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The Garage: Focus on autos

Get ready for that road trip

Catching up on often-neglected maintenance could save angst on the interstate this summer. And don't wait until the last minute.

June 30, 2007|Martin Zimmerman | Times Staff Writer

Summer's here and the livin' is easy -- unless you happen to be a car.

Hot temperatures and long road trips can take a toll on the family chariot. And as the Fourth of July holiday looms, experts advise that forgetting to check such mundane items as your battery, tires, belts and hoses could put your vacation at risk.

"Things like batteries never seem to fail at a convenient time," said David Skaien of the Automobile Club of Southern California. "And if it happens when you're on vacation, it can really ruin your day."

Granted, driving to Las Vegas, Yosemite or the Grand Canyon doesn't provide the aura of mechanical adventure it did back in the days when U.S. 66 was still a major thoroughfare and radiator boil-overs were a standard hazard of summertime driving.

Today's cars are simply more dependable than the vehicles of 20 or 30 years ago. Not only are they built better but they're better engineered as well, making it less likely that key components will fail.

The downside: Fewer trips to the repair shop mean there are fewer opportunities for a trained mechanic to spot potential trouble.

"Cars have become so reliable that they're not going into repair shops as frequently and issues that need to be addressed aren't being identified," Skaien said.

So experts recommend taking your car in for service, or at least a thorough inspection, before heading out on a long road trip. Here are the most likely places that trouble could be lurking:

* Batteries don't last forever, and summer heat can be especially draining. If your battery is more than 3 years old, have it tested. If it's more than 5 years old, seriously consider replacing it. (Either way, make sure there's a set of jumper cables in the trunk.)

* Make sure that the cooling system has been flushed in accordance with the schedule in your car's owners manual and that the coolant is at the proper level. Today's engines are less prone to overheat, but when they do, the experience can be much more damaging for the aluminum engine blocks common in modern cars.

Bill Campbell of Campbell's Automotive Repair in Montrose said a customer called from Nevada a few weeks back, stranded with a busted radiator hose. The overheated engine was a complete loss.

"A $30 hose turned into a $3,500 engine job," Campbell said.

* Speaking of hoses, the ones they make nowadays don't show wear and tear like the older versions. So unless you're a bona fide shade-tree mechanic, have your car's hoses checked by an expert before you hit the road. Consider replacing hoses that are more than 5 years old as a precaution.

* That goes for the belts, too.

* Check your tires for uneven wear and make sure they're inflated to the manufacturer's specifications. Underinflated tires are dangerous and can cut your gas mileage by as much as 2% for every pound of pressure below the recommended level. And make sure there's air in the spare.

* Check your oil level. If it's time for an oil change or getting close, get it done before you leave. And if your owner's manual recommends it, consider switching to a heavier grade of oil if you'll be pulling a trailer or driving in extremely high temperatures. Have other fluid levels checked as well.

* Don't wait until the last minute. You should do a day or two of close-to-home driving even after routine maintenance like an oil change or cooling system flush before starting a long trip. Hopefully, any lingering problems or mechanic-induced issues -- such as a misaligned drain plug that can allow oil to leak out -- will reveal themselves while you're still close enough to home to have them fixed in relative convenience.

"Picking your car up from the repair shop at 5:05 p.m. and then immediately heading home to load up the car and leave on your trip is probably not a good idea," Skaien said.

* Read your owner's manual. It's pretty dry, but you'll learn a few things about your vehicle that can save some money. For instance, if it recommends changing the air filter every 12,000 to 15,000 miles, don't let the guy at the oil change place talk you into replacing it at 5,000 just because you're leaving on a trip (unless, of course, you're planning to drive more than 7,000 miles.)

martin.zimmerman@latimes.com

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