This is default featured slide 1 title
This is default featured slide 2 title
This is default featured slide 3 title
This is default featured slide 4 title
This is default featured slide 5 title
 

Category Archives: Automotive

Does My Car Need Synthetic Oil?

If your car’s owner’s manual says it does, you do.

For many consumers, whether to spend extra money for synthetic oil for an oil change is a difficult question to answer.

Manufacturers of synthetic oil promise more miles and better performance when compared with conventional motor oil, but it comes at a higher cost — sometimes twice as much per oil change. Is it worth the extra money?

Typically, high-performance vehicles will be more likely to require synthetic oil, as will vehicles that have a turbocharged or supercharged engine. However, if your vehicle does not require synthetic oil, the choice is trickier – and there is no clear answer.

Synthetic oil generally resists breaking down for longer than conventional motor oil (typically 7,500 miles to 10,000 miles, sometimes up to 15,000 miles, as opposed to 3,000 miles to 7,500 miles for conventional oil). That makes the extra cost a wash, if you have half the number of oil changes, but each one costs you twice as much. Other touted benefits include cleaner engines, better flow in cold temperatures, better protection when it’s hot outside and better performance with turbocharged engines.

There are also synthetic blends. As the name implies, these are blends of synthetic and conventional oils. They straddle a middle ground — they cost more than conventional oils but less than full synthetics, and are said to last longer than conventional oils but not quite as long as synthetics — but again, that’s a hard number to pin down since manufacturers are vague with their claims. An independent testing lab we spoke with said that synthetics often didn’t perform much better than conventional oils do.

Still, older engines may benefit from synthetics because it is less likely to form sludge.

If your car doesn’t require synthetic oil you should perform a cost/benefit analysis, but that can be difficult to do due to vague claims made by manufacturers. There may be no reason to spend more on synthetic oil, except for peace of mind.

What Do You Need to Know About Oil Changes

Oil-change intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that a Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W-20 synthetic oil, for instance. Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-and-go driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

How do I know when it’s time for an oil change?
Time and mileage intervals vary by vehicle manufacturer and whether an engine requires synthetic oil (which is meant to last longer). Use the guidelines in your owner’s manual, including whether most of your driving qualifies as happening in “severe” conditions, such as frequent short trips and stop-and-go driving. Under those conditions, you should change the oil more frequently.

How often should I replace my oil?
You should change the oil at least as often as is recommended by the vehicle manufacturer (the information is in your owner’s manual). These days, that’s every 7,500 to 10,000 miles on many vehicles. Many mechanics recommend doing it more often, such as every 5,000 to 6,000 miles or every six months, whichever comes first. If you do mainly short trips and/or stop-and-go driving, you should change the oil more often. How about every 3,000 miles? Though that’s overkill, it can’t hurt, and it might extend the life of your engine.

Why do I need to change my oil?
Oil is the lifeblood of an engine; it lubricates and cleans moving parts and performs a vital cooling function as it circulates. Over time and repeated exposure to cold starts, short trips and engine heat, oil gets dirty, becomes thicker and loses its ability to prevent sludge and deposits from forming. Mechanics often say that changing the oil is the best preventive medicine for extending engine life.

How much should I pay?
The cost of repairs can depend on where you are as much as it does on what you need fixed. To get an estimate for your repair, go to our estimator, plug in your car’s year, make and model information, add your ZIP code, and choose the repair you need. We’ll give you a range for what your repairs should cost in your area.

Why Are My Brakes Squealing?

If you’re lucky, the squealing (or squeaking) noise that your brakes make when you first drive your car in the morning, particularly after rain or snow, is just surface rust being scraped off the rotors by the pads the first few times you apply the brake pedal, or the result of moisture and dirt that collects on the rotors, including from condensation caused by high humidity. If it goes away after a few brake applications, no worries.

If the noise persists most times or every time you apply the brakes or stays on continuously while you’re driving, the cause is more serious — and the fix will be more expensive.

A continuous high-pitched squeal while you’re driving is usually the sound of a built-in wear indicator telling you that it’s time for new pads. As the pads wear down and get thinner, a small metal tab contacts the rotor like a needle on a vinyl record to warn you it’s time for new pads. (Some wear indicators may work differently and engage only when you apply the brakes.)

Other squeals and squeaks will require a brake inspection to diagnose, and may require cleaning, lubrication or adjustment, and possibly new parts. Most brake noise is caused by worn or loose parts.

For example, an unevenly worn rotor (often referred to as “warped”) won’t let the brake pads press flat against the rotor when you apply the brakes, and that can create vibrations that generate noise. Likewise, an unevenly worn pad won’t press tightly against the rotor and may chirp. Another possibility is that the pads are loosely mounted, or the shims that hold them in place have corroded or become loose.

