Even though cars are getting more reliable and more efficient than ever, no matter when, where or how you drive, your car needs routine care. In particular, you should routinely check its fluids, as they play a major role in the longevity and usability of your car. The following are the six most essential.
It’s no secret that engine oil is your car’s most important fluid. “Engine components spin thousands of times a minute, and it’s oil that keeps everything moving smoothly,” writes Popular Mechanics’ Alex Leanse. By reducing friction in the engine, engine oil not only improves efficiency but also reduces wear and the risk of overheating, all the while transporting tiny debris out of the engine. You should have a dipstick in the engine bay that lets you quickly inspect if your engine oil is running low. If it is, replace it using the engine oil specifications laid out in your owner’s manual.
Modern brakes are hydraulic, which means that brake fluid is what connects your brake pedal to the brakes themselves. “Over time brake fluid can become contaminated by water, which can make brake lines rust,” Leanse warns. If your brakes feel unresponsive, brake fluid is the first thing to check, and fortunately it’s as easy as taking a look at the clear brake fluid reservoir in the engine bay. Make sure the level falls within the minimum and maximum markers and that the color is translucent. If it’s opaque, you should get it replaced.
Like other automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time, especially in high-stress conditions involving frequent stop-and-go city driving, trailer towing and heavy hauling. “Unlike engine oil, which is primarily a lubricant, transmission fluid serves as both an oil and a hydraulic fluid that helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts,” Rick Popely explains in an article for Cars.com. Bad transmission fluid can cause rough shifting, uncontrolled surging and strange noises. Transmissions are typically very complex, so if you experience any of these issues and suspect the transmission might be at fault, it’s best to contact a professional rather than try to fix it yourself.
Power steering fluid
Most modern cars use hydraulic power steering systems to make it easy to turn the wheel. You can usually tell if the power steering fluid that helps drive that hydraulic system needs to be changed if your car is suddenly more difficult to steer or if you hear a high-pitched noise when turning the wheel. There’s no set timeframe for changing this fluid, but running into either of the aforementioned symptoms should be good cause for heading to the dealership for a quick maintenance pass.
Coolant, also known as antifreeze, absorbs engine heat and dissipates it through the radiator. It’s the primary mechanism that keeps the engine from overheating, and while it doesn’t need to be checked more often than every 30,000 to 50,000 miles (or as per your owner’s manual), checking it at those intervals is very important. “Coolant can become more acidic over time and lose its rust-inhibiting properties, causing corrosion,” Popely writes. “Corrosion can damage the radiator, water pump, thermostat, radiator cap, hoses and other parts of the cooling system, as well as to the vehicle heater system. And that can cause a car engine to overheat.”
It can be difficult to tell by just appearances whether coolant has deteriorated, and since you will only be doing it infrequently, it’s best to turn to professional help when it comes to this fluid.
Windshield washer fluid
Finally, though windshield washer fluid has no impact on your car’s performance, it does have an effect on visibility, which is arguably just as important if not more. This is especially true in the fall, when sun glare during evening commutes is common. Fortunately, it’s the easiest fluid to maintain, as you can buy jugs of it at the local gas station or auto supply stores at low prices. Just pour the fluid into the reservoir until it’s full and you won’t have to worry about it for up to another year.
With at least six important fluids to keep tabs on and various other maintenance to remember, taking proper care of your car can be a daunting task. To ensure your car is always in the best possible shape, bring it in for service at your dealership at regular intervals.