Car Maintenance Checklist with Photos

Updated November 11, 2018

You depend on your car to get where you are going and your car depends on you. It starts and runs every day thanks to your efforts to maintain it. As you already know, it's not too difficult to keep your car in good shape.
Here are the basics, read more details below:

Fluids:
Keep engine oil, coolant and other fluids clean and topped up.
Wipers:
Change your wipers at least once a year.
Lights:
Do all of your brake lights work?
Battery:
Watch out for corrosion at the battery terminals, it will cause problems.
Tires:
Rotate tires regularly and maintain proper pressure.
Filters:
Your car has an engine air filter and a cabin air filter. Both will need to be replaced when dirty.
Tune-up:
To keep running, your car will need spark plugs, a drive belt and a few other items done.
Timely repairs:
Recognize the warning signs of potential problems and repair them before they cause expensive repairs.
Annual inspection:
At least once a year, have your brakes, suspension, steering and other parts checked out by a trusted mechanic to keep your car safe.
Know your car:
Read your car owner's manual, it has a lot of information on car maintenance as well as safety precautions.

How to check engine oil

Many modern cars consume oil between oil changes and most don't have any warning light to warn you if the oil level is low. Driving low on oil can cause engine problems.

Check the engine oil level regularly, especially if you notice that it drops between the oil changes.

Checking engine oil
The oil dipstick in this Toyota has a bright yellow handle

Warm up the engine. Park your vehicle on a level spot. Set the parking brake. Make sure the transmission is in "Park." Stop the engine. Wait for a minute or two to let engine oil drain into the oil pan. Find the engine oil dipstick, usually it has a bright handle saying "Engine Oil". Careful, it's probably hot. You can find the instructions and location of the oil dipstick in the Maintenance section in your owner's manual.

Checking engine oil
Careful, the dipstick might be hot

Pull the dipstick out and wipe it off with a clean towel. Insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the oil level.

Oil condition on the dipstick
Your engine depends on the proper level of clean oil to last

The oil level should be between the "Low" and "Full" marks. We recommend keeping it closer to the "Full" mark. If the level is low, top it up. Some cars and trucks have a crossed section on the dipstick instead of the marks. It works the same way, see how to read it in your owners manual.

Check the oil condition: If it's way too black, it's time for an oil change. If it's like in the top image, have the oil change done or at least top the level up. If it's a little dark, but still clean and transparent, as in the lower photo, good job! Keep following the maintenance schedule.

How to top up engine oil

Oil grade
Check the oil grade on the oil filler cap

To top up engine oil, use the recommended oil grade. The most common oil grades are 0W-20, 5W-20 and 5W-30. You can find it in your owner's manual, or on the oil filler cap. See the photo. If your engine needs synthetic oil, use only synthetic oil.

Adding oil
To top up, open the oil filler cap and add a small amount of oil. Use a funnel if needed. Wipe the spill with a towel.

How to top up:
Open the oil filler cap and add a small amount of oil. Wait for a couple of minutes to let oil to flow into the oil pan. Check the oil level again with the dipstick. If it's still low, add some more, but don't overfill it. Don't forget to install the dipstick back and close the oil filler cap when you are done.

Battery

Battery terminals
Corroded battery terminals will cause many problems

Check the battery condition visually. If you see any leaks, cracks or other damage, the battery needs to be replaced. Check the battery terminals to see if they are tight and not corroded. Corrosion at the battery terminals will cause poor electrical connection, which can result in all kinds of problems, including a no-start and Check Engine light.

See this photo of the battery terminals that caused a no-start problem. You may find tips on how to clean the battery terminals in your vehicle's owner's manual. Here are some Youtube videos on the subject. Be careful, that white flaky corrosion stuff is very acidic. Servicing battery terminals in a repair shop costs from $30 to $55. If a battery is more than 5 years old, it might need to be replaced soon. The first sign that your battery is getting weaker is when the dash lights dim and the engine turns over slower when you are starting it. Your mechanic can do a battery test to see if your battery is still OK.

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Keep engine coolant (antifreeze) topped up

Coolant level
Low coolant level may cause overheating of the engine. The coolant level in this car is lower than minimum, it needs to be topped up.

Visually check the engine coolant (antifreeze) level in the overflow tank. Your owner's manual has the directions. The level should be between the "Low" and "Full" marks. Caution, don't open the radiator cap or the pressurized overflow tank cap when the engine is hot! The cooling system is under pressure when hot.