And then there are the pads themselves. Some mechanics warn that bargain-bin pads are more likely to be noisier than higher-quality, more-expensive pads. In addition, loose or sticking calipers can contribute noise.

Because there are several possibilities, and because brakes are a crucial safety feature, it is best to have a pro diagnose noise.

A grinding sound usually means that the pads have worn away, and now the backing plates on which they were mounted are being squeezed against the rotor. This metal-to-metal contact means that you will need to replace the rotor as well — and that you probably ignored some earlier warning signs of brake wear.

Oil Life Monitoring Systems

Until recently, the question of when to change your oil was usually answered by your local garage, which had a vested interest in servicing your car every 3,000 miles. Your alternative was to crack the owner’s manual to see whether your driving habits fell into the “severe” or “normal” category. And then you’d let the listed interval be your frequency guide.

But increasingly, the change-interval question is being answered by a vehicle’s oil life monitoring system, which signals the driver through the instrument panel. This alert usually arrives anywhere between 5,000 and 8,000 miles.

So how does the system know when it’s time for a change? Electronic sensors throughout the drivetrain send information about engine revolutions, temperature and driving time to the car’s computer. The data is run through a mathematical algorithm that predicts when the oil will begin to degrade. The light comes on well in advance, giving the owner time to get the car serviced.

Oil life monitoring systems have been around for several decades. They were introduced in General Motors vehicles in the late 1980s and have been phased in slowly, said Matt Snider, project engineer in GM’s Fuels and Lubricants Group. “We are very confident in the accuracy of the system,” he said. The average recommendation from the system for GM vehicles is 8,500 miles, Snider said. He said that the longest oil change interval he was personally aware of was 17,000 miles in a colleague’s car. For 2010 vehicles, 14 of 35 manufacturers use oil life monitoring systems.

Real-World Evidence
The oil life monitoring system in a 2007 Honda Fit Sport owned by an Edmunds.com editor signaled for an oil change at 5,500 miles, due to a lot of around-town driving. Later, under highway conditions, the system (which Honda calls a “maintenance minder”) came on at 7,600 miles. Clearly, the system had detected different driving conditions and adjusted accordingly.

When we had the oil changed, we captured a sample and sent it to Blackstone Laboratories. Showing the conservative nature of the oil life sensors, the analysis showed the oil had at least 2,000 miles of life left in it.

A long-term 2008 Pontiac G8 GT driven by Edmunds went 13,000 miles before the monitoring system indicated the need for an oil change. We also sent a sample of that oil to a lab for analysis. The result: The oil could actually have safely delivered at least another 2,000 miles of service. “With an oil life system, we can use the software to tailor an oil drain interval to the behavior of a certain customer,” Snider said.

Freed From the Schedules
Perhaps the best thing about oil life monitoring systems is that they free car owners from the confusing exercise of slotting themselves in the normal or severe driving schedules listed in the owner’s manual. Severe conditions are described differently by various carmakers, but some “severe” conditions that they frequently cite are driving in stop-and-go traffic, towing, excessive idling and driving in the mountains.

In many cases, quick-oil-change outlets and dealerships’ service departments encourage frequent oil changes by claiming that every driver falls in the severe category. This begs the question: Why have a normal category at all? Oil life monitoring systems put an end to the debate by reacting to how you actually drive.

Using an Oil Life Monitoring System
If your car has an oil life monitoring system, read your owner’s manual to get a feel for how it’s going to communicate with you. In general, the systems are designed to be easily understood and used. Some systems will display the percentage of oil life left so you can schedule a service visit. The systems factor in plenty of extra time for the driver who procrastinates. For additional motivation, however, some systems will display a negative number to show just how overdue the oil change is.

When a technician changes the oil, he resets the monitoring system. Do-it-yourselfers can easily do the reset, too, just by using a series of commands found in the owner’s manual.

How To Fix Your Car’s Oxygen Sensor

If your car’s “Check Engine” light is glaring at you, it’s probably because the oxygen sensor is malfunctioning. That’s right, the oxygen sensor. It’s a little device that’s a mystery for most drivers but its misbehavior is the problem that most commonly triggers a Check Engine light, according to CarMD.com, which sells an automotive diagnostic tool and provides repair information. The oxygen sensor unseats the formerly most common Check Engine light culprit: a loose gas cap. There are fewer reports of that problem because savvy motorists have learned to fix it themselves and consumers now buy new cars with capless gas tanks.

