Car maintenance

Whatever car you drive, it'll need maintenance. This may sound like hassle but good maintenance reduces the likelihood of unexpected issues

James Wilson
Jun 8, 2022

As modern cars are increasingly complicated, car maintenance has become something of a dark art - only practised by professionals and a mechanically minded minority of motorists. In reality, some of the most important car maintenance tasks can be completed by almost anyone who wants to keep their car in good shape.

There are still a number of tasks, such as servicing, though, which we recommend leaving to a professional - unless you are a capable home mechanic. Here, we'll walk you through the main parts of car maintenance to consider, giving you all the information required to ensure that your car is looked after properly - and should last as long as possible with the fewest possible issues.

Most cars have paper handbooks, which come from the factory and detail everything from how your radio works to when you should service a car - and potentially which types of servicing and maintenance are needed and when these tasks should be carried out. There are normally several separate manuals and service books and they are often kept in the glove box or under the front seats.

With second-hand cars, these books can be mislaid over the years, but you can order replacements online or through official dealerships - or potentially even access online versions through the manufacturers' website. Some car makers prefer to have digital handbooks that can be accessed online, which saves paper and removes the risk of being lost.

Car maintenance: owner responsibilities

Owning a car is much like owning a pet. Give it the right food (fuel), take it for the right kind of exercise (regular journeys) and give it some love and attention (regular servicing) and you should have a friend for life. Meanwhile, if you fail to do that - whether that's leaving the car parked up for months on end and then expecting it to be ready for a 400-mile trip or skipping servicing for years on end and then expecting the car to run smoothly - then you may be disappointed.

Cars are complex machines and require regular maintenance to work at their best. If you never check your tyre pressures, for instance, and they lose a little air every week (as is often the case), you'll spend more on fuel (as squishy tyres create more resistance), wear the tyres out quicker and affect the car's ability to accelerate, turn and stop safely. Below are a number of basic car maintenance tasks that all drivers should and can do, regardless of how familiar with cars they are.

Using the right type of fuel

Making sure your car gets the right fuel is one of the most important car maintenance tasks. It is also one of the most frequent tasks. The main option is petrol or diesel - handily, diesel nozzles physically don’t fit into the filler cap of petrol cars, so if you are struggling to get the pump to fit, stop and make sure you are using the right pump.

If you do manage to put the wrong fuel in your car, do not turn the engine on. Instead, leave the car where it is and seek assistance from either your breakdown provider or the petrol station operator. Filling stations will have someone to call out as you won’t be the first person to get fuel mixed up on their forecourt.

An issue that has become increasingly important recently is making sure the grade of fuel is suitable for your car. This is because modern UK fuel is partly made up of ethanol - this is largely for environmental reasons. The new fuel is called ‘E10’ and is suitable for use in all cars sold in the UK since 2011, although many older models can safely use E10 as well. You can find a breakdown of compatible models using the below link.

A large part of whether E10 is compatible with your car is down to the octane rating of the fuel, too. This rating is related to how a fuel burns. Most fuel has an octane rating of 95 (often presented as 95 RON) and most cars are designed to use such fuel. In some cases, however, high-performance cars should be run on 97/98 RON fuel to get the most out of the engine. The reason being, powerful engines are optimised for higher octane fuel and may require this to produce full power or run smoothly.

If you are wondering what type of fuel your car needs, look inside the fuel filler cap or in the owner's manual and it should show which engines require which grades of fuel. Failing that, the car manufacturer should be able to confirm the correct grade for you.

Checking the oil in an engine

Oil is vital for the operation of an engine. Not only does it make sure that all the components can move as they should but it also traps dirt and takes it away from important engine components. It is this dirt that turns oil from the honey colour it is when new, to the liquorice black that it becomes by the time it needs replacing.

The car's oil level should be inspected in line with the manufacturer's recommendations which are based on how many miles you drive and often on how you use your car. For example, if you do mostly longer cruising trips (such as on the motorway) you might only need to check the oil every 3,000 miles, but if you do lots of shorter stop-start trips then you might need to check the oil every 1,000 miles.

The recommendations for when to check oil are normally detailed in a car’s handbooks. However, it is good practice to check the oil level more regularly than this, as the car could be burning oil or there could be a leak - both of which would cause the oil level to drop.

To keep on top of this, you may want to use the car's onboard trip computer to keep track of the miles covered since you last checked the oil. To do this, reset the mileage counter in the trip computer so that the distance it shows is what you have covered since the last check. How to do this should be explained in the ‘trip computer’ section of a car’s handbooks.

How to check a car for oil

As checking the oil is so important, car manufacturers typically make it very simple - with most cars all you need is a piece of cloth or kitchen roll that you don’t mind getting dirty. Below are the steps on how to check an engine’s oil level.

