily mean on an every-three-months schedule. In fact, some new cars can go up to a year. spokeswoman Kristin Brocoff bought a 2012 Honda Pilot last year. Its manual stipulates waiting for the oil light to come on before arranging a change, for up to 12 months. (At that point the oil should be swapped out regardless.)

"The industry is really changing with regard to oil," Brocoff says.

Remember that the next time a quick-lube place tries to sell you on the absolute necessity of quarterly changes. Follow the manufacturer recommendations instead -- and don't try to eke out extra miles. The mechanics surveyed say that not changing the oil on time is the single most damaging thing you can do to your vehicle.

An ounce of prevention

The other seven mistakes cited were:

  • Not checking tire pressure.
  • Neglecting coolant, brake, transmission and other fluid services.
  • Continuing to drive when the vehicle is overheating.
  • Not changing fuel and air filters.
  • Having unqualified shops service your vehicle.
  • Using inferior or uncertified parts.
  • Trying to service your own high-tech vehicle.
I've heard people complain that scheduled maintenance is just another way for auto dealers to soak consumers. In an increasingly fast-paced world it can be easy to do something as simple as check tire pressure. It's tempting to put off scheduled maintenance until "next week" because planning for a car-less period is more than you can handle right now.
Don't do it, even if your car seems to be driving just fine. Sure, maybe your best buddy never paid much attention to his car and it didn't give him many problems. Could be he was just super-lucky, or that he traded in his autos before they had the chance to develop any serious twitches.

For maximum return on your auto investment, follow the manufacturer recommendations. My roommate's been driving the same car for 17 years, thanks to scrupulous attention to scheduled maintenance. It looks as though rust will kill it before mechanical failure does. What could a dozen or more years without a car payment do for your bottom line?

What's the longest you ever drove a car?

More on MSN Money:

Feb 1, 2013 2:48PM
Drove a 1994 Saturn SL1 (brand new) for 10 1/2 years.  It died on me after 278,000 miles.  Replaced it with a 2005 Ford Focus (used).  I got this in April 2005 with 3500 miles-it now has 156000 miles.  My other car is a 2003 Lexus that I got in November 2006 with 25000 miles.  It now has 133000 miles & the best thing is that BOTH are paid for! 
Jan 31, 2013 3:58PM

I guess for some folks,changing oil or getting it changed is to much effort for them. I had the luck of seeing a suzuki that the engine had died on it.The car had 45000 miles and the people had never changed the oil! they admitted to it.I saw the motor torn down and what happened,it was toast.

 If people want to save money,they should consider buying a vehicle that matches they're needs.

I see to many pickup trucks used as daily commuters.

Feb 5, 2013 10:39PM

All my cars were bought used; my youngest car is 10 yrs old with 132K; the oldest - 22 with 330K (and still driving perfectly);  follow the maintenance schedule, fix problems immediately;  think of repairs in two ways:  1 - maintenance:  new or old you will need to change oil, replace brakepads, other normal wear and tear etc.  2 - problems unique to the car.  #1 is not avoidable no matter how old the car is.  #2 can be avoided with a new car.  If you send more on #1 than #2, keep the car as long as you can.  You can also view car repair expenses as car payments.  e.g. - lets say a car repair of an older car is $600 - sounds like alot until you divide it into 2 months of car payments.  If that repair helps the car last an additional 4 months, you've postponed or avoid 2 months of car payments.