But don’t despair. Replacing your car oxygen sensor will keep you from wasting money by burning extra gas, and the repair isn’t horribly expensive. We know this firsthand. We had to replace the O2 sensor on our 1996 Lexus ES 300, the subject of our Debt-Free Car project, and it wasn’t as much of a hassle or expense as we had feared.

After the dreaded Check Engine light appeared in our Lexus, we plugged the CarMD device into the car’s computer to read the error code. In our case, the code was P0135, which meant that the oxygen sensor in “bank 1” was malfunctioning. It was surprising to learn that something was wrong with the car, since it still seemed to be running fine.

Even though a car seems to be behaving normally, a faulty oxygen sensor will cause the engine to start “gulping down gas,” says Kristin Brocoff, director of corporate communications for CarMD.com. She says this problem can cause up to a 40 percent reduction in fuel economy. Sure enough, when we checked our fuel record for the driving we did while the Check Engine light was on, our mpg had taken a hit.

The oxygen sensor, developed in the early 1980s, is an essential part of the car’s emissions control system, says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the American Automobile Association (AAA). The sensor is about the size and shape of a spark plug and protrudes into the car engine’s exhaust stream. It determines if there is a lot or a little oxygen in the exhaust, so the engine can make adjustments to the amount of fuel being used in the engine to run at maximum efficiency.

Oxygen sensors in older cars fail for a variety of reasons, according to Bosch, a leading manufacturer of auto components. In some cases, sensors are fouled by gasoline additives or oil from worn engines. Newer oxygen sensors can last 100,000 miles if conditions are right, but often problems occur sooner.

After we plugged CarMD’s diagnostic device into the Lexus’ onboard computer port, we connected it to our desktop computer. It accessed a database of information about this engine code and how to have it repaired. Among other things, the report included an average estimate just to buy a new oxygen sensor: $168.82.

At the first sight of a Check Engine light, most owners of new cars that are still under the factory warranty would simply make a beeline for the dealership’s service bay. But car owners on a budget might want to go the do-it-yourself diagnosis route to save money. By using the CarMD device, or any engine code reader, drivers can learn what the problem is, and the skill level required to fix it, before attempting the task.

Modern cars have two to four oxygen sensors, Nielsen says. A V6 engine, such as the one in our Lexus, has one sensor in each exhaust manifold and one after the catalytic converter. The sensors simply screw into place, but reaching them can be a problem for do-it-yourselfers. Additionally, since the exhaust subjects the sensor to extreme heat, it can “seize” (become frozen in place) and be tough to unscrew. A new sensor comes with anti-seize compound to apply to the threads, but the compound should never be put on the sensor itself.

Nielsen says that while a code reader might indicate that the problem is the car oxygen sensor, there are other problems that can trigger the identical code — a disconnected vacuum hose will do it, for example.

As a first step, a car owner can look under the hood to see if there are any wires or hoses disconnected, Nielsen says. In some cases, a wire leading to the oxygen sensor could be broken or burned out. If nothing obvious is visibly awry, it’s time to go to what Nielsen calls “a trusted mechanic.” Reputable garages use an expensive diagnostic machine called a scan tool — not to be confused with an inexpensive code reader — that can watch the operation of the engine in real time and see if the oxygen sensor is actually the problem.

“Most motorists would be well served to find a shop that they trust and take their car there for all oil changes and tire rotations,” Nielsen suggests. “Then, when they have a problem with something like an oxygen sensor, they trust what the mechanic is saying rather than thinking that they’re trying to rip you off.”

In our case, we learned that the faulty O2 sensor was in the rear of the engine and difficult to reach, so the fix seemed above our skill level. Instead, we took the Lexus to Overseas Garage, in Long Beach, California. There, the mechanic told us that the new sensor would cost $117, plus $144 in labor for a total of $261. This was close to the $246 average cost cited by CarMD’s Brocoff.

While many people opt to simply ignore “Check Engine” lights, Brocoff says this can cause bigger, more costly problems later. “So the problem you could have fixed for a few hundred dollars turns into a repair of the catalytic converter, which would be over a thousand.”

Driving back from the garage, it was a relief not to stare at the glowing check engine light. This made us realize that fixing such a problem provides another benefit: peace of mind.

Top Five Ways to Make Your Car Run Forever

1. Follow Your Vehicle’s Service Schedule: This may seem like a no-brainer, but there are still too many car owners out there who pay little or no attention to the vehicle maintenance schedule as laid out in the owner’s manual. “I follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule, not the dealer’s,” says Gordon. “They built the car, so they ought to know what’s best for the car.” Not following the maintenance schedule is particularly inexcusable in late-model cars that have oil life monitoring systems that automatically determine the best time for an oil change. Between the service indicator lights located in the gauge cluster of many new cars and the lengthy intervals between required service (up to 20,000 miles in some models), there’s no reason for skimping on proper maintenance.

