Hold on to that clunker!

Consumer Reports News: October 28, 2008 06:08 PM

Let's be honest. We'd all rather cruise around town in a brand new car instead of a 10-year-old clunker. But with money and credit as tight as they are, there's plenty of incentive to keep our old wheels running a little longer.

The auto experts here at Consumer Reports say that any car can reach 200,000 miles if you're willing to keep replacing parts. But it helps if you start out with a vehicle that has a good reliability record. One way to do so is to use the Consumer Reports reliability ratings, although you have to be an online subscriber to see the detailed report on individual cars.

Even if you're not a subscriber, though, there are a number of things you can do to make your car or truck last longer ...

Mike Quincy, one of our long-time auto writers, says the most important trick to keeping a car performing properly is to follow the manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule and make any repairs promptly. If you think you're saving money by skipping an oil change, you're wrong, Quincy says. Missing even one oil change can accelerate premature engine wear and cause engine damage, reducing long term reliability.

Your vehicle's owner's manual includes a maintenance schedule that tells you how often to change fluids such as oil, transmission fluid, and antifreeze; when to rotate tires; and when to check and replace parts such as filters, belts, and hoses.

But don't go overboard.  Over-maintaining your car is a waste of money, too. A common service scam to watch for is a dealership or repair shop that tries to add maintenance items that aren't specified in the owner's manual. That can add hundreds of dollars to a service visit. That's when it really pays to be a tightwad.

What are the non-essential items that you can usually do without? They include radiator flushes and new fuel filters.

To avoid getting unnecessary work, make a copy of the recommended service page, show it to the service manager and say, "this is what I want." There's really no need to insist on seeing the replaced parts unless you can tell what a worn one looks like.

Another simple thing you can do is to get out the cleaning products periodically. Regular cleaning inside and out can make the car a more pleasant place to be as you pile on the miles; washing and waxing can help preserve the paint and keep the sheet metal below it from rusting. Vacuuming sand and dirt out of carpets and seats can minimize premature wear that leads to tears and holes.

No matter how much TLC you give your old car, sadly, it will eventually become a money pit. It might be that your car is spending more time in the shop than on the road, or that it is no longer safe. Here are the top signs that could mean it's time to say good bye:

•    It needs repairs costing more than its value.
•    The vehicle's structural integrity is threatened by a badly rusted floor pan or sills.
•    Despite repairs, the car remains unreliable, and it seems likely you could be left stranded.
•    It has been in a flood or serious accident.

Have you held onto your car longer than you planned to in order to save money? Then tell us how you extended the life of your car without breaking the bank. Write to tightwad at cro dot consumer dot org. And for more tips from Consumer Reports, see our recent report on how to make your car last and last.

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