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Feature Story


by Bob Hagin

July 18, 1997

The down side is that new cars, pickup trucks and minivans are very expensive and the prices go up every year. The up side is that new vehicles are much better designed and built than even a decade ago and are lasting longer. Two hundred thousand miles isn't unheard of any more and the average "roller" in the U.S. is now eight years old.

But in order to achieve that quarter-million mark, you have to be a conscious driver and these are my recommendations for hitting that goal. New drivers would do well to take notes:

DRIVING - Your car will last longer if you don't crash, so stay a couple of car lengths behind other vehicles. Don't drive aggressively since you don't get "points" for facing down other drivers. Besides, two cars can't occupy the same space at the same time. On the highway, stay out of the lane that gravel and dump trucks are using and stay as far back from them as possible. I've lost two windshields and one headlight from rocks falling from trucks and sustaining lots of paint damage too. If you're bumped in the rear when you're stopped for a signal, stay put, roll up the windows, lock the doors and keep the engine running. You won't be able to get lots of miles out of your BMW or Cadillac if it gets carjacked. Try accelerating at half throttle, since it puts less strain on the engine, and use your brakes as sparingly as possible. They'll last lots longer if you avoid panic stops.

PARKING - Clean out all the junk that's accumulated in the garage and park your vehicle inside at night so the finish will last longer. Even a semi-portable car port is better than leaving it exposed to the elements. When you park on city streets, don't park by the Braille system since bumping curbs knocks suspension systems (front and rear) out of alignment and can damage structural parts. Park as far away as possible from other vehicles in parking lots since air-head drivers swing their doors out and bang yours. If you park at night, park in a well-lit area or you might come back to find your tires, sound system and battery gone. When you park in the bright sunlight and/or on hot days, leave one rear window slightly open to avoid inside temperatures hot enough to bake potatoes. Put a windscreen shield up in place to block out the direct rays of the sun. It reduces the chance of having the dashboard and interior plastic parts dry out, wither up and crack.

MAINTENANCE - Cutting the manufacturer's schedule for motor oil and filter changes in half will prolong the life of your engine a lot. Repairing automatic transmissions is extremely expensive so have the fluid and filter in yours changed every two years. Have the fluid in the cooling system changed every other year and make sure that it's at least half water and half antifreeze. It's a good idea to back-flush the system with tap water pressure at the same time to clean out the heater core to prolong its life. Inspect the condition of the tread on your tires and their pressures every month or so. If the tread is wearing abnormally, it indicates that the suspension is out of alignment. Squirt a little powdered graphite into the door, trunk and ignition locks once a year to reduce wear and help them last longer. Unless your car already has upwards of 100K miles on it, have the brake fluid changed every three years but on high-mileage "beaters," the job might dislodge the thick, gooey residue that's keeping the brake wheel cylinders and calipers from leaking. Inspect your windshield wipers every year and if they look weathered, change them before the bad weather starts. If they fall apart in the first rain, the exposed metal clips can scratch your windshield in only a few miles.

CLEANUP - Have the engine room cleaned (or do it yourself) once a year. It gives you or your mechanic a chance to inspect the hoses, belts and battery connections before they fall off or break. Wash your vehicle once a month to protect the finish and to give yourself an opportunity to catch rust and corrosion spots before they become cancerous. Vacuum out the interior every time you wash the vehicle and this includes the trunk. While you're in that area, check the condition of the spare and make sure it's not flat. Examine all the rubber trim parts and use a commercial preparation on them if they look "edgy." Touch up nicks and scrapes with touch-up paint. Most auto parts and paint stores have it in small amounts if your vehicle is a standard factory color.

AWARENESS - Being a former high school teacher, I know that there's "education-ese" words to describe this (maybe cognitive recognition?), but it's really just being in tune with your machine. If it pulls slightly to one side, be aware of it. If the engine or drivetrain makes a "funny" noise, have it examined before it's a catastrophe. If the engine takes longer to start than it should, or the brake pedal goes closer to the floor that it did last week, or the automatic transmission slips a bit between shifts, do something about it. It's not "Zen And Your Automobile" but being hip to your car can help keep it in good shape lots longer.

And being an ex-high school teacher, one last word of advice on keeping your car in good shape for 200K miles: never loan it to a kid unless you're subliminally looking for an excuse to buy a new one.