An ounce of prevention...
By Eric Peters'
for immediate release

Our cars are a lot like our bodies in that an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure. Here are a few easy-to-do routine checks (and things to be on the lookout for) that could save you some hassles -- as well as some money:

* Check you gauges -- Almost all cars today come equipped with water, volt and oil pressure gauges instead of the "idiot lights" most cars used to have. Gauges are better -- in theory -- because they provide more information than idiot lights, which only come on once it's too late (as when, for example, your car has already overheated vs. the gauge, which will tell you the car's starting to run hotter than normal). But you have to pay attention to the gauges for this "early warning" advantage to work. Otherwise, gauges are no better than idiot lights. In addition to scanning the gauges every few minutes as you drive, you should know what the "normal" reading is for each (see your owner's manual). This way, you'll be able to spot problems (such as low voltage, which could mean your alternator's going bad) as they develop -- and before you're stuck by the side of the road.

* Check your fluids -- If you can make a cup of coffee, you have the technical skills to pop the hood, find the dipsticks for the engine oil and transmission fluid (on cars with automatic transmissions), check the level -- and add engine oil/transmission fluid, if necessary. This small chore can pay very big dividends -- possibly even save you the cost of a new engine or transmission. All engines use some oil during the course of normal operation, so it's perfectly normal for an engine to be "down a quart" after as little as a few weeks of driving. (Some engines use more or less oil than others.) The problem is that most people don't check their oil at all, if ever -- and it might be six months or longer before the next scheduled oil change. During that time, it's possible for the engine to run several quarts low with no obvious signs of a problem that would alert the driver. And if the engine gets too low on oil, catastrophic failure can occur. Even if that doesn't happen, running an engine without enough oil decreases fuel economy and increases wear and tear. Automatic transmissions, meanwhile, depend on the hydraulic fluid that powers them for internal lubrication. Running an automatic transmission without adequate fluid can cause expensive damage. In both cases, an easy-to-do periodic check (once every two weeks or so) and a top-off (as necessary) can help you avoid hundreds, even thousands of dollars in repair costs -- for the price of a $2 or so quart of oil or transmission fluid and five minutes of your time.

* Check your tires -- The Ford Explorer/Firestone tire debacle of a couple years back should have been plenty of warning about the danger of driving around on under-inflated tires. But random checks and surveys (such as those done periodically by the American Automobile Association) continue to find that under-inflated tires are as commonplace as soccer ball stickers on minivans. This wastes fuel (as much as 10 percent or more) and can lead to catastrophic tire failure, especially if the vehicle with the under-inflated tires is driven at high speeds in hot weather. While catastrophic failures are relatively rare, driving around on under-inflated tires will increase your vehicle's stopping distance and negatively affect its handling -- especially in abrupt/emergency-type maneuvering. And of course, the tires will wear unevenly -- and wear out faster. Given the safety issues -- and the typical $100-plus per tire cost of a new shoe -- carving out a few minutes from your schedule for a tire pressure check ought not to be a major obstacle. Easy-to-use hand-held gauges can be bought at any auto parts store for about $10 or less -- and using one is as simple as buckling your seatbelt. Tire pressure should be checked every two weeks -- and any tire that's low filled up to the recommended inflation pressure (see your owner's manual or the paperwork that came with the tires for this info.) While you're doing this, also check for any signs of external damage, such as bulges, tears in the sidewall or nails in the tread. Any such abnormality is potentially dangerous; take the car in to a tire shop at the first opportunity -- and do not drive at high speeds for extended periods of time until you can.

* Check your checklist -- All new cars come with a checklist of recommended service intervals for various things, everything from routine oil changes to fairly major stuff like timing belt replacement. These checklists are not random suggestions -- and ignoring the factory recommended service intervals can have expensive repercussions. For example, cars equipped with anti-lock brakes have specific service requirements (such as regular flushes of the entire system) that should be done every "x" number of months or miles. Skip it, and while you might save a few bucks on the service, you could end up with a much larger bill down the road when something like the ABS pump fails because of old/contaminated brake fluid. Similarly, a car with an overhead cam engine and a timing belt can leave you stuck in a bad place, at just the wrong time, if you decide to ignore the manufacturer's recommended check/change-out interval for that critical part. Given the high cost of new cars, it's pennywise but pound-foolish to cheap out on routine service.