How to keep your car healthy

You know it, we know it. A car is an investment. You want to make sure that the cost during the car lifetime is as low as possible. But what should you do to avoid going to that expensive car doctor?

  • Follow the maintenance schedule in your owner's manual. If your car has a "maintenance minder", use that as a guideline for service, but be sure to double-check your owner's manual as some items need to be replaced based on time rather than mileage. Don't forget the timing belt! Most cars need to have the timing belt replaced every 60,000 to 90,000 miles. Replacing the timing belt is not cheap, but it’s far less expensive than the damage it will cause if it breaks.
  • Be aware. Be on the lookout for new noises, strange smells or anything that just doesn’t feel right. If something seems amiss, talk to your mechanic or dealership. Don't let them tell you "that's normal" -- if you've been driving your car long enough, you know best what normal is.
  • Ask a friend to drive. Every two or three months, ask a friend to take you for a drive in your car. Some problems appear or increase so gradually that you may not even notice them, but they'll stick out like a sore thumb to someone less familiar. And by riding in the passenger's seat, you may spot something you missed while preoccupied with driving.
  • Fix everything as soon as it breaks. If you're going to keep your car as long as possible, you have to want to keep it as long as possible. Don't ignore seemingly unimportant problems like broken trim, torn upholstery, or electrical glitches. Little annoyances add up and can begin to erode your love affair with your old car.
  • Use quality replacement parts. Whether or not to use genuine manufacturer parts is open to debate, but don't just opt for the least expensive parts you can find. Discuss options with your mechanic or parts store. If a non-wearing part is damaged, consider buying a used replacement -- you'll get manufacturer quality at a more affordable price.
  • Keep it clean. Paint does more than make your car look good; it protects the materials underneath. Wash your car regularly. When water no longer beads on the paint, wax it. (Read more: How to wash and wax and detail your car like the pros.)
  • Drive gently. There's no need to baby your car; in fact, a little foot-to-the-floor acceleration every once in a while is a good thing, but driving like a wannabe Michael Schumaker in his Formula 1 Ferrari isn't good for your car (or your nerves).