Four simple tricks to save big money on your current car

From Eric Peters at Eric Peters Autos:

There’s not much we can do about the cost of buying a new car, but I can give you some advice that may help you reduce the cost of owning (and driving) it.

* Be wary of “service advisors”

Often, these are in fact salesmen (and women). That is, they earn a commission on the sale of whatever repair they get you to authorize. While it might be true that the repair urged on you by the service advisor is needed, it is also true he has a financial interest in selling you the service. This strikes me as sketchy. Like a doctor who “suggests” a pill or device (or even surgery) that will earn him a check if you buy in.

How to avoid getting ripped off for repairs your car may not have needed? Like a complete transmission rebuild – when the “problem” was merely that the thing was low a quart of fluid (or there was a loose wire somewhere)?

Get a second – and even a third – opinion from another shop. Especially if the suggested repair is a big ticket repair. Never accept at face value what you’re told by a service advisor unless you trust the guy completely.

And even then, caveat emptor.

* New cars don’t need much service at all

At least, not for a long time.

The ’70s are history – and so are seasonal ignition and fuel system adjustments. Spark plugs are good for 50,000-100,000 miles; the electronics are solid state. Fuel injection needs fresh fuel – and not much else. Even the clutch in a manual-transmission-equipped vehicle no longer needs regular adjusting because modern clutches are self-adjusting.

If you buy a new car today, you shouldn’t have to worry about more than occasional fluid/filter changes, tire rotations and basic brake work (i.e., replacing pads/shoes) for the first 50,000-75,000 miles. And – despite all the stuff that’s been added to new cars over the past 20 or 30 years – basic maintenance such as oil and filter changes, changing brake pads and tire rotations are still jobs you can do yourself and thereby, save money.

Your car’s owner’s manual will tell you exactly what regular service your vehicle needs – and when. Follow its recommendations and you – and your car – will be fine. (As well as covered by the vehicle’s warranty, in the event a problem occurs.) Don’t get tricked into premature maintenance that will do nothing for your car but which will deplete your wallet.

Example: A number of new cars only require an oil change when the car’s computer senses it’s time for an oil change. I’m not referring to the crude mileage-based “change oil” lights that cars used to have. Many new cars have a sophisticated sampling system that monitors the oil’s condition in real time, as you drive – and will only indicate the need to change the oil when it is necessary to change the oil. This can be 10,000 or even 15,000 miles or more – rather than the 3,000 or 6,000 miles that was common in the past. Given that good quality oil sells for $6 a quart these days – and synthetics for more than $10 a quart (and most cars take about 5 quarts, plus the filter) it pays to not change oil before you need to change the oil.

* Re-shoe your car with all-season/general purpose tires

Instead of the “sport” tires that are now very common as factory equipment on even bread-and-butter family sedans. Sport tires tend to wear faster (they rarely make it to 30,000 miles while a good-all season tire can and often will last 50,000 miles or even more).

It’s true they – the sport tires – offer better high-speed cornering grip, sharper steering response and so on. But be honest with yourself about the way you actually drive and ask yourself whether the theoretical increase in high-speed cornering capability is worth the everyday reality of more frequent tire replacement (and more expensive tires, as sport-compound tires tend to cost more than general/all-season tires).

You should also know that everything’s relative – meaning, that the typical all-season “generic” tire of today is superior to the run-of-the-mill tire of 20 or 30 years ago, in terms of such things as traction, ability to dissipate heat, and help your car stop as quickly as possible in an emergency.

Unless you do weekend track days, going from a sport to a standard/all-season tire is not going to degrade your car’s capability or safety in any meaningful way on the street, within the bounds of normal street-driving speeds.

But it could save you a great deal of money.

Keep your headlights clear

Most cars built within the past 10-15 years do not have glass headlights. Instead, they have plastic-covered headlight assemblies.

Unlike glass, the plastic yellows and becomes increasingly opaque over time as the surface layer of the plastic – exposed directly to UV light – degrades. If the headlights “yellow” too much, they not only look sad, they may cause your vehicle to fail state safety inspection. And replacing these headlamp assemblies can be very pricey.

To avoid this – both the hassle at state inspection time and the potential expense of having to buy a new headlamp assembly – use commonly available (and very inexpensive) cleaner wax to lightly polish the plastic once every year or so. The cleaner wax contains very mild abrasive compounds that will gently remove the yellowed material and maintain the as-new translucent appearance.

There are also complete kits that contain buffer/rubbing compound cleaner to deal with already yellowed headlight plastic. Neither ought to cost you more than $20 or so and some elbow grease – vs. $120 (or more) for a new headlight assembly.

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