2. Check Fluids and Tire Pressure Regularly: Here’s a task that takes about 10 minutes. With a rag in hand and the engine cool, open the hood and pull out the oil dipstick. Wipe it clean, reinsert it and pull it out again for a quick check of your oil — the most important engine fluid. Check the radiator overflow reservoir level and the brake cylinder reservoir. Check the power steering fluid level and, while you’re at it, check the hoses and belts for any signs of wear or imminent failure. Give the air cleaner a look, too. Start the car and after it warms up, check the transmission fluid level. Finally, with the tires cool, use a pressure gauge to make sure each tire has the proper psi, as described in the owner’s manual or in the driver’s side door jamb. Ideally you should do these checks once a week, but in the real world, once a month would be acceptable — except for tire pressure, which really should be checked at least every other week.

3. Go Easy During Start-up: You might have heard this from someone who fires up his car and immediately floors it: “It helps warm it up.” Wrong. A cold engine — meaning one that’s been sitting for more than five hours — will have little or no oil left on the moving parts. It’s all seeped down into the oil pan. It only takes a few seconds after start-up for the oil pump to adequately lubricate an engine. During those few seconds, you should keep engine rpm down to a minimum. Give the engine at least 30 seconds before popping it in gear and driving off. Give it a little more time if it has sat for more than 24 hours.

4. Listen for Odd Noises: Turn off the radio once in a while and listen for any odd noises, both at idle and when under way. Here are a few examples: A clicking noise when you are driving could be a nail stuck in a tire. If it is time for new brakes, you might hear the loud squealing sound of the brake wear indicators. These go off when the car is driving and the brake pedal is not depressed. Similarly, if you hear a scraping or grinding noise while applying the brakes, it could mean that the brake pads are so low that metal to metal contact is already happening. If you cannot pinpoint the source of the noise, take the car to your mechanic to get a more informed opinion.

5. Drive Calmly: Take it easy on the car when you drive it. “Go easy on the brakes and don’t drive it too hard,” says Gordon. The occasional full-throttle acceleration or panic stop isn’t going to hurt anything, but a constant Ricky Roadracer attitude will reduce your car’s road time and add to its downtime.

The same easy-does-it attitude applies to shifting gears, too. Make sure the car is completely stopped before shifting into reverse, and be sure you’re stopped before going back to a forward gear. That will avoid stress on the transmission components. If you need more incentive for calm driving, how about money in your pocket? Edmunds editors tested the tips and found that having a calm driving style improved fuel economy by about 35 percent.

Is Cheap Gas Bad for Your Car?

Gasoline is expensive and you’re looking for every way possible to save money at the pump. You already shy away from premium fuel, knowing that your car doesn’t require it. You’d like to save a few pennies per gallon more by going to an off-brand gas station. But you can’t get rid of the nagging fear: Is the cheap gas going to damage your car’s engine?

Edmunds.com put this question to experts in several fields, including an automotive engineer at a major carmaker, gasoline manufacturers and two engineers with the American Automobile Association (AAA). It boils down to this: You can stop worrying about cheap gas. You’re unlikely to hurt your car by using it.

Because of the advances in engine technology, a car’s onboard computer is able to adjust for the inevitable variations in fuel, so most drivers won’t notice a drop off in performance between different brands of fuel, from the most additive-rich gas sold by the major brands to the bare-bones stuff at your corner quickie mart.

Still, spending a few extra pennies per gallon might provide peace of mind to someone who just purchased a new car and wants to keep it as long as possible. People with older cars might not be as concerned about their engine’s longevity. They can buy the less expensive gas and still be OK.

Steve Mazor, chief automotive engineer with the Automobile Club of Southern California, summed it up this way: “Buy the cheapest gas that is closest to you.”

Recipes for Performance — at a Price
But this doesn’t mean that all gas is the same, even though it starts out that way. The fuel from different filling stations comes from a common source: the “base gas” from a refinery. Workers there mix additives mandated by the Environmental Protection Agency into the base gas in order to clean a car’s engine and reduce emissions. Then, the different gas companies — both off-brand and major brands — put their own additive packages in the gas to further boost both cleaning and performance.

A key difference is that the major brands put more additives in their gas and claim to have some secret ingredients. This extra shot of additives provides an additional level of cleaning and protection for your engine.

But is this extra helping of additives, which jacks up the price, really necessary? And, if you don’t use more expensive, extra-additive gas, how soon will your engine’s performance suffer?

“It’s not like any of the fuels are totally junk,” says John Nielsen, director of engineering and repair for the AAA. “If you buy gas from Bob’s Bargain Basement gas station because that’s all that’s available, it won’t hurt your car,” he says.

