We may cherish warm weather…but our cars do not! Yes, they are automatic, comfortable, and reliable but are just complex machines that require attention and maintenance. They work harder during hot summer trips and revolt if not maintained!
All the pre-trip excitement quickly vanishes when you are stuck on the side of a busy freeway and the eyes of every family member are locked on you! Suddenly the half hour of a routine “look – see” before the trip becomes a wise decision.
The inspection should begin with a morning “walk-around” – just like airplane pilots do. The car is cool and everything has stabilized. First, check for fluid spots. If you are unsure whether they are new or old, place a sheet of white paper underneath. Try to determine if it is plain water, colored antifreeze, sticky oil, or red power steering/transmission fluid. Modern cars normally drip small amounts of water from the air conditioner immediately after stopping.
Look at each tire for tread depth and uneven wear. Remember the tire footprint is merely a few square inches and that is your only road contact. Check the pressure when they are cold. Consult the owner’s manual for the correct inflation. Every 10-degree temperature rise adds about one pound.
Turn on the lights – high and low beams. Have someone push the brake pedal while you check the rear stop lights and turn signals.
Open the hood and scan the engine. Feel the hoses while the car is cold. They should have a firm but pliable feel. Are there any leaks around the clamps? When did you change the air filter? Cars use five times the amount of air versus gasoline and engines must breathe. The belts are very important because they drive the air conditioner, power steering and electrical alternator. Cracks are warnings for failure. Steering becomes difficult if the power steering pump fails!
Check the fluids. Most of the reservoirs have “fill” lines. DO NOT open the radiator cap. The coolant “surge” tank – usually located away from the radiator – is a visible way to see the correct coolant level and it varies slightly with engine temperature.
Start the car in an open space and listen. Did it hesitate? When was the battery replaced? Our cars place huge loads on the electrical system, even with the motor off. Batteries last about three years and give little warning before failure. What about the door opener “clicker”? These watch-type batteries usually last a little longer but the five bucks for a replacement is a lot cheaper than a locksmith!
As you back the car out for the inspection, note the quality of the brakes. A spongy feel or a pedal near the floor is a bad sign. Did the brakes make a noise? Does the emergency brake work?
Be sure the vacation packing does not obscure visibility or exceed the recommended load. A working flashlight, cell phone and a simple first aid kit are good ideas.
The few minutes spent inspecting the car before the trip is a great investment in vacation fun!