This applies to cars that have a 'dipstick' under the bonnet, which is explained below. A number of more recent models do not have this, but instead show the oil level in the trip computer or the car's media system. If you can't find a dipstick under the bonnet to check, therefore, it's worth looking in the car's manual to confirm whether it has one or if there is another way to check:

    1. Most engines can only be checked for oil when cold (or have been turned off for 10 to 15 minutes), so make sure your car hasn’t been running for a while. You also need to make sure your car is parked on a flat surface to get an accurate reading.
    2. Locate the engine ‘dipstick’. It will normally be brightly coloured and have some kind of finger hole to allow you to pull it out. If you are struggling to see it, check the handbooks as they will detail where the dipstick is and how it is labelled.
    3. Remove the dipstick and wipe the oil off the end of it. Take a look at the bottom of the dipstick as there will be some form of marking or cut out, showing maximum and minimum levels. Typically a car’s oil level needs to be between these lines or marks - the closer to the top the better - but again the handbooks will be able to advise.
    4. Fully reinsert the dipstick, making sure it clicks into place, and then draw it back out again.
    5. Take a look at where the level of the oil is, with regards to the minimum and maximum levels.
    6. If the oil level is low, you will need to top up the engine. Engines require specific grades of oil, so you'll need to check in the handbook to make sure you know what grade is required. You can then either purchase oil from a number of motoring websites or physical stores. It is important not to overfill the engine with oil, so be sure to add a little at a time and keep checking the oil level - don’t forget it will take some time for the oil to drop to the bottom of the engine, which is where the dipstick measures oil level. If the level is too high when you check the car, you will need to remove some oil - this is quite difficult and best left to a garage. Too much oil can be a sign of bigger issues, so all the more reason to get a garage to look at the car.

Checking other fluid levels

Oil isn’t the only fluid a car needs. The other big ones are coolant, brake fluid and screen wash. Some cars also come with power steering and transmission (clutch) fluid, but not all. In most cars, each one of these fluids will have a container in the engine bay. Handily, these containers normally have minimum and maximum lines on them, so it should, in theory, be very easy to check the levels.

The difficult part comes if your engine bay is very dirty, as it makes it hard to see the lines. Normally, with a little wipe and a torch shining through the container you should be able to see the fluid level. Depending on the make and model, coolant levels might have to be checked when the engine is hot or cold - so check your car’s handbooks for advice on this. Your handbook should also have a diagram of the engine bay in it, with a key pointing to what each part is, which can be very handy when trying to work out which fluid is which.

Sometimes screenwash tanks are hidden deep within an engine bay so they won’t have visible minimum and maximum levels. With this kind of setup you can simply remove the plastic cap from the top of the tank and see if there is any fluid - if not, add some. Be aware that screenwash is sold as concentrate, which should be diluted with water and in ready mixed formats. Ready mixed formats are cheaper, but a bottle will last much less time than a similar size bottle of concentrate that you dilute with your own water.

While you can top up screenwash easily, brake fluid, coolant, steering and transmission fluid are much nastier chemicals. If you don’t have personal protective equipment to keep your skin and eyes safe from accidents, then we recommend getting a garage to top up these fluids when required. Likewise, some of these fluids can cause significant damage to paintwork if they are spilt, so again, it can be best left to a professional.

Checking tyre pressures

Making sure a car has the correct tyre pressure has a number of money saving benefits. Underinflated tyres require more effort to roll, so the engine needs to use more fuel to get the car moving and keep it going. They also wear more quickly than tyres at the recommended pressures and can fail when driving, which could cause a crash, depending how fast you're travelling at the time.

Overinflated tyres, meanwhile, can wear down faster in particular areas, too, meaning that you’ll need to replace your tyres sooner.

On top of the financial benefits of keeping on top of tyre pressures, there are also safety benefits. Underinflated tyres can cause a car to be pulled to one side or the other, which can be hazardous - especially when braking - and reduce the amount of grip available. Overinflated tyres can result in less grip, too, making a car more susceptible to skidding - especially when driving in the wet.

If it sounds like incorrectly inflated tyres are a serious risk, they are. The good news is that maintaining the correct pressures is simple. The recommendations for how often to check tyre pressures vary but, as a rule, once a fortnight should hold you in good stead.

Furthermore, if you regularly check the tyres, you'll get a feel for how well they keep their pressure. If pressures drop dramatically over a fortnight, you need to top up more regularly - and potentially replace any problem tyres. Alternatively, if they have identical pressures every time you check them, it should be fine to check less frequently. The recommended pressures are typically shown inside the filler flap or on the side of the door/door pillar and only visible when the door is open. They should also be listed in the manual.