Apr 29, 2013 4:03PM
Believe it or not:  I had a Chevy Vega panel truck for 12 years.  The Vega had a big rust problem and I was constantly fighting it.  Also the aluminum block was one of GM's big mistakes; I had to have the block re-sleeved.  The rust finally won out; plus  NY winters didn't help.  That car lasted longer than my marriage.  Maybe that's because I worked harder on the car than the marriage.  I still miss that car.  The wife - nah.
Apr 29, 2013 1:57PM
Do yourselves a favor.  Spend the $40 and buy a code reader for the check engine light.  We bought one and found there was a pressure issue in the fuel system.  A new gas cap solved the problem.  An easy way to prevent yourself from getting screwed.
Feb 5, 2013 10:11PM
1990 ford bronco II.  In 19 years went over 500,000 miles .  Oil and filter changed every 2500 miles. replaced 1 clutch, 1 water pump, boat load of brake pads and tires.  only traded it because Obama gave us $4k for it.  I believe oil changes are the key.  I have 3 other vehicles over 250,000 miles w/ no engine problems.  2 more @ 100k miles with no problem.  2 more at 13 yrs old with no problem and these two aren't change annually but by miles; very low miles(11k and 24k)  We're talking fords, chevy,  BMW, vw, Plymouth, and acura. 
Apr 29, 2013 3:58PM

The biggest purchase most people in their life will make is the house they live in. The second biggest purchase is usually the vehicle they drive. Wouldn't it make sense to learn at least what routine mechanical things should be done to the second biggest purchase? Just got done moving my college age daughter for the umteenth time with my 1998 Dodge Ram 1500 4x4 that has 297,749 miles on it.

Original engine, Tranny was fixed at 217K, and has a number of new parts plus weird ones that never go bad unless you keep a vehicle this lone. Biggest thing.... CHANGE THE FLUIDS on a regular schedule. Oil changes generally around 3 K(unless synthetic), Transmission Fluild 35-40K, Coolant, 50-100K depending on kind, etc....   Get a good Wrench.... Never ignore strange noises...

Guys should know at least this much to get their man card punched... Too bad some people spend

more time and money on their hair & hair products than they do their vehicle, but then again those that do are most often blonde.


Apr 29, 2013 2:32PM
1986 Honda Civic hatchback bought it used with 152,000 miles on it and then drove till it hit 356,000 miles.
Apr 29, 2013 3:29PM
Spend the extra buck or two and get the undercarriage wash.  Do a good hand wash (with a made for vehicle product) before waxing. Don't be afraid to wax 3-4 times a year.
Feb 4, 2013 9:07PM
I didn't take Auto Shop in High School. But after watching 'mechanics' do oil chg, 'tune up', and brake job (discs). I KNEW I could do it myself and save $$$$.
I still use Car Clinic for electronic diagnosis OBD I and OBD II but Jim Loman and Sig Lachele do a fine job on 99% of the stuff I need done!
Win/win. They get paid $$$ and I get my bitchen' 88 Mustang GT fixed at a reasonable price.

Apr 29, 2013 4:27PM
I have a 1993 Nissan Quest. It has 191,00 miles on it. I've had no major repairs required. I've done the regular maintenance schedule since bought it new. The biggest problem has been finding some body parts. My husband put a key into the door that wasn't supposed to be there. We had some trouble finding the new lock to replace that one. The closest I came to major repair was the result of an improper attached oil filter that was done at one of those shops who advertise all the time. The check engine light came on and I parked the car. We were out of town and not in an area I was familiar with. I called my insurance who got me a tow truck to the dealer in the next town. The oil had nearly all leaked up and onto the engine. I still don't know why I didn't smell it. They replaced the oil and put on a new filter. I no damage to the engine. The car is still running well and we anticipate keeping it for many more miles.
Apr 29, 2013 3:51PM

Sad to say however a good friend purchased from a private party a four year old Lexus. She never noticed the car was smoking from the exhaust pipe until her daughter was following her home one day. She took the car to a Lexus dealer who said the engine oil had never been changed and the engine was toast. Not believing the dealer she brought the car to an independent and another Lexus dealer who said the same thing. Over four thousand dollars later with a rebuilt engine a hard lesson to learn for sure. Regular maintenance on vehicles that cost so much today is very cheap insurance.

