Be Skeptical of Those Web Automotive Hints

The usual web hosts are fond of posting “10 best hints for” whatever, including some with automotive topics. They have their limitations though. Recently Yahoo posted one that had some good advice (and some bad) regarding how to waste money on your car. Here are the money wasters (condensed) with my responses, including some advice of my own.

1. “3,000 mile oil changes.” Your oil change interval mostly depends on you driving conditions. To maintain your warranty, you should follow the manufacturer’s recommendations. 5,000 or 6,000 miles is usually fine, but for most of us the most severe stress your oil has to face is cold starts, where the oil that drained away when it was hot is asked to reach the wear points while it’s thickened by cooling. Also, if you take short infrequent trips, the condensation that forms as the engine cools never evaporates, promoting sludge formation. If you only drive six miles to work, leave your car all day, and then drive home, you may want to change oil more frequently.

2. “Using premium fuel in a car that doesn’t need it.” There is only one case where switching to premium fuel will boost performance, and that’s if your car’s manufacturer recommends it and you haven’t been using it. Putting premium gas in a car designed for regular is like giving a couch potato a sports drink. It won’t hurt, but it won’t turn him into Gary Payton, either. But an engine that is designed for premium will adjust spark timing and fuel mixture to make up for low-quality gas if it detects incipient knock (potentially damaging preignition), and that reduces performance and increases fuel consumption, perhaps negating the price advantage of regular gas. You can’t tell if low-grade gas is hurting performance or mileage by feel. Only instrumented testing can do that, and who has the equipment or time to do that?

3. “Negecting filter changes.” Investigate a K&N air filter. It reduces intake restriction and can improve both performance and fuel mileage. (Most performance enhancements are really efficiency enhancements, so they help both.)

4. “Letting your brake pads wear out.” Most modern cars will not let brake wear sneak up on you. All cars have wear indicators built into the brake pads that squeal like banshees when they reach replacement thickness. Some even have a dashboard readout – when it lights up you have about 700 miles before your pads are gone.

5. “Aftermarket mileage boosters.” I hope there are few reading this who need this advice. With manufacturers scrambling to compete for the best MPG numbers to post in their ads, the old Urban Legends about the oil companies suppressing the “100 mpg carburetor” are BS (Nobody uses carburetors now anyway.) so it was never more true that if it sounds to good to be true, chances are it is.

6. Engine and transmission tune-ups.”  “Tune ups” used to mean adjusting your ignition spark and dwell. All that’s done electronically now. Ditto transmission adjustments. You still need regular maintenance of filters and fluids.

7. “Frequent coolant replacement.” You still need to keep your eye on your coolant level. (see No 6.) Leaks do sometimes occur.

8. “Ignoring a ‘Check Engine’ light.” Yes, pay attention to your ‘check engine’ light, but don’t panic when it comes on. Check to see if your gas cap is on tight enough. It could be as simple as that.

9. “Putting high-performance tires on a family car.” Tire selection is a balancing act. There can be huge differences in the wet weather performance (an important safety issue) of tires but there’s not necessarily a linear relationship between price and performance. Read Consumer Reports’ tire test results and avoid tires that perform poorly in wet traction. And if you have a car that came with performance rubber, for pity’s sake don’t replace them with “rim protectors” (Cheap “brand x” tires that are no good for anything but keeping your wheels from being damaged by potholes). That’s like putting ketchup on filet mignon. Go to The Tire and look up your car. It will tell you what tires your car came with, and you can use their menus to select by price, wet traction, responsiveness, ride, or whatever.

10. “Use your smart phone GPS instead of getting a factory-installed navigation system.” BAD ADVICE! You don’t want to be seen playing with your smart phone while driving. The cops will cite you! Get a portable nav system that mounts on the windshield. You can move them from one car to another, and based on a recent experience, they are WAY more user friendly than some factory-installed systems.

Remember, the internet is a great resource, but there’s no one fact-checking it. Use it wisely, and if there’s something you want to know, get multiple opinions. If it’s car stuff, ask me, of course!


About carmacarcounselor

I'm one of those people that friends call "that car guy," except I've made it into a profession. Since 1988 when a friend found my help in choosing, finding, and negotiating for a new car was worth a fee, I've helped countless people, listening to their car questions and challenges, and helping with their car purchases, insulating them from the adversarial process that is the new car retail model today. Their word of mouth is my only publicity. My newsletter CARMA won the description "The clear crystal ring of truth" from award-winning automotive journalist Denise McCluggage. Now I'm going global!
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