Since late 2014 all new cars have had to come with a tyre pressure monitoring system (TPMS for short). These will warn you if a tyre’s pressure falls outside of the manufacturer's recommendations. As a result, there is less need to check pressures quite so often. That said, as these systems can develop faults and they cannot detect issues such as tyre bulges or other physical damage to the tyre, we still recommend inspecting your tyres at least every month, depending on how many miles you have travelled.

How to check and adjust the tyre pressures of a car

There are two main methods people use to check and adjust their tyre pressures. One is using a commercial air compressor at a petrol station - normally you have to pay between 50p and £1 to use these. The second option is to buy your own compact compressor, which you can use anywhere. These generally cost between £20 and £50 and are powered from the 12V socket in your car.

Regardless of which option you pick, the steps below are the same, bar one small detail. The pressures quoted by the manufacturer apply to cold tyres, so it's best to check the tyres before a journey or as close to home as you can if you need to use a commercial air compressor, as long journeys and high speeds (plus harsh acceleration, braking and cornering) can cause the tyres to warm up and will affect the pressure readings:

    1. Remove all the dust caps from the nozzles of each tyre. These little caps are identical to those used on bikes and are normally the only thing sticking out of the wheel. Put the caps somewhere safe, as all too often they go missing or you might kick them into a drain if you just drop them on the floor near the tyre.
    2. If you are using a home compressor you will want to start your engine at this point, wind down a window and plug the compressor into the 12V socket (in some cars this is where the cigarette lighter is). The reason for this is simple; a compressor uses charge from the car's battery to work, and if it uses too much your car won’t be able to start. With the engine running, the battery gets charged at the same time it is being used, so shouldn't go flat. Lowering a window is a precaution in case the car locks itself while the keys are inside and the engine is running. It shouldn’t lock itself, but better safe than sorry.
    3. Set the compressor to the desired tyre pressure. You should be able to find the recommended tyre pressures either in the handbooks, fuel filler cap or front doors/doorway (it could be on the passenger or driver’s side). Often there will be different pressures for the front and rear tyres and also different pressures recommended depending upon whether you're carrying little weight or have a car that is full of passengers and heavy luggage.
    4. Connect the air compressor to the inflation nozzle. When attached it will give you a reading of the air pressure. If it is higher than the pressure you've selected, the compressor should let air out and if it is too low it will add air. Repeat this step for all four tyres, making sure to adjust the desired tyre pressure if different front and rear pressures are suggested.
    5. Once all the tyres are done, put away the compressor, screw the dust caps back on and drive off.

While checking air pressures it is worthwhile looking at your tyres. If there are any big chunks missing, bulges or worn-out areas in the tyre then it may need replacing. If you find any of these, it is best to take the car to a garage to see what a professional recommends.

During an MOT the tyres should also be inspected for visual signs of damage; significant damage will result in a fail and you'll have to get a new tyre or tyres fitted for the car to pass. It's best to avoid the additional time, and potentially expense, of having to get multiple MOTs done by making sure to replace any damaged tyres ahead of time. 

Cleaning

This may sound ridiculous to some but cleaning a car is good maintenance. From an exterior perspective, road dirt (including grit), tar and bird droppings can play havoc with bodywork. The latter in particular will eat through layers of paint and leave an unattractive mark if left to fester. As for the inside of a car, dirt in fabrics such as carpets can lead to stains and also damage such as holes as the rough dirt particles act like scissors cutting through fabric.

Additionally, if your car is leased or financed and you plan to hand it back to the company at the end of the contract, they'll expect it to be kept in good condition. Anything more than fair wear and tear is likely to result in you being given a bill to repair the car. So, making sure to keep the car clean could save you money in the long run, too.

There is a huge range of options for keeping your car clean, from equipping your children with a bucket of soapy water and sponge to paying big bucks for a professional deep clean. Most people end up somewhere in the middle by paying for the occasional hand wash, but it is important to deal with major spills and dirt as soon as possible, just like you would with the inside of your house.

Car maintenance: garage responsibilities

There are also a number of areas of car maintenance that drivers will have to keep on top of, by getting a garage to carry out the required work. Often with newer cars the garage you bought it from will contact you with friendly reminders that work such as an MOT or service is due.

However, all cars either have a set service schedule - with time and/or mileage points at which to carry out certain bits of maintenance or with the car's trip computer sensing when certain components need attention and lighting up a warning sign on the dashboard.

Whether you want to go back to the place you purchased the car from for servicing or want to pick somewhere else, don’t be afraid to shop around for the best deals and offers when you need car maintenance carrying out. If you are financing a car that you will return to the finance company at the end of the contract, it's also important to understand what the company has specified regarding the maintenance needed.