The real difference is the amount of additives that are in the gas, Nielsen says. More additives essentially afford more protection — but they also cost more.

Some automakers and oil companies believe that the amount of government-required additives isn’t enough to protect engines. They have created a Top Tier gasoline designation. It means that those gasoline brands sell fuels that provide more and better additives.

Nielsen recommends that drivers look in their car’s owner’s manual to see what the carmaker recommends and, when possible, follow that guideline. People who are still concerned about gasoline quality can ask a specific oil company if it has performed independent testing to substantiate its claims.

Selling the Secret Sauce in Gasoline
The major oil companies spend millions of dollars convincing buyers that their gas is superior by creating ads that feature smiling cartoon cars, lab-coated nerds and sooty engine valves. Buy Shell’s nitrogen-enriched gas, for instance, and you won’t get a buildup of “gunk” in your engine, company advertising promises.

Is all this just a marketing gimmick?

“I am a Ph.D. chemist, a nerdy guy who wears a white coat,” says Jim Macias, Shell Oil Company’s fuels marketing manager. “We really believe there are differences in fuels. We can see it, feel it and measure it.”

Macias says the gunk caused by fuels with insufficient additives can foul fuel injectors and even trigger “Check Engine” lights in as few as 10,000 miles.

But not everyone is keen to talk about gasoline quality and whether additives really make the difference.

Edmunds sought comment from one well-known seller of low-price gas: Arco. Arco also often finds itself targeted as being a lower-quality product. BP, Arco’s parent company, did not respond to Edmunds’ interview request.

The American Petroleum Institute provided background comments about fuel additives and promised to provide an expert for an interview. The API spokesman never called back.

Finally, Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio, an independent, nonprofit testing facility, also declined to comment on the question of gasoline quality.

The Skeptics and Their Tests
The Auto Club’s Mazor was more forthcoming, and has some interesting results from a blind test he did on three samples of gasoline from both major and independent gas stations.

“We tested emissions, fuel economy and performance and we could not tell the difference,” he says.

Mazor believes that the driving public has outdated notions about gas. Twenty years ago, onlypremium fuel had detergents in it. Back then, it was beneficial to occasionally buy a tank of high-test gas to clean the engine. Then, he says, “regulations were very lax and there was little enforcement. But all that has changed.”

Likewise, Randy Stephens, chief engineer for Toyota’s Avalon, isn’t wholly convinced by the claims of engine protection afforded by higher-priced gas. He says fuel experts at his company study the effects of different brands of gas on the Toyota engines. Automotive engineers disassemble engines after 10,000 miles of running them on different brands of gas to see if there is a difference.

“Honestly, in the 10 years I’ve been in charge of Avalon, I’ve never seen one come back with any sort of deposit issue,” Stephens says.

How To Wash and Wax Your Car

It may seem counterintuitive, but frequently washing and waxing your vehicle is the best way to maintain its exterior paint finish for years to come, regardless of the constant wiping and rubbing it entails — but only as long as you’re using the right products in the correct order. All major brands of car washes, car waxes and related detailing products are specially formulated to work gently on the clear-coat paint finishes found on every car built since the mid-1990s. They’re ideal for removing dirt above and below the surface, eliminating swirls and other imperfections and leaving a high-gloss shine.

Such obsessive-compulsive labor need not be arduous, however. While there are multiple procedures involved in washing and waxing a car to perfection, it’s not necessary to do them all at once. Some steps should be taken weekly. Others can be employed every few months or annually. If you want to watch some pros using the techniques described in this story, check out the instructional videos from car-care product companies Meguiar’s and Mothers.

At all times, there are some simple car wash rules to keep in mind:

  • No matter which stage you’re at in the car wash and wax process, it’s always best to have the car parked in a cool, shady place.

If the water you’re using to wash the car is hard — meaning that it contains a lot of minerals — it will leave spots on the paint’s finish when it evaporates. That happens more quickly in hot sunlight. And although many modern, synthetic polymer-based car waxes are sun-friendly since they won’t dry too quickly and become difficult to remove, you’ll expend less effort if you use them on a cool surface. For best results, the car’s surface should be no more than warm to the touch.

  • Be sure to have a good stock of microfiber towels on hand for washing and drying the car, and for applying and removing car wax and related car-care products.

A microfiber towel is gentler to a car’s finish than a cotton towel or chamois, which could mar the finish, creating slight scratches or ruts that accumulate over time. Microfiber towels require special care, however. Wash them separately from all other laundry and especially not with linty cotton towels. Use hot water and don’t use fabric softener. Run them through at least one additional rinse cycle in the washing machine. Then dry them on a low-heat setting. Finally, stop using them on painted or glass surfaces when they begin to show their age by, for example, shedding lint. Instead, use them for polishing wheels and, later, for polishing stainless steel exhaust pipe tips.

