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8 things to check on your car before your next road trip

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What you need to do before you pack up the car and head out on the road.

Everybody loves a road trip—that is, until an automotive gremlin intrudes to muck up the experience. But a little preparation can avert a costly, irritating, or possibly dangerous mishap. 

We'll assume you've maintained your vehicle according to the manufacturer's recommendations and that no dashboard warning lights are activated. During this inspection, you'll determine whether everything's in order since your car's last regular service.

1. Check the oil.

With the engine cold or nearly so, open the hood and find the oil dipstick. If you can't locate it, check the owner's manual. Pull out the dipstick, wipe it clean, reinsert it, then pull it out again and check the oil level. It should fall between two hash marks. Some newer vehicles don't have dipsticks. Instead, they show the oil level electronically on the instrument panel. In either case, add oil if necessary, using the grade and type (regular or synthetic) specified in the manual. If the engine needs more than a quart, have your mechanic determine why.

2. Check the coolant.

At the same time, with the engine cold, locate the radiator-overflow tank, remove the cap, and check the coolant level. If it's low, add the type specified in the owner's manual. If it's more than a half-quart low, see your mechanic.

3. Check the battery.

Modern cars typically have sealed batteries that can't be refilled. But if the battery's two terminals look like they've grown moss, gently scrub them using an old toothbrush and a mix of baking soda and water, taking care not to get any acidy crud on your hands or clothes. If the battery is more than 3 years old, it might be ready for replacement. The AAA Mobile Battery Service can test it and, if necessary, replace it at your home or workplace.

4. Check for leaks.

Examine the garage floor or driveway surface where you normally park your vehicle. Your car can contain nearly a dozen different fluids, and they should all be in the car, not on the ground. If you see more than a few drops of fluid, note the color and smell and consult your mechanic.

5. Check the windshield washers.

Locate the container of windshield-washer fluid and top it off with the type of fluid recommended in the owner's manual. Inspect the windshield wipers. If they're shredded or if they chatter when they're operating, replace them.

6. Check the lights.

Turn on the lights, then walk around the car to make sure they all work. Ask a helper to look at the brake lights as you depress the brake pedal.

7. Check the tires.

Now for the tires, which are critical for safety, handling, and fuel economy. Most tires have wear bars in the grooves between the treads. The tread should be higher than the wear bars; if the tread has worn down to the height of the bars, it's time for new tires. Also, examine the sidewalls for cracking and the outsides of the tire tread area for excessive wear—especially the front tires. Either condition indicates it's time for tire replacement and possibly an alignment. Drive to a gas station and fill the tires with a few more pounds of air pressure than is recommended in the owner's manual or on the doorsill placard. Later, when the tires are cold, check the pressures with a tire gauge and release air until they're at the proper pressure.

8. Check the spare tire.

Finally, if your car has a spare tire, be sure it's properly inflated and that you have a jack and a lug wrench. If the car has only an inflator kit, learn where it's located and how to use it. And make sure the kit's sealant canister hasn't passed its expiration date.

That's it—you're good to go. Happy road-trippin'! 

Peter Bohr helps you get the best value for your automotive dollar. Email or write to Drive Smart, Westways, PO Box 25222, Santa Ana, CA 92799-5222.

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