- The Washington Times - Friday, May 4, 2001

People are more careless in the care of their cars than they were 15 years ago. Manufacturers must accept some blame for this neglect because they keep harping on how little maintenance their cars require.

First came stretching the oil-change interval. Maybe you have to go back to the days when cars had running boards to recall when 1,000 miles was the recommended interval between changes. As oils improved, that interval grew to 2,000 miles, then 3,000.

Now 3,000 is what most mechanics advocate for assuring the longest life for your engine. (Synthetic oils, commensurate with their higher prices, go about three times as long.)

Yet some of the owner's manuals that manufacturers put in glove compartments give a nudge and a wink and say, "Hey, 7,500 miles is often enough. Even 10,000."

Carmakers want to impress you with how undemanding their cars are. (Cynics might say, "Why should manufacturers care if your car wears out faster? They make new ones every day." Then again, cynics also say that technicians push the 3,000-mile figure because they want to sell you more oil.)

Just say that changing oil more often can't hurt and doesn't cost all that much. Today's cars indeed require far less care than earlier ones, but that doesn't mean they need less thought. A point could be made that the longer the interval between servicing, the easier it is to forget to schedule the service you need.

I recall childhood vacation trips broken by stops at service stations where our road-dusty Oldsmobile was elevated on a lift so a black stream could be bled into a catch pan. We even had lube jobs en route because my daddy was a stickler for hitting the recommended mileage as closely as possible. Sealed-for-life fittings have largely eliminated that need for grease guns.

Times have changed. Onboard engine-management systems control much of what the old tuneup tended to. Even if your car has a carburetor, no one is allowed to fiddle with it because of emissions regulations. The mention of "tuneup" reminds us that manufacturers are playing another mileage game. Many of them brag that vehicles can go 100,000 miles before they need an engine tuneup.

Tuneup is one of those catchall phrases that everyone uses but few can agree on what it means. Most car owners use it to mean: "My car needs some attention. Attend to it." To mechanics, tuneup historically had a more specific meaning: changing the plugs or cleaning them and adjusting the gap, as well as checking the plug wires, the coil, the condenser, the points, the distributor cap and rotor and the fuel and air filters, etc. Many of those things no longer exist in today's cars.

What's left to tune up after time and the onboard computers have had their way? Why, the plugs. That seems to be what the 100,000-mile tuneup consists of replacing the long-life plugs.

Because tuneup is such a catchall phrase to a lot of car owners, many of them are interpreting the 100,000-mile tuneup interval to mean nothing more is required of them than to add oil and gas. Wrong.

Maintenance and tuneup, whatever an owner's confusion, are not the same. Cars need regular attention if nothing more than wire wiggling, hose squeezing, drip checking just to make sure nothing is going wrong. An expert eye looking at your car at regular intervals can notice a problem developing while it is still relatively simple and inexpensive to deflect and can keep your car running sharper, too.

Then there's that timing belt, if you have one. That will cost you serious time and money if it isn't changed at the right time (usually around 60,000 miles). Anyhow, that promised 100,000-mile tuneup and the longer intervals between oil changes require "ideal" driving conditions. That means no dust, no temperature extremes, no stop-and-go traffic.

In the real world, it's wise to plan on regular preventive maintenance and 3,000-mile (or every three months) oil changes. If you want to simplify keeping track of such schedules, particularly if your family has more than one car, go online to CarPoint.msn.com and open up a Personal Auto Page (no cost). List your cars and their mileage, and you will be e-mailed reminders of maintenance schedules.

Your Personal Auto Page also lists estimated costs for assorted repairs on your particular car. Recall alerts are kept current. Furthermore, you have access to experts who will respond to your questions. It's car care made easy.


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