Cold weather and holiday road trips will soon be here. The final months of the year bring some of the heaviest highway traffic. Is your vehicle road ready?
With everything on your to-do list, routine upkeep on your vehicles may have fallen behind schedule. A road trip is a perfect chance to catch up with things. Follow the car maintenance checklist below so you won’t get caught by unexpected repairs on the road.
If your holiday plans include driving to see loved ones, you’re in good company. About 91% of long-distance holiday travel is by personal vehicle. Not only that, the average Thanksgiving long-distance trip length is 214 miles. And that number climbs to 275 miles over the Christmas/New Year’s holiday.1
So, avoid the stress of a breakdown in heavy traffic. Before setting out on longer highway trips, visit your favorite repair shop for service. Or check your car’s critical systems yourself. You’ll feel safer and more confident whether you’re traveling or driving close to home.
Follow the five steps listed in the simple road-trip checklist below. Consult your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the recommended oil, transmission fluid, coolant and tire pressure specifications.
Step 1: Make sure your motor oil and transmission fluid are clean and full.
Your vehicle’s engine depends on several critical fluids to operate. Motor oil circulates through the engine and performs five important functions. It absorbs heat and cools engine parts, lubricates parts, cleans and absorbs dirt particles, seals and aids compression so the engine works more efficiently. It also works as a sealant, preventing engine parts from corrosion. Running the engine without enough oil quickly causes an engine to overheat, and that’s not only inconvenient, but can damage an engine.
The second fluid that’s a must-check? Automatic transmission fluid. It circulates within the transmission to cool and lubricate gears so they shift properly.
How to check your motor oil:
With the engine turned off, open and securely prop open the hood. Check the car’s manual to locate the dipstick. Remove the dipstick and wipe it clean with a soft, dry cloth. Reinsert and remove again, this time noting the oil level on the dipstick. Make sure the reading is at the level recommended by the manufacturer.
To add oil, use a funnel and use the proper weight oil. Be careful not to overfill. Drips will smoke and burn when the engine heats up.
How to check your transmission fluid:
With the parking brake on and engine running, remove the transmission dipstick and wipe on a soft cloth. The fluid should be pink and free of debris. Reinsert and check that the fluid is at the recommended level. If new fluid is needed, be sure to use the type recommended by the manufacturer.2
Step 2: Check the coolant
A vehicle’s radiator circulates a special fluid called “coolant,” which absorbs the engine’s heat. Run low, and risk overheating. (Also known as “stuck on the side of the road.”)
How to check your coolant:
Visually inspect the translucent overflow bottle when the engine is cold. Coolant should be between the minimum and maximum levels. If you need to add fluid, make sure it’s the right kind. Mixing different varieties of coolant can damage the cooling system.3
Step 3: Check the tires and alignment
Tires are the one thing between your car and the road, so this is not equipment you want to ignore. Check the pressure on all four tires and make sure they’re inflated to manufacturer’s specifications.
Next, check the alignment. If the car pulls to one side, that could be a sign that your alignment is off. Visit a service center for an adjustment. Misaligned tires wear unevenly. Worse still, you might not be able to control the car in an emergency.
Step 4: Listen to the brakes
Reliable, effective braking is especially important on wet or icy roads. Don’t risk ruining your holidays with unexpected repairs or an avoidable accident. Are your vehicle’s brakes squealing? You might need new brake pads. If you hear a grinding sound, head straight to a repair shop. It may be time for new rotors, or your brakes may be close to failing.
Step 5: Check your lights
A trip away from home is no time to be without headlights, signal lights or taillights. With the car in park, turn the head lights on low and high beam. Check taillights with a similar exercise to make sure no bulbs have burned out. Of course, the lights need electricity to work, so check to see that there’s fluid in your battery (in batteries that have inspection caps). Just flip up the caps to see if there’s liquid, and close them again. Be careful—the liquid is a mild acid. If levels are low, stop by a local service center. Your battery might not be charging correctly. 4
With this car care checklist complete, you should be ready to roll. Drive safely and enjoy your road trip.