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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.

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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.