Winter brutalizes cars. Now that the coldest months are behind us, it's time to prevent unnecessary repairs and expenses by performing the annual ritual of spring auto maintenance and inspection. Small, hidden problems could get big if you don't examine your vehicle after the spring thaw.
This critical auto care step is about more than just looking good for cruising in the spring. It's also about maintaining resale value. A good cleaning will reveal minor dings and chips in the paint, which are magnets for costly and all-consuming rust. The pros at Popular Mechanics recommend hand washing instead of "quickie" car washes, which will neglect details but still cost $5 to $30, depending on the package and the size of your vehicle.
Chipped paint on a car? Regular nail polish protects as well as pricey auto paint, and Walmart's selection starts at $1. Clean grime and simply paint some over the chips, as recommended by the blog Blue Collar Workman. Let it dry completely and repeat if you can see through the first coat. If the paint can't be matched, use clear nail polish.
Thawing, freezing, and scraping over icy windshields can cause wiper blades to warp, bend, and crack. Measure the old blades and check the car's manual for the correct size before removing the old ones to install new ones, which should cost between $8 to $16. Always test them before you get caught in the rain. Replace blades once in the fall and once in the spring.
For many drivers, the first time they realize they have a light out is when a police officer pulls them over to tell them so. Spring is the perfect time to examine mirrors for cracks, and to have a family member activate headlights, taillights, reverse lights, brake lights, parking lights, fog lights, and turn signals while you do a visual inspection.
Roads in winter are salty and sandy, and washer fluid doubles as a de-icer. That means going through lots of the stuff in cold months, and doing 70 on the highway with compromised visibility is not the time to discover you're out. If you run low, just pour some in the reservoir until full. Pick up a gallon for less than $3 at AutoZone. Never add plain water during winter!
Wild temperature swings can result in uneven air pressure in tires, which results in advanced and uneven wear. Since tire pressure gauges are cheap and new tires are expensive, investing in a gauge is smart. Measure tire pressure after the car has been parked for several hours, and check its manual for the PSI that should register on the gauge. If there's a low reading, top off the problem tires at a gas station.
A car's electrical system, including the starter and alternator, work hard in the winter, and it can take a toll. Be especially wary if headlights seem dimmer or windows roll down slowly -- the car's battery may be going. If a test confirms a problem, at least a DIY replacement is relatively easy, and a recent check of prices found batteries for a midsize sedan at around $110 to $125 at stores such as Walmart or Advance Auto Parts.
Between salt, sand, potholes, and the sheer cold of winter, tires take a beating. Take a penny and insert Lincoln's head into the grooves of the tire treads. If the top of Lincoln's head can still be seen, it's time to replace the tire. Expect to pay $100 for an average car, $175 for an SUV, and $200 for a pickup truck, and to pay installation fees.
A change of oil every time the seasons change can extend a car's life by thousands of miles, especially with an older engine. Feeling ambitious? You can DIY an oil change with little more than a mallet, some rags, a wrench set, safety glasses, and oil, according to the Family Handyman blog, while a professional job will cost from $25 to $50.
Winter bleeds transmission fluid, and transmission repairs are among the costliest to make. A full 90 percent of transmission failures can be traced to fluid neglect, so check levels -- remember transmission fluid is red -- with a clean dipstick, like with oil. If it's at the low measurement line, keep in mind it probably needs only a half-liter.
One of the first things to do when the weather breaks is make sure brake fluid is up to the appropriate levels. If the car has a clear reservoir, just look; if the reservoir is metal, remove the cover for a quick peek to see it's at least half full. If the fluid is not clear and translucent, it may need a flush and change, costing $100 to $118 at a shop (or up to $150 at a dealer). Keep in mind that that low brake fluid could be a sign that new brakes are needed. The private DMV.org site has replacement instructions.
One element rarely overused in the winter is the air conditioner. That doesn't mean its power and function hasn't diminished, though. Check to make sure tepid air isn't just dribbling out. If the AC is weak, it could mean a loose drive belt, a clogged condenser, or perhaps even a leak -- but might be as simple as a lack of refrigerant. Blown AC can be a major, costly repair. But if it's worth the price, do it before the summer swelter arrives. And while you’re checking the AC, note whether it’s emitting any funky odors. Often they are easily remedied.
Summer is coming, and hot weather with insufficient engine coolant equals expensive breakdowns. Look to see if coolant reaches the "full" line. If not, refill with a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and regular water (but know what you're adding: some coolants come premixed). Never add coolant or even open the radiator cap on a hot engine.
Shocks and struts provide a smooth ride and a strong suspension. Identify them under the car and make sure neither is leaking oil or are dented or otherwise damaged. Give the car a few good bounces as suggested by MotorWeek, and make sure the shocks absorb evenly. The pros will charge around $500 to $600 for the front; if you're considering a DIY replacement, be extra careful with struts, which contain a coiled spring loaded with tremendous pressure.