If the coolant level is low as in the photo, it needs to be topped up, using the recommended type of coolant. Check your owner's manual for safety precautions and the proper way to do it. You also can request to top it up during an oil change. A regular oil change service usually includes topping up of the fluids.

Engine air filter

Dirty vs new air filter
The engine air filter can clog up and restrict the air flow.

The engine air filter keeps the air entering the engine clean, but over time the filter gets dirty and restricts the air flow. The engine air filter is recommended to be replaced every 15,000-25,000 miles or 24,000-40,000 km, depending on the roads you drive. Mechanics check your air filter when you bring your car in for an oil change.

Replacing air filter
Replacing an air filter in the repair shop costs $35-$50.

If you want to check it or replaced it yourself, on most cars and trucks it's a fairly easy task. Your owner's manual has the directions or you can find instruction on Youtube. It's best to use an original air filter that you can buy at your local dealership parts department; it costs around $20-$30. When you are installing the air filter, make sure it's installed correctly. If the filter is not installed properly, unfiltered air entering the engine could damage the airflow sensor.
Read more: how to maintain your engine.

If your engine air filter is dirty, then the cabin air filter is likely to be dirty too. Read more about a cabin filter in this article (scroll down) How to clean car interior. A clean cabin filter helps reducing odors inside the cabin.

How to check automatic transmission fluid

Many modern cars no longer have a transmission dipstick. In this case, a mechanic at your local dealership can still check your transmission fluid. If your car does have a transmission dipstick, you can find the procedure in the owners manual. It's different for some cars. This is how it's done in this Toyota and most of other cars:

Checking automatic transmission fluid
This Toyota Corolla does have a transmission dipstick

After the vehicle was driven for at least 20-30 minutes and the transmission fluid is warmed up, park your vehicle on a level spot. Set the parking brake. Make sure the transmission is in "P" (Park) position. Leave the engine running. Pull out the automatic transmission dipstick.

Checking automatic transmission fluid
Wipe it off, using a clean lint-free towel

Wipe it off with a clean lint-free towel. Insert it back fully. Pull it out again and check the fluid level.

Checking automatic transmission fluid
The level and fluid condition is OK

A transmission fluid expands when warmed up, so if the car has been driven for 20-30 minutes, the transmission level should be between the "HOT" marks.

If the transmission fluid level is low, suspect a leak and have it checked out. See this example of a transmission fluid leak. Check the fluid condition: if the fluid looks very dirty or has a burnt smell, see if your mechanic recommends changing it.

Today's cars have very strict requirement to the transmission fluid. For this reason, we recommend to visit your dealer when you want to change your transmission fluid.

Windshield wipers

Changing wiper refills
Replacing wiper refills could be cheaper. The refills can be purchased from your dealer.

Replace the wipers at least once a year or earlier if they don't clean properly. If you still have the original wipers installed, you can just replace the rubber refills; they cost just a few bucks and can be purchased from your local dealership's parts department. Check if the windshield washer jets are working properly.

Lights

Light check
Check your lights regularly

Your brake and other lights are important for safe driving. How do you know that all your lights are working? Once in a while, check all your lights.

Tires

Tire pressure sticker
Proper tire pressure is listed on the tire pressure sticker.

Check the tire pressure regularly. If you don't have the tire pressure gauge, it's worth buying a good one. Most gas stations have an air pump with a tire pressure gauge.

You can find the recommended tire pressure in the owner's manual or on the tire pressure sticker (see photo), which is in most cars located on the driver's door jamb. In other cars, it could be located inside the gas tank lid or inside the glove box.

Checking tire pressure
The proper tire pressure for this car is 35 psi.

Measure tire pressure when tires are still cold. Pump or deflate to the recommended pressure. The maximum pressure listed on tires is NOT the proper pressure!

Worn-out tire
This tire is worn out below the limit of 2/32", it's unsafe to drive

There is a safe limit of the tire tread wear. If a tire is worn below this limit, it's unsafe to drive. Your owner's manual has the directions on how to measure the tire tread wear or your mechanic can check your tires for you. This tire in the photo is unsafe.

How do you know that your tires are close to the minimum limit? Tires have wear bars (indicators) molded into the tread. See this photo of a new versus worn-out tire. You can also check the tread with a tire tread gauge. When your tire tread wears out to around 4/32-nd of an inch, it's time to start shopping for new tires. At 4/32" of the tread remaining, tires are still considered safe, but you may start noticing that your car is sliding a bit when roads are wet.

Tire rotation

Rotating your tires
When mechanics rotate your tires, they can also catch problems with your brakes, suspension and other underneath components that can make your car unsafe.

