A car is an inherently complicated machine and, if you want it to last and be safe, effective and reliable, there’s plenty to consider.
If you haven’t owned a car before, or are trying to get to grips with looking after one, it can all be a bit daunting – and it can be hard to know where to start. This is doubly the case with used cars, the age and mileage of which often entails them requiring more involved attention and care.
Fortunately, it doesn’t take that long to get up to speed with the basics of what’s required to keep your car in fine fettle. Read through the nine brief pointers below, as a case in point, and you’ll have yourself a good foundation to work from.
Many of these tips can and should be applied to new and used cars alike, too, and employing them will deliver all kinds of benefits – from improved ease of life and reliability, right through to a potentially higher resale value.
You buy a car, you drive it back from where you picked it up from, and that’s that – you’ve established how it basically works, and now it’s in service.
However, there might be all manner of functions or features you’re not aware of. Or, at some point, you might get a warning or notification that you don’t recognise or understand.
It’s always worth taking the time, as a result, to properly get to grips with what you’ve bought. An easy and obvious starting point is to read the manual, even if it’s just the quick-start section, so you’re at least familiar with the basics.
Beyond that, it’s worth looking at everything in the car, trying every button and piece of equipment, and learning where everything is – including fluid filling points, bulb access panels and the spare tyre or repair kit. At least then, should something need attention, you’ll know where to start.
Regardless of whether you’ve bought a new or used car, it’s important to understand when it needs servicing and what should be changed when. You don’t want to miss a vital servicing point, or later find a lot of minor jobs that have been overlooked, as issues can arise.
Fortunately, the owner’s manual typically contains a section that breaks down the required intervals, parts and fluid changes. A lot of cars also can show you servicing information via their on-board computer, too, which will help keep you up to date and avoid missing essential servicing.
You can also always ask your local dealer or specialist for advice if there are any question marks. Pay a little more attention when you’re looking at older cars, though; if a major service has been skipped, such as a timing belt change, then a costly workshop visit or an expensive failure could be looming.
It’s crucial that you regularly inspect the tyres on your car. Damage, heavy wear or improper inflation can lead to all manner of problems, including excessive braking distances and improper handling – especially in poor conditions.
Consequently, when you’ve bought a car, it’s worth checking and setting the tyre pressures to what’s recommended by the manufacturer. Doing so will also give you a chance to inspect the tyres for damage and excessive or uneven wear, which could entail replacement or be indicative of suspension-related issues.
You can then check them a week later and see if the pressures have dropped, then extend that interval to every month or so once you know they’re not losing air – but it’s often worth checking them before any long trip, just in case. And, when inspecting the pressures, check the tread depth to make sure you still have at least the 1.6mm legal minimum across the central three quarters of the tyre’s tread.
Before setting off in a car you’ve just bought, especially if it’s an older one, take a look at the condition and level of all the fluids. You want, if possible and at the very least, to check aspects such as the engine oil, coolant, and brake and clutch hydraulics – and, if appropriate, the power steering and automatic transmission fluid level.
Markings on the dipsticks or reservoirs will usually give you some idea as to where the correct level is – but you can always defer to the manual, or have a nose around online, if you’re not sure. Don’t forget to cast your eye over the washer fluid bottle, too; a filthy screen that you can’t clear immediately is guaranteed to become an annoyance and a problem.
Once you’re using the car, regular checks will help keep it in the best of health. If a fluid changes dramatically in appearance, a fault could be developing – or, if the level of one drops significantly, a leak or internal issue could be at hand. Get it checked, and get it fixed if needed, so you don't have to worry about a costly and time-consuming breakdown.
This is an easy one: work your way through all of the lights on the car and make sure all the external illumination is functioning. Dip beam, main beam, left indicators, right indicators, sidelights, brake lights, reversing lights, hazards, fog lights – you get the gist.
Check all of the lights on a regular basis, too, to ensure that everything’s clear, bright and working as it should. Inspecting them once a month should do the trick, and it’ll only take a moment.
If you do notice something odd about your car’s illumination while driving, though, have a look at its lights as soon as is safe to do so. A blown bulb is often quick and easy to replace, so you can be on your way in very little time.
Write down or enter into a calendar your car's MOT test expiry date, servicing dates, your insurance renewal date and VED payment date. That way, you minimise the chance of missing any vital deadlines.
If you have an older car, or a classic car, you might also want to consider keeping some kind of repair, maintenance and fuel log.
Aside from keeping tabs on what's been done when, so there is never any confusion, it can also help highlight issues. If your recorded fuel economy suddenly tumbles, for example, it could highlight an engine-related issue.
When it comes to selling your car, such supporting paperwork will highlight attentive ownership, too, which will help the buyer feel more confident and happy about their potential purchase.
It’s easy to ignore a seemingly spurious warning light or the odd noise. However, issues that you might dismiss as minor or irrelevant could quickly transpire to be far more significant.
To avoid grief, as a result, don’t ignore any warning signs that your car presents. If something seems amiss, get it checked out before it develops into a major problem that costs a fortune to fix.
Even the smallest of issues is worth attending to. Is a wiper breaking up? Well, get it replaced before the windscreen gets scratched – because changing a blade is far less expensive and tiresome than replacing a windscreen.
If you’re running a used car, don’t scrape the absolute bottom of the barrel when it comes to fluids, filters and parts – as it’ll end up costing you in the long run, both financially and in terms of reliability.
You don’t have to spend a fortune, mind, but just use branded parts and fluids with a good reputation. Don’t skimp on tyres, either; a cheaper tyre might be tempting but good tyres make a world of difference in terms of safety, handling, performance and refinement.
Also, preventative maintenance is your best ally. If you know a component is wearing out, get it replaced before it becomes a major problem. And, in any case, don’t simply wait for the next annual MOT test to roll around to find out if your car has obvious problems, shot tyres or blown bulbs.
Similarly, have a look around your car regularly to see if there’s anything amiss. Washing it from time to time, aside from keeping the exterior in good shape, can help with this – as you’ll cover the entire car and pick up on any issues as you work around it.
There’s nothing wrong with starting your car up, letting it idle for a moment for oil to fully circulate, and then setting off. But what you don’t want to do is immediately thrash the living daylights out of it.
Instead, give the car a chance to warm up properly before extending its legs. Don’t rely solely on the temperature gauge, either, as oils generally warm up much slower than the coolant itself. About fifteen minutes of driving will usually do it, but there are lots of variables.
Everything will subsequently be up to temperature once you've driven around for a while, and ready to go, so you won’t stress, prematurely wear or damage parts when you start making the most of what your car and its engine has to offer.
Treating it in such a fashion, coupled with doing your best to avoid things such as hitting big potholes and tall kerbs, will help keep your car in top condition – and your bank balance intact.
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