Today's cars are technological wonders that require a fully trained professional to carry out most major repairs. However, keeping your vehicle in good shape as you go along can play a major part in avoiding the need for extensive mechanical work, by preventing problems from cropping up or spotting them early before too much harm can be caused.
Much of this regular, low-level maintenance can be carried out easily at home by anyone, and it's a habit that's well worth getting into to ensure your auto remains in perfect condition between official services. Here are the main things to check.
Checking your tire pressure should become a regular habit, almost as second nature as filling your tank with gas. Having your tires at the correct pressure has three benefits. Firstly, it helps keep them in good condition and prevents them from wearing down too quickly. Secondly, under-pressured tires increase your vehicle's fuel consumption. Finally, and most importantly, poorly pressurized tires can be a safety risk as they cause poor handling and slower vehicle reaction speeds.
Another vital aspect of tire safety is the depth of the tread. While smoother tires may be great on racing cars, they're not so good for the average auto: in an emergency situation, you'll need all the grip and control you can get. Check that your tires have sufficient tread depth left on them, and that if they're showing signs of wear, that it's spread evenly across each of your four tires, and with no bald patches. Also, remember to check your spare.
Remember that if you find one tire that needs replacing because of excessive wear, it's good practice to replace the whole set. This might seem like an unnecessary expense, but if tires are unevenly worn, car handling can become very unstable making driving dangerous.
A final tire maintenance job is to rotate them every 5,000 miles or so, switching your left and right rear tires with each other, and doing the same with the front pair. This helps to distribute wear evenly, making handling safer and more predictable.
Cooling System and Engine
An overheating engine is still the most common cause of auto breakdowns, yet with a little maintenance, it's easy to prevent most faults from happening. Take a look at all the visible belts and hoses attached to or surrounding your engine. If they're showing any signs of wear, tear, or fraying, then have them replaced as soon as possible. The small cost of having a mechanic do this for you will far outweigh the potential expense of a breakdown on the road, involving call-out charges, recovery, and repairing any resulting damage.
Also, make sure your coolant levels are properly topped up. Wait until your engine has fully cooled down after driving, and visually inspect the levels either using the gauge on the outside of the container, or for older models, by removing the reservoir cap (if you need to do this, be extremely careful - if the fluid is at all hot, it may be under pressure, making removing the cap highly hazardous).
Most maintenance of the actual engine is a job for a professional, but one other thing to check while you have the hood open is the oil level. Get into the habit of doing this every couple of weeks - if you find that you need to top up oil levels frequently, it's a good sign there might be a problem elsewhere, and it's best to get it checked out before the issue becomes an expensive one to fix.
Lights and Electrical
The final set of checks to make is on all your external lights and internal electrics. Do all your lamps illuminate as they should? Do all your electrically operated devices function correctly? Checking your electrics not only ensures that your car remains legal, safe, and comfortable, it also helps to flag up possible problems: if you find minor issues cropping up regularly, there may be a deeper problem within the electrical system that could use a closer look with a trained eye.
With modern cars sporting all the computerized technology they do, the days when a hobbyist could fully strip down and rebuild their vehicle are gone. However, many of the basics of auto maintenance remain the same as they always have been, and taking good care of your car between professional services will help reduce repair costs, extend its life, and make sure it stays a pleasure to drive.