Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Is your car ready for a long trip?

Car check list before a long trip

A long trip is a serious exam for your car. Even a small problem such as a worn wiper, out-of-balance tire or improper alignment may turn your trip into a nightmare. Here, you can find simple tips on how to prepare your vehicle for a trip including illustrated checklist. However, this checklist does not include many other important items such as brakes and suspension components that may only be inspected by a mechanic in a garage. Book an appointment with your dealer or a mechanic well before your trip. Ask for one of those maintenance packages with an oil change, tire rotation and mechanical inspection. Don't leave it for a last moment, do it few days before your trip.

• Under the hood 
• Engine oil 
• Transmission fluid 
• Engine coolant 
• Battery 
• Other items 
• Tires
• Steering and suspension components
• CV-boots
• Lights and mirrors
• Spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack
• What worth to take in a long trip
• Consider GPS Navigation System

Check your car Owner's Manual

Have a look in your vehicle's owner's manual - It's the best source of useful information. From how to use overdrive when towing a trailer to how to change the tire and where is the jack located - it's all in there. Also, you may find out the proper tire pressure and how to change a headlight bulb, where is the transmission dipstick located, and a lot more.

Under the hood

Check the engine oil
Many engine problems are initially caused by simply lack of oil changes. If your next oil change is due soon, definitely do it before a trip.
To check the engine oil, place the car on a flat surface, warm up and stop the engine. Wait for a minute allowing the oil to pour down the oil pan. Locate the oil dipstick - usually it has some kind of bright color handle that indicates "ENGINE OIL". Pull the dipstick out, wipe it with a clean rug or a paper towel and insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the level - it should be close to the "FULL" mark on the dipstick. If the oil appears too black - it definitely needs to be changed. If the level is low, you can top it up using the same type of oil as you already have in the engine.

Automatic Transmission fluid
Long trip with a full load will be another exam for your automatic transmission. If your transmission fluid change due soon change it before a trip.
How to check the transmission fluid: Warm up the car. Place the car on a level surface. Set the hand brake. With the shifter lever in Parking position and the engine idling [the procedure may vary on certain models, refer to the owner's manual] pull the automatic transmission fluid dipstick, wipe it and insert it back fully. Pull it again and check the fluid level and condition. Conventional transmission fluid has red or pinkish-red color when it's new. Over the time under high temperature and load, the transmission fluid loses its qualities and oxidizes becoming more brownish. If it appears too dark it's better to change it, especially if you going to tow a trailer. If the trailer is very heavy, consider installing additional transmission fluid cooler.

Engine antifreeze (coolant)
Check the engine antifreeze (coolant) level in the overflow tank - it's visible from outside. The level should be between "Min" and "Max" marks. (Don't open the radiator cap when the engine is hot!) If the antifreeze level is well below the minimum, look for possible leaks. Any leaks should be fixed before a trip - lack of coolant on the road may cause engine to overheat which may cause serious damage. If it's lower just a bit, you can simply top it up using recommended for your car type of antifreeze mixed 50/50 with water.

Unfortunately, there is no way to tell when the battery will die - sometimes it happens unexpectedly with no prior signs. However, if you feel that cranking speed is slower than before, the battery is probably close to its end. Usually the new battery may last from 2 to 5 years so if your battery is 4 - 5 years old, it might be a good idea to replace it before a trip. Check the battery condition visually. If you see any acid leaks, cracks or any other damage - replace the battery. Make sure the battery terminals are tight and not corroded. Corroded terminals will cause many troubles.

Other items to check under the hood
Look at the drive (serpentine) belt (in the picture), if it appears cracked or glazed, or has any other damage - replace it before a trip. Check the brake fluid, power steering fluid and make sure to top up the windshield washer reservoir with all-season windshield washer fluid. If you don't remember when last time you changed the air filter, change it now. Dirty air filter will cause lack of power and excessive fuel consumption. Look for anything irregular - leaks, loose clamps, kinked hoses, etc.

Check the tires

Check the tire pressure. Recommended pressure is indicated on the manufacturer's label, which usually located in the driver's door opening or in the glove box. Some German cars have this label in the backside of gas tank lid. You also can find it in the owner's manual. If you feel vibration at cruising speed - have your tires balanced. There is a safe limit of the tread wear. If the tire is worn below this limit, it's unsafe to drive. Refer to the result of mechanical inspection. Uneven tire wear indicates alignment problem.

Suspension and steering components

A steering and suspension of your car is something that you need to rely on in a long trip. Unfortunately, it only can be properly inspected in a repair shop. Here are just a few signs of possible problems: Having any vibration, irregular noise, knocking while driving over bumps? - Have your car inspected; there is definitely some problem.
Look inside the wheel arches (look at the picture)- do all four struts (shock absorbers) appear dry? If any of them is leaking oil - it should be replaced before a trip. Once it will be short on oil, the car will start bouncing like a boat and any road roughness can throw the car out of the road.
Does the car "wander" from side to side at highway speed? Is the steering wheel out of center? Does the car pull aside? - Check the wheel alignment. Improper wheel alignment may easily cause a car to skid at a high speed.

CV joint boots

All front wheel drive and many of four-wheel drive vehicles have CV joints (Constant Velocity joint), that are used to transfer the torque to the front wheels. CV joints are greased inside and sealed by a rubber boot that unfortunately tends to break sometimes. Once it breaks, the grease comes out and the whole CV joint may become inoperative in a short period of time due to lack of lubrication. CV joints are located on the inner side of each of the front wheels. You can check CV joint boots visually looking inside the front wheel arch from the front of the car with the wheel turned outside. The boot should be dry. If it's damaged, you will see grease splashed all over the area. Sometimes it might be difficult to see. When you bring your car into a garage for an inspection, a mechanic can inspect the CV joints more closely. If the boot is damaged, it needs to be replaced before a trip.

Lights and other electrical equipment

Check the horn, wipers and all the lights. A couple of spare bulbs (one for the headlight, one for the back) may be helpful. Replace the wipers if they don't clean the windshield perfectly. If you still have the original wipers installed, you can replace just rubber refills; they cost just a few bucks and can be purchased from a dealer. Check the windshield washer operation. Make sure your heater / air conditioner works properly. Have a broken or cracked rear view mirror? - Fix it before a trip.

Spare tire, wheel wrench and the jack

Check the spare tire pressure. If it's full-size (the same size as the others tires) spare, the pressure should be the same as in the other tires. If it's a small temporary use tire, the proper pressure is indicated on the sidewall of the tire; usually it's 50 - 60 psi. Check the owner's manual for exact data. If your car has a spare tire secured underneath, make sure it can be easily removed - the mechanism may be rusted through. Check if the jack is still operable. If you have wheel locks installed, make sure you have the key and the wrench to open the wheel nuts.

Basic emergency kit for your car

A basic emergency kit for your car can include:
- Jumper wires
- Tire sealer-inflator can
- Tire gauge
- Couple of rags and work gloves
- Flashlight
- Simple tool kit with screwdrivers, pliers and set of most common sockets.
Consider also a spare headlight bulb and a couple of fuses, bottles of engine oil, windshield washer fluid and antifreeze, an emergency stop sign or flares, a duct tape, an electrical tape, spare ignition key, etc.
Don't forget your personal emergency kit with First Aid kit and items like a blanket, a bottle of water, couple of energy bars, etc.

Consider GPS Navigation System

If you like long car journeys, this small piece of equipment can save you a lot of hassle. I travel by car a lot and time and time again I was thankful for having this small device. Not only it can show you the route and estimate your arrival time, it also can direct you to the nearest gas station, coffee shop, park or many other points of interest.
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