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Here are 7 must-do tasks after driving a used car home

Published September 17, 2012

That intoxicating – and possibly noxious – new-car smell isn’t the only thing differentiating new vehicles from second-hand cars.

Beyond the absent olfactory appeal, used vehicles also come with questionable or unknown service histories. The paint may still shine brightly, but the fluids and filters could be nearing the end of their service life.

A case in point is the Sienna minivan we purchased from a Hamilton Toyota dealer that contained a cabin air filter that was absolutely clogged with debris (it had 92,000 km on the clock). The filter was missed during the reconditioning process.

It got us to thinking about things used-car buyers can do to bring their vehicle up to snuff after driving home their new acquisition. Here is some collective wisdom regarding the best ways to keep your vehicle running long after the auto loan has been paid off. Imagine that.

Change your motor oil

Unless your used car’s dipstick is showing golden, virgin oil, you’d be wise to change the oil from the get go. It’s the lifeblood of your expensive engine, yada, yada, so change your oil when you bring it home and you can reset your change interval starting from zero with no second guessing involved. Change the oil filter, too.

Incidentally, that 5,000-km change interval everybody recommends is a relic. Today’s oils are chockful of additives that last longer. Stick to the schedule printed in your owner’s manual. You can switch to synthetic oil once the motor is broken in (some say at 16,000 km; some say whenever) and enjoy prolonged engine life, better cold-weather starting and slightly better fuel economy.

Flush your engine coolant

Heat is the dastardly enemy of any engine, so coolant plays a vital role in maintaining its longevity. An overheated engine can be a catastrophic event, destroying gaskets and warping engine components beyond repair. Because today’s cooling systems incorporate so many dissimilar metals, coolant will slowly turn into an electrolyte over time and corrode expensive components.

Second-hand owners should flush out their cooling system upon purchase and replace the coolant every three years. Change any suspect hoses while the system is empty. In addition to regulating heat, fresh coolant replenishes lubricants and rust inhibitors in the system. Leave this task to a professional shop that has the right equipment and can dispose of the fluid properly.

Replace your brake fluid

Common brake fluids are glycol-based and absorb water by nature, making them hygroscopic. It’s important to remove that moisture contaminating your braking system. As the fluid sops up moisture, it thickens and becomes less able to withstand heat and corrosion. The result is a significant drop in the brake fluid’s boiling temperature, which could overheat in the calipers and compromise braking performance – and your safety.

Your brake fluid is being compromised by moisture constantly, whether your vehicle is driven a lot or just sits in the garage. Moisture enters the system past seals and through microscopic pores in hoses. It also enters every time the fluid reservoir is opened – so don’t look inside unnecessarily. Chances are your used car is running on old brake fluid, so have it changed at your local garage. Experts recommend replacing the brake fluid every three years to minimize fluid boil and harmful corrosion.

Swap your battery sooner

It’s no secret today’s auto batteries aren’t as robust as they used to be. Automobile manufacturers are squeezing every penny out of their suppliers, so batteries are getting cheaper with less lead content. In addition, engineers want lighter components to boost fuel economy, so batteries are getting smaller. Nowadays, not surprisingly, batteries sometimes die soon after the three-year warranty expires.

The second owner of a vehicle would be wise to make note of the battery’s date of manufacture and replace an iffy battery in its fourth year, especially before the winter season, when a dead battery could leave you stranded. Battery replacement can be done at home; just remember the negative (-) terminal is always disconnected first from the old battery and connected last when the new one is in place.

Look after those filters

Air is vital to the combustion process under hood, so inspect your engine’s air filter from time to time. A well-placed tap on the ground will eject some debris and extend the life of even the most basic filter. “Long-life” or “permanent” air filters use foam or cotton gauze in place of paper to trap airborne particles, but they require cleaning and oiling that may be too finicky for some owners.

Many models today offer a cabin air filter that almost always resides in the ventilation system tucked behind the glove box, which usually swings down to reveal the filter drawer. Slide out the drawer and be prepared to be amazed at how much filth these things capture (typically leaves and insects drawn in through the vents at the base of the windshield). These filters can be vacuumed, while new ones cost about $30 at the dealer or retailer. Changing the filter regularly can improve the performance of your air conditioner.

Change your transmission fluid

It’s a good idea to change the transmission fluid after the first 10,000 kms to remove any metallic debris left over from the manufacturing process. After the initial change, the fluid and filter (if equipped) ideally should be replaced every 50,000 km. For manual gearboxes, change the lubricant after the first 10,000 km and again after every 80,000 km for optimal service life.

It’s wise to monitor the fluid condition using the dipstick, if there is one. Foaming fluid may indicate an overfilled case, while a burnt smell indicates high operating temperatures that will shorten the life of the autobox. Changing the fluid regularly and even adding a small oil cooler will help protect a very expensive drivetrain component.

Examine your tires carefully

Your tires may have passed Ontario’s safety inspection process, but there’s more to tires that just tread depth. Beyond checking for even tire wear, adjusting air pressure and maintaining alignment, many car owners don’t know how long their tires have been on the road. Examine the sidewall and tread for dry cracking. These cracks can vary in size – some are as thin as a hair and others can swallow a coin – and appear when the tire loses its elasticity, usually after five years of age. If they look old, it’s time to replace them.

Mismatched tires are another common scourge of used vehicles. Our Sienna came with two different discount brands – an older pair at the front axle, and a newer pair at the back. While safe, the discordant rumble on the highway was annoying, so we replaced them all with a brand-new matching set of rubber that used a fuel-efficient design. New tires can literally transform a vehicle into a limousine, since tires grow noisier as they age.

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