The pandemic has led many people to avoid public transportation in favor of walking, bicycling or driving a motorized vehicle. If the first two options aren’t practical, an automobile may be the best choice.
Sales of used cars have, in particular, boomed in the last few months. If you’re among the buyers, you should have obtained the Carfax report documenting the vehicle’s history before your purchase, and had an independent mechanic inspect it. But from there, it’s care is on you. Here’s what you need to know.
Start with a reading assignment.
Many people don’t read instructions for appliances until they’ve made a mistake and are forced to pull out the owner’s manual. When purchasing a car, which may be the most expensive appliance you’ll ever buy, don’t wait until you make a mistake: Read the manual cover to cover on Day 1. For older cars, it’s probably a paperbound book. For newer cars, it’s most likely offered in digital form. If a manual doesn’t come with your car, you can almost certainly obtain one from an online source, regardless of the vehicle’s age.
The owner’s manual will tell you when the various systems must be serviced. It will also show you how to find things like the oil-level dipstick, the coolant tank and the power-steering reservoir. Some provide instructions for maintenance jobs you can do yourself.
Tires come between you and the road.
They are critical. Check air pressure weekly with a reliable gauge. Simply unscrew the tire’s valve cap, place the gauge over the valve and press down. Do it before driving because pressure will rise with tire temperature.
Inflate the tires to the vehicle manufacturer’s specification. You’ll find it in the owner’s manual and, in many cases, on the door jamb. Check the spare as well. You might need it someday.
Check the oil; change the oil.
For owners of vehicles with internal combustion engines, oil keeps things humming. All cars use some in normal driving, and a used car may use a quart or slightly more between oil changes. If you allow the oil level to drop well below what is prescribed, it could damage your engine and void any warranty.
To check, simply pull out the dipstick. It probablyhas a colorful handle to help you find it. Wipe it, stick it back in and pull it out again. The correct level will be indicated on the dipstick. Don’t add oil until it’s at least a quart down. Use the type prescribed by the vehicle manufacturer. This recommendation will come in the form of a viscosity number, such as 5W-30.
Oil becomes contaminated over time, so it must be changed regularly. For cars driven largely on high-mileage trips, an interval of 6,000 miles is sufficient. If you drive only one or two miles every time you use your vehicle, an interval of 4,000 miles is better, as moisture contamination is a problem when engines rarely reach operating temperature.
Newer cars have a system that monitors oil condition and tells you when it’s time for service. Make sure the mechanic resets the monitoring system when the oil is changed.
Check other fluid levels as well, including coolant, brake, power-steering and transmission fluids.
Eyes on the road.
If your windshield streaks when you turn on the wipers, it’s time to replace them. You’ll find instructions in your owner’s manual. Make sure you get the correct blades for your car. If you don’t want to attempt the job, most service stations will do it while you wait.
Let your lights shine.
Before purchasing a used car, make sure the lights work — high- and low-beam headlights, taillights, turn signals and brake lights. Thereafter, check them once a month. Some bulbs are easily serviced. Others such as complex LED arrays and headlights may require more disassembly work than you want to tackle. But don’t drive without a full complement of lights. That could earn you a ticket or cause an accident.
Don’t be caught dead.
A set of jumper cables can help you start your car if its battery is drained and won’t turn the engine. But if the failure is because of a charging system problem or battery defect, a jump won’t help.
If you have to jump your car from someone else’s, make sure the transmissions of both vehicles are in Park, and shut off the donor car. Attach the red clip to the positive terminal of your battery. Connect the other red clip to the positive terminal of the donor car. Attach one black clip to the negative terminal of the donor car before connecting the other one to an unpainted steel part of your car (connecting it directly to the battery is not recommended because it can sometimes spark, causing fumes from the battery to explode). Start the donor car and give it five minutes to charge your battery before starting your car.
Of course you can’t always find a good soul who will give you a jump. That problem can be resolved by purchasing an emergency jump starter. Many of these portable power packs sell for less than $100.
Although gas/electric hybrids have a high-voltage circuit for powering the electric motor, they also have a 12-volt circuit that handles other chores. In many cases, starting the engine is among them. A hybrid’s 12-volt battery can be jump-started, but take care that you make the right connections. See your owner’s manual.
Keep it clean.
Washing your car will keep it looking good and protect it. Insects, tree sap and other nefarious substances can damage paint and speed corrosion. So regular washing is recommended. Doing it yourself with a bucket, sponge and garden hose may appeal to your self-reliant instincts, but it’s not the green way to go. You’ll waste far more water and do more damage to the environment washing your car in the driveway than you will by going to a reputable carwash that recycles water and safely disposes of waste.