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Your vehicle’s owner’s manual: Access and information

Consumer Reports News: July 19, 2010 12:30 PM

When most people purchase a new car, they just get in and drive off, never bothering to look at the owner’s manual. But this standard tome can be a great source of information about the inner workings of your car and advice on ownership.

While reading an owner’s manual cover to cover can be quite boring (oh, who are we kidding--it’s completely mind-numbing), there are some important details inside to help improve your ownership experience, such as setting up the new car, maintenance tips and schedules, and preparing for potential emergency situations.

When the car maintenance light comes on in my personal car, it usually means I need to schedule an oil change. Often, after being serviced by an independent repair shop, the light is still on. The mechanic usually forgets to reset the light after the service. Fortunately, the owner’s manual gives instructions on how to do that, sparing me from the inconvenience of returning to the shop. This is just one of the many useful tidbits I’ve picked up from that vital book that fills my glove box.

Here are some helpful topics that may warrant opening up an owner’s manual:

Initial vehicle set up. There are an increasing number of custom settings available on new cars, such as the tone for keyless access, delayed lighting, audio system volume limit, and other details in the information display. Learning the available options and tailoring them to your preferences can improve the driving experience.

Adjusting head restraints. A car's head restraints are vital for guarding against the whiplash neck injuries that often accompany a rear-end collision. Restraints need to be tall enough to cushion the head above the top of the spine. Many cars' head restraints adjust for height. Those that do not can be forced down in a crash, losing effectiveness.

Maintenance schedule. Your manual gives details on when your car should be serviced and what to check. This is the guidance to follow, not the profit-motivated schedule your local repair shop (or even factory dealer) might try to sell.

Removing the spare tire and operating the jack. It sounds like something that would be easy to figure out when needed, but that may not be the case if you’re alongside a busy road trying to replace a flat during a rainy night. We recommend taking this a step further an actually practicing under ideal conditions so you’ll be ready, should you ever need to make a change. And, while you’re at it, check the tire pressure of the spare.

Decoding dashboard lights. Learn what the instrument panel indicators mean. Some signal errors, others may be less alarming.

Tire pressure. Newer cars have a tire pressure warning system that signal when the pressure is low. Find out what the correct tire pressure should be, how to interpret warnings, and learn the right way to add pressure. And always keep your tires at the proper recommended pressure. Don’t go by the maximum inflation pressure specified on the tire, rather use the inflation pressure specified by the vehicle manufacturer found typically on the driver’s door jamb of your car. Also, check the inflation pressure after the tires have sat for three hours or more. Warm tires will naturally have an elevated pressure.

Accessing your manual--in the car and online

Manuals should be kept in an accessible, protected place in your car, either in the glove compartment or in the trunk. A number of companies offer online access to the owner’s manuals, but still continue to provide the paper form.

Chrysler has just started providing a digital owner’s manual on DVD instead of a book, however that may not be useful if you need to access information while driving your car.

Case-in-point: Our Dodge 2500-series pickup truck test vehicle came with a copy of the owner’s manual on the DVD, but our experience showed that it’s not that easy to find certain sections--you have to select what you’re looking for from the DVD menu and NOT from the start-up menu that comes up automatically when you load the DVD. Once you load the DVD, you have to select the executable file from the menu to get to the owner’s manual.

You cannot view this in the truck (or at least we couldn’t figure out any way to do it). The truck DVD/NAV screen will show you some basic convenience feature videos but that’s it.

As a result, we asked our local Dodge dealer to please order a paper manual as well. If this is the wave of Dodge’s future our vote would be that it’s not a good way to go. Though there is a “what to do in an emergency” section on the DVD, covering items like jacking/tire changing, jumping, towing etc., you would lose all benefit of this without a paper manual if indeed you were IN an actual emergency situation. Of course, this DVD manual isn’t helpful to the person who actually doesn’t have a computer or the savvy to view it. We realize that we use car manuals far more than most, but this is not the place to cut costs.

Other approaches include Hyundai providing an Apple iPad with the owner’s manual, though that has some practical limitations, as well.

With smartphones it is now easier to access online manuals, if available. To access the online manuals, many manufacturers ask owners to register on their main consumer site. (You may need your vehicle VIN to log in) Another benefit to registering on these sites is to get warranty details, recall information, and access to maintenance schedules.

Here is a list of the major automotive brands and steps to get online access to these owner tools.

Acura—many owners’ manuals are available online, but you need to register to access.
Audi—No specific link to owner’s manual, but FAQs are available.
BMW—Adobe pdfs are available for many models to download.
Chrysler—Need to register with VIN.
Ford—Manuals available online.
General Motors—No registration needed.
Honda—Register to access.
Hyundai—Register to access.
Infiniti—No registration needed.
Kia—Register to access.
Mazda—Register to access.
Mercedes-Benz—No registration needed.
Mitsubishi— register to access.
Nissan— Register to access.
Subaru—Register to access.
Toyota—Register to access with VIN.
Volkswagen—Order technical literature online.
Volvo—Order manual online.

Liza Barth

For more advice on taking car of your vehicle, see our guide to car maintenance.

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