by Jim Kerr
Winter weather will soon be upon us, and with it come all the Tune-Up promotions. In case you hadn’t noticed, regular vehicle tune-ups are almost a thing of the past. Manufacturers are building better vehicles, emissions regulations have changed service intervals, and we are bombarded with new vehicle information promoting less service requirements such as 160,000-km spark plug changes or long-life coolants. If the vehicle starts and runs smoothly, most owners tend to delay doing any work on their vehicle. Much of the work required for cars of the 1960’s and 70’s is no longer needed, so let’s look at what maintenance modern cars do need.
Start with tune-ups. Unless the vehicle is running rough, it can be difficult justifying new sparkplugs, especially at the price of some of the high mileage plugs. Even if the vehicle is performing poorly, it is more likely a bad sparkplug wire, faulty fuel injection component, or a vacuum leak, and installing new sparkplugs isn’t going to fix it. We are led to expect long life from the plugs, so we need to be sure that they are a problem before changing them.
There are times when sparkplugs do need changing. They may have high mileage and the electrodes are worn. If an engine has been badly flooded, the sparkplugs will likely need changing. MMT, an additive in our fuel to reduce spark knock, also fouls sparkplugs usually long before the recommended service intervals. Yes, sparkplugs may need changing but instead of a tune-up, they should only be changed because of recommendations we get after having a vehicle inspection.
Most shops offer a vehicle inspection for minimal charge, but look for an inspection tailored to pre-winter requirements. Many shops have checklist forms to help explain exactly what is checked and what services are done. Some shops offer a ‘Buyer’s check’, designed to tell potential buyers what repairs a vehicle needs. It works just as well for car owners too!
A good vehicle inspection should include a few easy diagnostics as part of the inspection. Cleaning and tightening the battery cables if necessary, testing the battery, charging system, and starter draw, testing coolant strength, inspecting drive belt conditions, lights, block heater, wiper blades, and filling the washer bottle with winter solution are all part of a complete inspection.
Now that the basics are done, we need to add a couple more items. Have the air filter checked, varnish deposits cleaned from the throttle plates, and vacuum and coolant hoses inspected for cracks or chafing. Removing one sparkplug to check condition will give a good indication if they need to be changed. Even one misfiring sparkplug will decrease fuel economy dramatically. Of course, extra labour charges apply if new ones are required.
Using a scan tool to check for engine codes can tell a lot. On OBD II emissions vehicles (1996 and newer vehicles), it can help locate a misfire. The scan tool can also monitor oxygen sensor readings for quick response rates. Oxygen sensors degrade with mileage and there are many high mileage vehicles that could get better fuel economy with a new sensor. A quick look under the vehicle for poor exhaust system parts, oil leaks, and to check tire condition and pressure and the inspection is done.
A vehicle inspection pinpoints what items on your vehicle need service. Instead of spending money on a ‘Tune Up’, spend it on what the vehicle really needs. Here are a few more items that should be considered as part of routine maintenance.
Many engines use rubber timing belts that need changing at specified intervals. Forget to have it changed and you could be looking at bent engine valves and major repair costs.
Dragging brake calipers can make vehicles difficult to handle on icy roads. Don’t wait until it is too late. Have your brake system inspected and caliper slides lubricated now before the roads get slippery.
Avoid the first big snowfall panic and have winter tires installed now. The new generation of ‘ice’ winter tires has far superior traction and safety than all-season tires. Preventing even one fender bender pays for them.
Keeping a vehicle maintained is expensive enough without spending money on services not needed. After watching how vehicles and the automotive industry have changed over the years, I am convinced an annual vehicle inspection is the best guide to help owners save money on maintenance.