If the manufacturer specifies that the car should be serviced every year and you return it at the end of a four-year contract with only one service carried out, you can expect to face end-of-contract charges - as missed servicing and maintenance can cause additional wear to the car and affect its future value.

Servicing and maintenance

Servicing is a broad term used to describe the regular work that is required on cars. As a minimum, this includes replacing engine oil and filters as these get dirty when used and degrade. Normally, older cars come with fixed service schedules that are given as a mileage or time limit. For example, a car maker might say its car has to be serviced every 10,000 miles or 12 months, whichever comes soonest.

The extensiveness of a service can vary from year to year. This is due to some components being able to last longer than others. Some manufacturers split services into minor and major categories, with there being a difference in price to reflect how much work is needed.

For some cars, there can be an extra-large service due when they reach higher mileages (typically between 60,000 and 100,000 miles). These can be costly so if you are considering a high-mileage car make sure it has had any big services done or factor the cost into how much you think the car is worth.

These extra-large services might cover the replacement of components such as the water pump or timing belt. The former is responsible for circulating coolant around the engine, while the latter has the important job of making sure the different parts of an engine are all in time with one another. Some cars use a timing chain rather than a belt, but these are often supposed to last the life of the car. If the timing of an engine is even slightly out, a car won’t run properly and if it is significantly out, an engine can completely destroy itself.

Newer models are more clever when it comes to servicing as they use sensors to assess what needs replacing. This can help make maintenance more cost-effective and reduces waste caused by throwing away components before they have been fully used. BMW is particularly well known for this kind of servicing.

Regardless of what maintenance work is carried out, it is vital that you get a copy of the receipt and in the case of a service, the garage stamps your service book. A service book should be included with your handbooks. This is so that you can show you have looked after a car well, which may be a prerequisite of keeping your warranty valid or your finance contract and can help if you decide to sell your car privately when you are finished with it.

Not all cars use service books anymore, as they are incredibly easy to lose or forget to stamp. Instead, some service records are held electronically with the manufacturer. We’d still recommend keeping a record of the work done yourself and receipts as evidence, just in case there are any issues in the future.

MOT

Once a car becomes three years old, it must have a valid Ministry of Transport test (normally referred to as an ‘MOT’) to be used on the road. An MOT pass lasts for 12 months. It is down to the car owner to book a test in a timely manner to make sure the test does not expire. If you are no longer going to use a car on the road, you must inform the Driver and Vehicle Licencing Agency (DVLA) using a ‘Statutory Off Road Notification’ - normally shortened to SORN.

MOTs are mostly concerned with assessing roadworthiness rather than checking the operation of your car and diagnosing faults. For example, if your tyres need replacing or your headlights have stopped working, a car will fail its MOT but the MOT won't specify why this has happened and what needs to be done to fix the problem.

For instance, a bulb could have blown as water got into the headlight and you may have to replace the bulb to pass the MOT, but the new bulb could fail very quickly if you haven't addressed the main issue of the headlight leaking.

There are plenty of garages which are allowed to carry out MOTs, with some specialising in testing. These kinds of garages won’t do any repair work that is needed, which gives some drivers more confidence that the test is fair and not being used to justify repairs that might not be needed.

Weird and wonderful things to look out for

It is an unfortunate fact of life that things can go wrong at any moment. So while it is all well and good sticking to the recommendations for car maintenance, there are a handful of things to be on the lookout for that signal your car could do with a little tender loving care from a professional. Examples of these are as follows:

    • Squeaky brakes. Brakes that make a squeaking or squealing noise are normally a sign of one of three things. The first is that the brake pads need replacing. The second is that the brake discs need replacing. The third is that there is something stuck in the brakes like a stone, which is grinding into the metal.
    • Smoking brakes. Smoking brakes are a sign that your brakes are stuck on and the friction has led to huge amounts of heat building up and smoke being made.
    • Knocking noises when going over bumps. If it is a metallic-sounding noise, this is often a result of part of the suspension becoming worn out. This is very common with bumpy UK roads and the large number of large speed bumps in the road and often a straightforward job to fix.
    • Rattly engines. Engines are always going to make noises but rattles are rarely good news. The explanation can be perfectly simple, like requiring some more oil or something near the engine becoming loose but the explanation can also be much more serious, so it is best not to ignore any new engine rattles.
    • Smoke from the exhaust. White, blue and black smoke can all be signs of a car needing work on the exhaust or engine. That said, white smoke can just be condensation coming out of the exhaust system which has built up when the car is turned off. This is most common during colder months and when the engine hasn't been on for long.

If you suspect your car does any of the above, it is worth considering taking your car to a garage. Most garages have a diagnostics service where you pay a fee (typically in the region of £50 to £150) and they will inform you of what they believe the issue is and give you the option of them fixing it.

 

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