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CAR CARE

Maintenance 101: What all owners need to know

Most people ignore even the most basic, routine chores. Here's what to do to avoid breaking down.

November 20, 2002|John O'Dell | Times Staff Writer

Richard Kretsch, head of the Auto Club of Southern California's vehicle inspection services program, says that a recent car-care inspection event in Costa Mesa underscored what car-care professionals long have asserted: that most drivers ignore the most routine auto maintenance.

As a result, Kretsch said, most people drive around in cars that are sometimes unsafe and could break down and land the negligent owners with serious repair bills for problems that a little diligence could have prevented.

Of the 550 cars, minivans, pickups and SUVs inspected during the club's annual Car Care Fair, 75% had some sort of vital fluid problem -- from dirty or dangerously low oil to rancid transmission fluid -- and at least a third had worn-out drive belts on generators, alternators, air conditioners and engine cooling fans.

"Despite all the money they spend on buying a car, most motorists just don't take the time to take care of it," Kretsch said.

The Auto Club event "provides us with a very good snapshot of what's driving around out there," Kretsch said, "and it seems that it is ingrained in human nature that you don't need to take care of your car."

Other common problems reported by the Auto Club inspectors included: inoperative headlights, brake lights, tail lights and turn signals; dirty air filters, which can cause inefficient engine operation, loss of power and increased fuel consumption; and underinflated tires, a condition that increases fuel consumption and, in the worst cases, is a safety hazard.

Kretsch said that some car owners are just too lazy to do routine inspections and maintenance chores, and others are too busy, too uncertain of their abilities or too complacent.

"One of the good things about newer cars -- the loads of electronic controls that can compensate for small problems and keep the engine running smoothly -- is also a bad thing, because it means that people who rely on the car to tell them when something is wrong often don't get the message until something starts malfunctioning," Kretsch said.

A must-do list for owners

If Kretsch were king, certain routine automotive inspection and maintenance chores would be required of anyone who owned a vehicle.

His recommendations:

* Read the maintenance section of the vehicle owner's manual. It is the authoritative source for what should be done.

* Take a monthly walk-around to visually inspect for leaks, low tires and broken light bulbs. Check tire levels with a good gauge, turn on lights and signals to confirm they are working and pop the hood to check fluid levels and the condition of the engine and accessory drive belts.

* Get an oil change and new oil filter every 3,000 to 5,000 miles or, for vehicles that are not driven much, every six months.

* With each oil change, have the mechanic inspect other fluids, especially in the brake, automatic transmission and power steering systems, to make sure they are not burned, soured or contaminated with water or bits of metal.

* Rotate tires at least every other oil change -- especially important on modern performance cars with highly tuned suspensions.

* Visually inspect the rubber "boots" that cover and protect the CV (constant velocity) joints on front-wheel-drive vehicles. Cracked boots can allow water and dust to get in. This can cause expensive damage and can make the vehicle dangerous to drive.

* Drain and service automatic transmissions every 24,000 miles or at two-year intervals.

* Flush and refill cooling systems every two years.

* Adhere to manufacturers' recommendations for changing timing belts because a failed belt can destroy an engine.

Finding a good mechanic

Some of the work Kretsch recommends is best done by a qualified mechanic, and for many people the task of hunting for a good mechanic ranks right up there with having a root canal.

The most common suggestion for finding a good mechanic is to check with friends and relatives to see where they take their cars and how satisfied they are; there also are a number of mechanic rating services on the Internet, including one by the popular National Public Radio program "Car Talk" at

www.car talk.com (click on Mechan-X Files).

A large number of car enthusiast groups on the Internet, from Acura owners to classic Ford Mustang clubs, also maintain chat lines and forums on which people can solicit and make recommendations about mechanics.

And, of course, the Auto Club of Southern California maintains a list of mechanics that have passed its screening program -- which includes checks by the club of the shop's complaint and licensing history; the training and certifications of its personnel; its financial stability and insurance status; its tools and equipment; and shop cleanliness.

The club requires garages that want to display an Auto Club approval sign to provide at least a 12-month or 12,000-mile warranty on repairs and to agree to allow the club to resolve disputes with customers who are Auto Club members.

Finally, Kretsch said, the club requires the garages to supply names and addresses of several hundred customers. It sends surveys to all of them and approves only those shops with at least a 90% customer approval rating.

The 630 Southern California auto repair facilities that have passed the club's scrutiny are listed at www.aaa-calif.com (go to the ownership and maintenance section); club members also can obtain a printed list at any of the club's offices or by calling (800) 713-0003.

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