  • Keep the car’s paint in showroom condition through a four-step process: washing, cleaning, polishing and waxing.

It’s important to use the correct products at the correct stages. This will prevent unnecessary damage to your car’s finish.

Washing
The most critical of the four steps is washing, which removes the loose contaminants that gradually accumulate on the surface of the finish, creating a gritty residue that could cause scratches in later steps if it’s not removed properly first. This requires a genuine car wash product (such as Meguiar’s Gold Class Car Wash, Mothers California Gold Carnauba Wash and Wax or Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Car Wash). These products are pH-balanced and formulated to loosen and lift surface contaminants without stripping away waxes.

You should avoid normal dish soap, laundry soap and household cleaners. They are designed to remove and dissolve grease and oil, and they will strip away the waxes and in some instances could damage the car’s finish.

Wash the car thoroughly, working from the top down and utilizing a lamb’s wool or microfiber washing mitt. Professional car detailers prefer these because the nap of the lamb’s wool or microfiber draws the dirt particles away from the paint. Re-dip the mitt in the bucket after each panel of the car is washed. That cleans the mitt and ensures that you’re again working with fresh suds.

For soft convertible tops, dip a soft bristle brush in the suds and work the dirt out of the grain using small, circular strokes. If the top is heavily soiled or stained, use a product designed for convertible tops, such as Meguiar’s Convertible Top Cleaner. These products are pH-balanced to safely lift dirt from cloth and vinyl tops without damaging the stitching.

Dry the car thoroughly with a soft, absorbent waffle-weave microfiber drying towel. Do not store the top in the down position if it is still wet, says the Haartz Corporation, a leading manufacturer of convertible tops. Make sure the top is completely dry before storing.

Experts recommend washing a car this way weekly.

For casual touch-ups between washes, you can use a spray-on product called a detailer (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Quik Detailer, Mothers California Gold Showtime Instant Detailer and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Spray Detailer). Detailer products slough off light surface dirt, but don’t offer any protection.

Cleaning the Gunk
Next, inspect the paint, searching for above-the-surface bonded contaminants such as a thin film of tree sap, bird droppings or pollen and below-the-surface defects such as swirls, oxidation caused by the sun’s ultraviolet radiation or etching from acid rain.

Lightly sweep your flat hand along the paint. If it does not feel as smooth as glass, you have above-the-surface contaminants. A clay bar designed for car care (such as the one included in Meguiar’s Smooth Surface Clay Kit or in Mothers California Gold Clay Bar Kit) is mildly abrasive to shear off and remove these contaminants. It should be the first product you use to try to remove them. Rub it over the affected area, kneading and turning it to expose a clean area when necessary.

For below-the-surface defects, you can use a cleaner with mild abrasives (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Compound or Mothers California Gold Pure Polish). Use a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad to apply it, using small circular, overlapping strokes. Never use hard pressure.

Cleaning a section of the vehicle at a time, remove the cleaner with a microfiber towel that you’ve folded into fourths. Use one side to break up and wipe away the hazy product, then flip the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue. Your paint should now feel smooth and should be free of swirls and defects.

If upon the initial inspection you do not find any defects — either above or below the surface — you can skip the cleaning step altogether and go straight to polishing and waxing. However, experts say that use of a clay bar probably will be necessary every six months.

Polishing
Polishes and glazes add luster but do not protect the finish, so using them is entirely optional, especially since clear-coat finishes are highly resistant to oxidation. Even years-old cars generally retain their shine today.

Nevertheless, products such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Polish and Mothers California Gold Micro-Polishing Glaze can restore the natural oils your paint once had, making the car’s surface more reflective and shiny. Using a polish or glaze once a year may be helpful. Although light-colored paints such as white, silver and tan may not display much change, darker colors such as black, burgundy and navy blue will reflect light like a mirror after proper polishing.

As you did during the cleaning process, apply the polish or glaze by hand, using small circular, overlapping strokes with a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad on one section of the car at a time, removing the polish with a microfiber towel after the product becomes hazy. Don’t allow the polish to dry completely. Trying to remove dry polish will almost certainly result in scratches to the finish.

Waxing
For protection, you need to apply a car wax, and experts recommend that this be done at least every three months. However, there are varieties of wax that can be used much more frequently. If you’re really obsessive, some can be used as often as every few days.