In front-wheel drive cars and car-based SUVs, front tires wear faster. Rear tires often wear more on the inside. Regular tire rotations help equalize tire wear. Some manufacturers recommend rotating tires at every oil change, others specify different intervals.

Recommended tire rotation patterns are also different. In most cases, tires are rotated front to back on the same side (for directional tires) or front to back and side to side. Another benefit is that your mechanic can catch problems with your brakes, suspension and other components while rotating your tires.

Does your car need tire balancing or wheel alignment? Tire or wheel balancing is the process of adding little weights to the rim to equalize weight distribution around the wheel. Wheels are balanced at the factory or when new tires are installed. If you feel a vibration at higher speeds, have your tires balanced, although this will not solve a vibration caused by flat spots on a tire or a bent rim.

The wheel alignment is adjusting suspension and steering angles. Your car needs a wheel alignment if your steering wheel is off-center when driving straight or if the vehicle pulls to one side, or if tires wear unevenly.

Does your car need a tune-up?

Old spark plugs
The contamination on the electrodes of these long-lasting iridium-tipped spark plugs caused the engine to misfire.

At some point, your car will need a tune-up. Spark plugs wear out. Even long-lasting iridium- or platinum-tipped spark plugs might have to be replaced after 80,000 miles, because sometimes they get contaminated, see the photo. If your car has spark plug wires, they might be showing some cracks too.

A serpentine belt will need to be replaced, as it stretches and cracks with age. If your car has a timing belt, it will also need to be changed. Your car will break down if either of the belts fails. If a timing belt breaks while driving, it may also cause damage to the engine. Read more about a serpentine belt and timing belt.

All these services don't have to be done at once. Your mechanic can check the condition of your engine, belts and other items and advise you if anything needs to be done. Read more: how to maintain your engine.

4WD maintenance

Rear differential oil change
The 4WD system needs maintenance too. This truck is getting new gear oil in the rear differential.

4WD cars and trucks have a rear differential and a transfer case or power transfer unit (PTU). These devices are filled with gear oil or special fluid. Some trucks have a separate front axle that also has gear oil in it. These components wear too, so they too will require fluid (oil) change.

Many modern SUVs require special fluid, so it's best to check with your dealer or consult the owner's manual. Many trucks also have grease points on propeller shafts, u-joints and some other chassis components that need to be greased with a grease gun.

Recognize problems and repair them before they get worse

Leaking coolant from the radiator
In this car, the coolant (green) was leaking out of the radiator

Timely repairs can save a lot of money and keep your car safe. Look for any signs that may indicate a problem. Check this photo, the owner noticed something that didn't look right under the hood, so he had it checked out. Turns out, his radiator was leaking coolant. If he hadn't repaired this problem in time, the coolant would leak out and the engine would overheat. This would cost a lot more than a new radiator.

What are the other warning signs?

Common warning signs of car problems

1. The first one you already know. If you see a leak, oil drops on your parking spot or find any fluid or oil level low, have your car looked at. Having the proper level of engine oil and other fluids is essential to the vehicle operation.

2. Check Engine or other warning lights. The Check Engine light might come on because of a fuel tank cap that wasn't closed tight. It also might come on for more serious reasons, for example, when your engine is very low on oil. You won't know whether it's a serious problem or not until a mechanic will scan the computer, retrieve the code and diagnose the problem. Read more: Check Engine light: what to check, common problems, repair options.

3. Abnormal noises. If something keeps creaking, rattling or knocking when you drive, how do you know if it's not coming from loose wheel nuts (lug nuts)? We have seen this happen. For your safety, have it checked. Does your engine sound louder after an oil change? Could it be that they just didn't close the air filter box properly?

4. Unusual smell or smoke. When something is leaking under the hood, often the first thing you would notice is a burnt oil or coolant smell or smoke.

5. Vibration. Sometimes a vibration could be caused by a defect in a driveline or a problem with one of the tires. See this photo of the damaged tire that was causing vibration. It's unsafe to drive.

6. Any difference in the way the vehicle drives or feels. Does the brake pedal seem to go down too far? It's a problem, definitely have it checked out. Did the transmission start shifting differently? There could be a simple software update that would improve shifting and prevent other problems.

Regular mechanical inspection

For your safety, we recommend having your car inspected regularly, at least once a year, by a trusted mechanic. We mean not just a quick visual inspection by one of the drive-through fast lube places, but a mechanic that can lift your car and check major components such as brakes, suspension, etc., while having your tires rotated, for example. This is because many components (e.g. ball joints, tie rods, sway bar links), cannot be inspected visually.


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