A Young Driver’s Guide to Car Maintenance

Cars break down. It’s a simple fact of ownership, and even the most reputable vehicle will eventually develop a few hiccups. However experiencing a breakdown while you’re en route to a new semester of lectures at uni, or worse, halfway through a first date with your crush is a situation no one wants to live through.

Most car problems can be taken care of with regular servicing, but there are a few ways that you can contribute to the upkeep of your ride that will keep it running longer and potentially save you a lot of money in repairs (not to mention potential embarrassment).

When to service your car

Does a car service cost precious dollarydoos that you’d much rather spend on Splendour tickets? Definitely. But will it spare you the experience of breaking down in the truck lane during peak hour traffic on the way to your 8am Media and Ethics lecture?* You bet it will.

The truth is, we use our cars more often than we realise. Whether you undertake lengthy drives on a daily basis or only utilise your automobile for a cheeky Maccas run, your car use builds up month on month.

In fact data released by Real Car Insurance has revealed that their average Australian customer plans to drive over 10,500 km per year. That’s more distance than driving a return trip from Brisbane to Perth via Sydney, Melbourne, and Adelaide. That’s a lot of mileage, what’s important is making sure you’re aware of how much you’ve done.

Most mechanics advise that you service your car once every 6 months, or 10,000km, whichever comes first.

After all, the last thing you want while you’re on your way to work or a big uni exam is to be stuck on the side of the road thanks to a problem that may have been avoided with proper ongoing maintenance.

What you can do to help

Even with regular checkups, 6 months is enough time for minor issues to become major problems if left unattended to. Think about it this way, if you left an animal bite unattended without applying medicine the wound can become infected. The same goes for your car.

A few good habits to get into include:

  • Checking your oil, antifreeze, coolant, and power steering fluid levels. If your car does not have immediately obvious and accessible levels, finding (or Googling for) your car’s owner’s manual should help clear up the location and procedure.
  • Checking your battery and spark plugs. Both testing a battery and testing spark plugs are extremely simple (though they sound daunting); do it every couple of months to reduce your chance of unexpected stalling on the road.
  • Give your car a thorough once-over for any obvious external or internal issues. This includes checking your wipers are functioning fine, your lights are full and unfogged, the horn is working correctly, the brakes are fine, and that the body or glass isn’t damaged.

Warning signs to look out for

As part of your check ups, you should keep an eye out for telltale signs of imminent failure.

Your dashboard warning lights should never be seen as an ignorable caution, or something that you can handle later. If they come on, take action as quickly as possible to rectify it. If your car model has confusingly labelled lights, or you can’t figure out what the warning is for, then it’s time to whip out the owner’s manual again and check the dashboard section.

The same applies for any obvious signs of mechanical problems, such as smoke from under the bonnet. In some conditions in cold weather, you might experience a bit of rising steam, but if it continues (or it’s not partially frozen outside) you should immediately check your radiator before permanent damage is caused to your car.

Working with your mechanic

Being able to communicate well with your mechanic means that you may be able to avoid any long, drawn-out interactions that might cost you extra money in servicing or consultations. The chief areas of concern are:

  • Clearly articulating what problems your car is experiencing. While it’s fine to give your opinion on what it might be, leave diagnosis to the experts unless you’re absolutely certain.
  • Give your mechanic the circumstances in which you experience the problem (to prevent them from checking it under conditions that might not actually trigger the issue at hand).
  • Communicate as clearly as possible the specifics of the problem. Physically point it out, or ask them to come with you to test drive the car if it’s a recurring issue that pops up from time to time. This potentially allows you to stop any miscommunications on what the issue is.
  • Ask for a quote before they begin work on your car, especially if you’re not sure how much it will cost to repair.
  • It’s important you explain to your mechanic how timely the repairs are needed based on your requirements for transport. However, be prepared to have a backup if the repairs aren’t completed within your desired timeframe.

While car maintenance may feel intimidating, with practice and time you will become more confident in how you look after your car. Which means you can spend more time being where you need to be and not sitting on the side of the road.

*Yes, this happened to me. Multiple times. It is a terrible experience and I wish it on no one.

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