Apr 29, 2013 4:58PM
Part of maintenance is the inspection that goes with it. Telling us you just want an oil change not the service interval, we are going to do just that. Pay  the little bit extra for the technician to do the inspection on it and you can avoid big problems later, and also know what you need to plan ahead for, i.e. brakes at the next oil change, etc. I deal with cars that start at 40k and go up from there and you wouldn't believe the cheapskates we see here.
Apr 29, 2013 2:17PM
Oh i forgot to mention that it was the original motor too,miss that toyota!
Apr 29, 2013 4:27PM
My dad bought his daily driver before I was born (1996 Civic), still drives it today at 140,000 miles without encountering the slightest problem!
Apr 29, 2013 7:41PM

get a quality oil filter from the dealer or walmart. unless you go for the 'premium service' option, the oil filters that the franchise oil change shops use, in my experience, are crap.


use a coolant t-stat from the dealer. period. the ones from the auto parts store (even the more expensive ones) are NOT the same quality regardless of what they say. and don't assume a lower temp t-stat (170 degrees) is 'better' for your engine than the one it was designed to use. if it came with a 220 d. t-stat, that's the best one to use.


also, use synthetic oil. it costs more but it will not cause gunk buildup in the engine like dino juice does. on many 'high performance' cars you are required to use synthetic motor oil to keep the warranty intact, and there's a reason for that.


go to a lower viscosity oil. contrary to what a lot of service professionals will tell you, 0w30 is no 'thinner' than 10w30. both are 30-weight oils, which is what the vehicle manufacturer is concerned with. however, 0w30 flows much better at start-up low temperatures. it's said that 90% of engine wear is as start-up, when the engine is starved for oil. keep in mind motor oil needs to be around 170 degrees f. to lubricate properly.

Apr 29, 2013 7:09PM

mainly, it comes down to checking fluids and common sense.


i only drive around 6k miles a year, but i check the oil (coolant and other fluid levels too) religously every week. i still change the oil around every 6 months though opinion now is that's too frequent.


a big mistake that even most garages still do: using plain tap water to top up the coolant. always use distilled water. tap water has too many minerals that will eventually form into crystal deposits and clog up the radiator.


never drive when the car is overheating. i blew a head gasket twice doing that, even though the distance was 'short' (less than 5 miles). miata's (pre 2005 version) overheat extremly quickly, so you need to really watch the engine temp light. finally, if you EVER loose heat, it means your coolant has gone bye bye. the heater core gets its hot water from the engine coolant. the temp light may still read ok, because the sensor is on the engine, and that stays HOT.


finally, a word on the auto repair industry: most people think the WORLD of their mechanic. until he or she drops the ball. then you feel betrayed, frustrated and angry. but just let it go. taking a mechanic to small claims court: don't do it. it's too hard to prove. another mechanics opinons won't hold much weight in court. just lick your wounds and find another mechanic.

Apr 29, 2013 6:57PM
This is excellent advice.  Maintenance is one of the key factors in keeping any kind of machinery in tip top operating condition.  An automobile is a major investment and letting it simply go to pot because of lack of maintenance is unforgivable.  A lot of people criticized the American auto industry for poor quality but in point of fact with the exception of body rust if well maintained most American cars ran easily over 250,000 miles.  My father was a Ford fan and I was always GM.  Both of us had vehicles that lasted into that mileage range and three of them are still running in the hands of the people we sold them to. 
Apr 29, 2013 4:48PM
Feb 5, 2013 1:57PM
Had a 2006 Outlander until last month...would still be driving it if it hadn't hit some ice and rolled over in a ditch, totalling it.
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Donna Freedman's Frugal Nation blog is for readers who want to live cheaply -- whether due to necessity or a lifestyle choice. It explores living sustainably and making life more meaningful at the same time.


Donna Freedman

Donna Freedman, a writer based in Anchorage, Alaska, writes the Frugal Nation blog for MSN Money. She won regional and national prizes during an 18-year newspaper career and earned a college degree in midlife without taking out student loans. Donna also writes about the frugal life for her own site, Surviving and Thriving.