Your car definitely needs maintenance — but it doesn’t need as much of it as you’re being told it does.
I didn’t used to think about routine maintenance a whole lot. For most of my driving life, I drove older, second- to third-hand vehicles and did maintenance myself when I could. My rule of thumb involved changing the oil and oil filter every 5,000 miles, replacing the air filter as soon as I bought the car, replacing fluids, and bringing it into the shop when there was a strange sound or light.
I learned what a dying universal joint sounded like, what a bear head gaskets were to replace, and how many $100 to $500 problems would eventually kill a car’s value. It wasn’t until I began leasing vehicles that I learned about actual routine maintenance and how to ward off some of those costlier issues before they cropped up.
I currently lease a 2017 Subaru Forester and adhere to a fairly straightforward maintenance schedule. Subaru requires a check-in every six months or 6,000 miles. It’s supposed to be whichever comes first, but I work from home and really only use the vehicle for store runs and longer trips. My annual mileage allotment is 10,000 miles a year (which cuts the cost of both my monthly payment and car insurance premiums, but that’s another story), but I’ve only driven about 7,500 in my first 14 months of ownership.
While I think of that 6,000-mile checkup and oil change as generous — and my lease agreement and warranty offer some leeway on it — it turns out that such a stringent schedule may be unnecessary for the average driver. Though the folks at AAA advise following your vehicle’s factory-recommended maintenance schedule, they acknowledge that there’s wiggle room.
AAA notes that, for low-mileage drivers, most automakers recommend an oil change every 12 months (or basically half as many as my maintenance schedule recommends). Modern lubricants can extend the time between oil changes to up to 7,500 miles, while vehicles that use full synthetic motor oils may not need an oil change for 15,000 miles. Over the course of a two-year, 24,000-mile lease, that’s all of one oil change.
Consumer Reports puts that oil-change figure at 5,000 to 10,000 miles, but also recommends following the service indicator on newer dashboard displays for a better indication of when you need maintenance.
Also, as it turns out, you should just about never need to use nitrogen in your tires (at an extra $5 per tire) or flush your transmission fluid (most manufacturers now use 100,000-mile or “lifetime” fluid). Meanwhile, modern coolant and antifreeze is also meant to last for the life of the car and save you about $50 to $100 in changes, according to Consumer Reports.
Automotive pricing and analysis site Edmunds.com, meanwhile, points out something that becomes all too clear to most car owners after a visit or two: Dealership service departments and chain oil-change shops value their bottom line over the needs of your car. Considering the recommended mileage on most of the more modern vehicle maintenance guides listed in Edmunds’ database, may vehicle owners could get away with roughly half of the maintenance visits that chains like Jiffy Lube emphatically suggest (though don’t mandate anymore).
Insurance companies and even some dealerships suggest that you shouldn’t have to take a vehicle in for more than a routine oil change or tire rotation every 15,000 miles or so — though the items you’ll be taking them in for change with age. However, as J.D. Power points out, those who use their cars far more roughly under adverse conditions will have to give their vehicles a little more attention. That makes pre-paying for a dealership maintenance plan a dicey proposition.
While those up-front maintenance plans promise to lock in pricing over the life of the plan and are convenient for folks, they also don’t cover “wear-and-tear” items like brakes and wipers. Not only that, but Edmunds points out that they make a whole lot of money for dealerships by scheduling more service than is needed and charging more than the average cost of service.
So what should be a vehicle owner’s more realistic rule of thumb? Consult your maintenance manual, determine just how much you use your car, and follow the manual’s recommendations. Even if you lease a vehicle, the folks backing your lease just want to see that you’re following the manufacturer’s maintenance guidelines. In the meantime, you can check your tire pressure and tread, fluid levels, oil, timing and serpentine belts (40,000 to 60,000 miles), wipers, and air filters on your own without expending much energy doing so.
The good news about automobile maintenance is that improved technology has made it a whole lot less necessary than it once was. The bad news? Even if you’re doing much of it yourself, someone is always going to try to talk you into paying for more of it than you need.
Open the glove box, crack the owner’s manual to the maintenance section, and save yourself some money and aggravation.