Pinch your ride

By Mir
July 17, 2006

I have something a wee bit different for you, today. Let’s see how it goes.

Charlotte (who apparently has lots of questions; I think I answered one of hers before!) writes:

Hi there pretty, sweet Mir!

How much shortcutting can I do on auto maintenance before I really cause any harm? The standard used to always be to change your oil every 3 months or 3,000 miles. However, I’ve read that this is really overkill on newer cars and that it should be more like 5 months or 5,000 miles. How often is really necessary? Should I take my car to the dealership’s service guys or are quick lubes places a better deal?


I read this question and two things happened:
1) I remembered that I’m probably due for an oil change.
2) I remembered that I know nothing about cars aside from “Oh, that one’s pretty!”

It was time to call in the big guns.

This is a Car Question, and for a Car Question, we need a Car Guy.

I have a Car Guy. His name is Otto. Otto, meet Everyone. Everyone? This is Otto.

Here’s your behind-the-scenes look:

Me: I got a car question for Want Not. Wanna help?
Otto: Sure.
Me: She wants to know about oil change frequency and stuff.
Otto: RTFM.
Otto: Read The… uhhh… Manual.
Me: Oh! Ha.
Otto: Don’t say that.
Me: No?
Otto: I’ll write you a real response, send me the question.
Me: No, I think I just wanna say RTFM.
Otto: Send me the question.

I forwarded the question, and Otto went all prosaic on me. Also he utilized the well-known technical term “ayuh,” which convinced me that he knows what he’s talking about. Here’s what he had to say:

Well Charlotte, you don’t want to shortcut any of the maintenance. But what you don’t want to do is too much maintenance — and everyone in the car business will try to get you to do too much. (Hey, they need to make those boat payments, too.) Head out to your car and grab your owner’s manual — it’s a wealth of information, information you should be armed with before heading in for routine service.

We’ll start with oil changes — what’s the manual say? My Subaru, for instance, says every 3,750 miles. Some Hondas and Toyotas say 5,000 mile intervals. Diesel cars can go 10,000 miles between oil changes. Some cars now have an on-board computer that measures oil quality — either directly or by looking at your driving habits — then tells you when you’re due.

Driving habits? Ayuh — they’ll affect oil breakdown a lot. Lots of dirt roads or dusty conditions? You’ll need to do them more frequently. Same for lots of short trips or stop and go traffic. Spend all your hours cruising down the highway? You can stretch them out a little as that’s a much lower strain on your engine. Towing a boat or trailer? More is better. Check your manual for “severe duty” applications.

While you have the manual out, look for the recommended service charts. If you head in to a dealer, there’s a very good chance they have their own “recommended service schedule,” which can involve far more checks and replacements than the manufacturer recommends… which will cost you more money. (For fun, if the dealer or garage you frequent is pushing you to do more work than the manufacturer recommends, ask to talk to their durability engineer.)

Now, sometimes stuff comes up after the manual is printed — listen, ask questions, find out why they want to do something. Sometimes there are technical service bulletins from the manufacturer that recommend different services. But if they tell you they’re seeing a problem with high mileage 2007 transmissions and you should really get your transmission fluid flushed… well, I’d walk away at that point.

Years ago, Patrick Bedard, an editor at Car and Driver magazine, got a call from his mom who had her car in for service. The dealer had a long list of things they wanted to do — and charge a lot of money for. On the list was, “Adjust valves.” Which, on some cars, needs to be done. But not on hers — they were self-adjusting. Bedard wondered if the 30 minutes of time they wanted to bill her for was going to be spent looking for adjustment screws that didn’t exist.

Read your manual — it’ll save you money over time.

One last thing — if your car has a timing belt, replace it when that chart says to. With some cars, if it wears out and breaks you just stop going. On some (with what are called “interference heads”) you can do a lot of damage. It can be pricey, depending on the car, but it’s better than rebuilding your engine.

Happy motoring.

The only thing I feel compelled to add, based on my own experience: If you just need an oil change, and you’re sure you don’t need anything else, your quick-lube type places are probably fine. On the other hand, the dealership where I bought my car sends me coupons for oil changes all the time. And they’ll give me a free loaner car, so guess where I usually go…?

Thanks, Otto! What would I do without you? (Answer: Never get my oil changed, and watch my car die a horrible death. Oops!)


  1. Thanks to Otto for the excellent advice! I am going to go out to my van right now and read my manual, I don’t think it’s been opened since we bought it 🙂

  2. I need an oil change too! And I think the 30,000 mile tune-up cause the van’s at 36 thousand something. Oops…

  3. *ahem*
    ummm would this Expert Car Guy Otto be the same Otto you posted about on WCS? Just askin’…..

  4. ishouldbeworking: There can only be one Otto. 😉

  5. Aw, y’all are just like Click and Clack!

    I love the rtfm comment. Say no more..

    For what it’s worth, my mechanic tells me that for my driving, time is more important than miles. I have a civic that I call my “town car” since I only use it to drive around town (the stop and go thing) and right now if I put 5,000 miles a year on it that’s a bunch. But the oil changes should really happen every four months or so since there’s a lot of dust here. And heat. And it’s nice to have the oil changed and have them look at all the other pertinant bits like radiator (bought new two years ago) transmission, brakes, etc.

  6. RTFM — I love it. I’m married to an engineer, and he uses that one all the time.

  7. You could always do what I did. Marry your mechanic! 😉

  8. Jenn2, that’s what I did, too! And let me tell you, my mechanic is *fanatical* about maintenance.

    What he (and Ben, above) said about dust/heat/extreme conditions certainly applies.

    My Toyota manual recommends an every-5,000-mile oil change, but we consider ourselves to live in *extreme weather conditions* (I think 121 degrees yeterday here in the dusty desert would certainly qualify!)… so we stick to the every-3,000-mile rule. Can’t be too careful! Too many people don’t take those guidelines seriously enough, IMO.

  9. SO helpful since I’m driving 59,436 miles to BlogHer NEXT WEEK!

  10. I LOVE that your Otto says Ayuh. In print, no less.

    And my Dad used to always tell me RTFM.

  11. i think the key is to get to know a mechanic who will then make recommendations for YOUR car based on YOUR area and YOUR driving history and conditions. e.g.: i put about 5000 miles on my car every six months; my mechanic says for my 10-yr-old nissan it’s okay to do synthetic oil every 10,000 miles or six months, whichever comes first. hey, and thanks for the reminder that my six months are about up!

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