The newest synthetic polymer-based waxes (such as Meguiar’s Ultimate Wax, Mothers California Gold Synthetic Wax and Turtle Wax ICE Premium Care Liquid Wax) generally provide longer-lasting protection and are easier to use in the sun than older-style carnauba-based waxes (such as Meguiar’s Gold Class Carnauba Plus Wax and Mothers California Gold Pure Brazilian Carnauba Wax).

Normally, the newer liquid or paste waxes provide the longest-lasting protection — usually three or four months if the car is kept in a garage and not exposed to a harsh environment.

When applying a liquid or paste wax, you’ll use the same technique: small, circular, overlapping strokes, using a microfiber-covered or foam applicator pad and working one section of the vehicle at a time. As in the other steps, remove the wax with a microfiber towel that you’ve folded into fourths, using one side to break the waxy surface, then flipping the towel over to a clean side to remove any additional residue.

Interior Motives – The Basics of Interior Detailing

In our last installment (It Takes More Than the Occasional Wash and Wax to Keep Your Car Looking its Best), we covered the basics on getting that showroom shine back to your vehicle’s finish. In our second of three installments, we’re going to take care of your vehicle’s living room — the interior.

If you’re like most of us with hectic schedules, we wash our cars periodically, but normally don’t have the time to vacuum the interior, let alone clean it. For most commuters and small families, the interior becomes the common dumping ground for all sorts of items, and a treasure-trove for junk collectors. So let’s grab that trusty vacuum and get to work.

As before, there are some simple rules to remember. First, always have the car parked in a cool, shady place when you’re cleaning the interior. Direct sunlight can bake cleaners into the upholstery, which will pull the natural oils out of leather.

Second, be sure to have a good stock of 100 percent cotton, terry cloth towels on hand for applying and removing detail products (the “nap” of terry cloth towels helps draw dirt and other contaminates away from the surface, thus minimizing the chance of grinding dirt back into the interior surfaces).

Third, you want to be sure to utilize the correct products at the correct stages to prevent unnecessary damage to your car’s interior. Trying to “protect” your leather seats with plastic polish will only lead to a big mess.

The first order of business is getting all of the crud out of the interior – loose gas-card receipts, gum wrappers, toys and the handful of parking tickets that have been hiding under the seat – anything that is too large to vacuum up or you want to save. Don a pair of rubber gloves if you need to and pull it all out. Of course, you’ll probably find at least $4.68 in loose change, along with the McDonald’s wrappers and ground-to-death French fries you intended to throw away three months ago.

With all of the large debris removed, take some time to evaluate the condition of your interior. Is it primarily dusty with a stain or two in the carpet, or are food stains, pet odors and ground-in dirt more prevalent? Assess the damage and let’s start cleaning.

Starting from the top down, attach the soft brush attachment to the vacuum and start with the dash, headliner, gauges and console. You want to use a gentle “stroking” motion with the brush. This will loosen most of the surface dirt, which is readily sucked up. If the headliner is heavily grubby, consult with a detailing professional. Most headliner adhesives do not react well to cleaners and the last thing you want is a droopy headliner. After vacuuming, wipe the dash, gauges and console with a damp terry cloth towel in a circular motion. This will help to remove any additional surface dirt prior to deep cleaning.

If you’re like most people on the go, the cupholders in your vehicle see more mileage than the tires…and they get just as dirty. Depending if your cupholders are swing-away or molded into the console, cleaning the holders can be a breeze or a pain. Either way, the process is still the same. Since most of us drink sodas while driving, cupholders tend to get covered with sticky soda goop. To cut through the cola sludge, mix a batch of Simple Green and water in a 1:4 ratio. Spray the cupholder and allow the mixture to soak in before wiping with a terry cloth towel. Depending on how gooey the holders are, you may have to give them another round of cleaning. Be sure to wipe the cupholder with a damp terry towel (water) and then dry.

Move on to the front seats, package tray and rear seats, using the same technique as before to take the bulk of the dust and dirt off the seating surfaces. To get in the nooks and crannies in and around the seats, console and transmission tunnel (you know, where those doughnut chunks tend to hide), attach the crevice tool (that long needle-nose looking thing) and have at it.

In most cases (that is, if you’re lucky), the floor mats have taken the brunt of the interior’s wear and tear from dirty shoes, spilled drinks and road grime. Vacuum the mats well with the carpet-comb attachment and remove them from the car. Shoe scuffs on the door panels are another area which is quickly remedied by our Simple Green mixture. Simply spray the product on the door panel and scrub with a soft scrub brush. Rinse with clean water when done.

