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According to a report from the auto-industry research firm R. L. Polk, the average age of vehicles on U.S. roads has reached a record 10.8 years. At an average of 15,000 annual miles, a typical vehicle may now have 162,000 miles on the clock. Today's cars and trucks are simply built better than ever, thanks to improved engineering and materials. But for those who want to get even more from their cars, how can drivers take a vehicle to the 250,000 milestone and still have wheels that are reliable and cosmetically appealing? To get answers, we interviewed service writers and auto technicians certified by the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence.
Have a GREAT Mechanic
Develop a long-term working relationship with your mechanic, similar to that of a doctor and patient. If you find a shop that gets to know you and your car, a working history develops so both parties know what has or has not been done to your vehicle. There are many capable independent mechanics, but there are also strong reasons to stick with dealer service. Technicians at a dealership work on cars of a particular brand all day, so they know them inside and out. They also have quick access to factory parts and the latest service information.
Be an easy driver
Drivers who learn to be smooth operators can expect to see their cars last longer. Practice smooth application of the throttle and progressive application of the brakes. Abrupt starts and stops strain the entire driveline, from the transmission to the joints and suspension. Instead of the "Fast and the Furious" approach, drive as if there were an egg between your right foot and the gas pedal — no stomping. Or adopt driving habits like those of a chauffeur intent on passenger comfort.
Oil's well: Know it, change it, check it
Modern engines are manufactured with incredibly tight tolerances and are designed to operate with very light oil that also improves fuel economy. The vehicle's owners manual or a label on the oil-fill cap will indicate which engine oil to use. As part of emissions regulations, oil-change intervals have been stretched from 3,000 to 7,000 and even 10,000 miles. It's not necessary to change your oil early, but don't go longer than the factory interval. Check your oil at every other gas fill-up and keep it topped off. Just because you can go 7,000 miles between changes doesn't mean your engine won't consume some oil.
Park in the shade
Ultraviolet light dulls paint, rots upholstery and clouds headlight lenses. Plastic in a superheated interior dries out. Park your vehicle in a garage or under a carport whenever you can. Seek out a shaded parking spot at work, or at least put a reflective sunshade under your windshield. But don't continually park under trees for protection. Over time, sap, leaves and other debris will dull your car's finish, too.
Cooling systems need to keep cool
A blown coolant hose used to be an inconvenience. Today, a failure in the coolant system can destroy an engine. The close tolerances and aluminum construction of modern engines can't easily withstand the rapid expansion caused by overheating. So have radiator and heater hoses checked often, and consider replacing them at 150,000 miles as a good investment. It's also good insurance to have the water pump replaced — but do that during timing belt service.
Delay timing belt service at your peril
Yes, its replacement can be expensive, but a timing belt failure can often cause catastrophic damage to an engine. The service interval for timing belts is 100,000 to 125,000 miles. The real cost in this service is labor. And because the timing belt often drives the coolant pump, it's smart to have the $100 pump changed at the same time, because you've already paid for most of the labor.
Be a tactical genius
Combine short errands into a longer route. Short, singular trips are hard on a car engine because the oil does not get hot enough to cook off condensation that forms in the crankcase and exhaust. Water then accumulates and accelerates wear. Oil engineers call this the "granny cycle" — short trips around town that can kill an engine. The granny cycle is brutal on oil, especially in cool weather. If you can't avoid short trips, take your vehicle out on the highway for 15 or 20 minutes once a week to get it up to operating temperature.
Warm up, drive away
In the winter, it's a good idea to let a cold engine warm up before driving away, to let the oil in the engine and transmission get up to temperature. Just a minute will do the trick. Any longer is a waste of gas. When it is really cold — we're talking zero and below— reconsider any trip you don't really need to make. Starting is hard on the engine and battery; the grease in the bearings is stiff, and every seal and hose is contracted from the cold. Skip that solo trip to the convenience store.
Keep it clean
The acid in dead insects and tree sap dulls paint. Mud caked in wheel wells holds moisture that leads to corrosion. And road salt is just evil. If you drive in the Snow Belt, try to wash off the salt crust whenever possible, and always get the underbody rinse option at the car wash. Turn off the heat in your garage; pulling a slushy car into a warm garage and having all that mess melt onto the floor leaves your car resting in a salty fog that accelerates corrosion.
Buy quality gas
Yes, there really is a difference between name-brand fuel and gas sold by cut-rate, discount stations. An outlet that always seems to be busy probably has happy customers and is turning over its fuel inventory quickly so it's fresh. When possible, avoid ethanol-blend fuel. It's corrosive and attracts water.
Avoid an inferior interior
Seats and carpets take the brunt of interior auto wear. Slip-on seat covers are easy to clean and cheap to replace, and they protect upholstery from coffee spills, ketchup drips and muddy paws. Shield the area around a child safety seat, where a sheet of plastic might not be out of the question. Leather seating surfaces might seem like a luxury, but if well cared for they usually wear better than cloth seats. Replace factory floor mats with deep protective mats or liners that will hold dirt and water.
Don’t ignore the wrench
When a dashboard light that shows a wrench or says SERVICE ENGINE illuminates and stays on, it's time for some scheduled maintenance. Follow that schedule to the letter. If you see a warning light shaped like an engine, there's an issue with the emission control equipment that also should be checked out immediately.
Consider an annual trip to a professional auto detailer, who can buff up the paint, clean carpeting and upholstery and even remove dust and grime from dash knobs and vents before they calcify. If you'd rather do it yourself, lots of advice is available online. Start with the tips and videos at Meguiar's.