Now let’s turn our attention to the swath of carpet. Using the carpet-comb tool, vacuum as much dirt and…well, other stuff, as you can, taking note of those tie-dyed areas of coffee, Coke and melted ice cream. If the stains on the carpet and floor mats are small, or the stains are light, a “spray, scrub and vacuum” product such as 3M Scotchgard Carpet Cleaner will more than likely do the trick. Follow the manufacturer’s directions for best results. If the area is large, or the stains are more obvious, it’s best to break out a professional carpet-cleaning machine.

Cleaning your carpet and floor mats with a machine is not rocket science. The machine “infuses” the carpet with the cleaning solution, breaking down the dirt particles and forcing them out of the carpet. At the same time, the machine vacuums the dirty water mixture out of the carpet, leaving it fresh and clean.

If you don’t own a carpet-cleaning machine (like a Bissell Little Green Machine), you can rent one at your local supermarket or rental agency. Since most machines infuse the carpet with cleaner and water, be sure to get a good quality cleaning solution. If in doubt, ask a sales associate for assistance.

Oils Well That Ends Well

Some of you may not know this, but oil is the lifeblood on which all internal combustion engines must operate. It’s more crucial than any other engine fluid, including gas and water, because it has the potential to cause the most damage in the shortest time if it’s quality or quantity is compromised. If you remember those Castrol GTX commercials from a few years back you already have a sense of what can happen when engine oil is neglected.

But enough horror stories. If you simply change your oil and filter every 3000 to 5000 miles (or every 3 months, whichever comes first) and check its level regularly, chances are you’ll never experience an oil-related problem. For drivers using synthetic oil, intervals as long as 5,000 miles or six months between changes are considered acceptable. Some service centers (usually the ones that will benefit economically) will tell you that extreme driving conditions like stop-and-go traffic or extremely cold weather require more frequent changes. The truth is that every three months or 3,000 miles is pretty extreme. If you aren’t driving in stop-and-go traffic, through minus 20-degree blizzards, or up mountain passes with a 5,000 pound trailer, you could probably go longer between changes and there’s certainly almost no condition that would warrant even more frequent changes.

O.K., so your oil has been in there for longer than 3,000 miles (maybe a lot longer…) and it’s time to do something about it. At this point you basically have two options. You can change it yourself or you can go somewhere to have it changed for you. Which option is better? You may not like this but the correct answer is “That depends.”

If your vehicle is an older or vintage model that is easy to work on and if you live in a small town or rural community, changing your own oil is a viable option. It will cost you less than if you paid someone to do it (around ten dollars) and if you have a decent set of tools and/or access to a vehicle lift, the whole process shouldn’t take more than 15 minutes. The concept of parking your vehicle in the driveway while oil runs out of it probably won’t offend your neighbors or landlord, either. Of course, just living out in the middle of West Texas doesn’t excuse you from properly disposing of the oil which, even in West Texas, means you can’t go dumping it into the ground. To find out about your local area recycling programs check the phone book or ask around at automotive service centers.

What about the car owner who lives in a downtown New York or Los Angeles apartment, drives a 1997 BMW 7-series, and has never seen the underside of an automobile (except during those rollover crashes on “Wildest Police Videos”)? Well, first of all, if you own a late-model Bimmer you should have all maintenance duties covered for four years or 50,000 miles as part of the purchase price. This type of extended service contract is standard on many new cars, which means all these owners have to do is bring the vehicle in for service as scheduled. Obviously you’ll want to confirm whether or not you have this type of agreement before running off to the nearest Jiffy Lube.

If you don’t have a service agreement that includes oil changes but still would rather leave the job to someone else, there are two service centers that specialize in keeping your oil squeaky-clean. Both Jiffy Lube (jiffylube.com) and Grease Monkey (greasemonkey.net) are national chains that not only change your oil and oil filter but also check and fill your other vital fluids, lubricate the chassis, perform an overall vehicle inspection, vacuum the interior, and even clean the windows. Grease Monkey does all this for $26.99 while Jiffy Lube charges $28.99. I don’t know about the rest of you, but not having to wash my own windows is almost worth 30 bucks by itself.

Since it would cost at least 8 to ten dollars for just the oil and filter, plus whatever it costs to top off the washer reservoir, brake fluid, power steering fluid…well, you get the picture. Remember that any automotive service center is capable of changing your oil, but you’ll be hard pressed to find one as cheap as either Jiffy Lube or Grease Monkey. And, since this type of work is all these companies do, they’ve pretty much got it down to a science and can usually perform the entire service in less than 20 minutes (Grease Monkey claims “All In About 10 Minutes.”)

So there you have it. Spend ten minutes and 30 dollars every three months or 3,000 miles, and the most vital of vital fluids, plus all the other ones too, is handled. Take it from someone who knows, it’s easier and cheaper than replacing a set of rings and bearings.