Get Those Wheels Ready

Let's face it. It's hard to have fun while you're sitting stranded by the side of the road. Yet many families will experience this depressing experience this summer. Your family doesn't have to be one of them, and it probably won't be if you spend a few minutes doing some simple automotive prep.

"The most critical areas to check before going on a driving trip are engine fluids, radiator hoses, belts, tires, and brakes," said Pat Goss, car care expert, co-host of PBS's MotorWeek, and head auto mechanic at Goss' Garage. "Adequately checking and preparing these key areas before you leave, will not only keep you safe while driving, they'll help prevent costly repairs -- and no one wants to spend money fixing their car during a vacation."

Follow these simple instructions and you'll be on your way to a safe, worry-free driving vacation:
  • Radiator Coolant, Hoses and Belts - Have these inspected by a mechanic before you leave. Otherwise, the car sitting on the shoulder with the steam emanating from its grille could be yours. Keeping an engine running at the proper temperature is extremely important. Hoses allow coolant to flow to and from the radiator to keep the engine cool, and that flow is powered by a belt-driven water pump. If a hose or belt fails while driving, your engine will rapidly overheat. Overheating can damage or destroy an engine in minutes, something you and your wallet would like to avoid. How can you tell if your cooling system needs service? One hint is a color change in your coolant. If the coolant looks rusty or muddy, something has contaminated it, most likely corrosion within the engine itself. A thorough check by a trained mechanic can reveal the problem and suggest the solution.

  • Engine Oil - Before you go on vacation, check your oil levels and the date you're due for an oil change. If you'll be driving long distances, you'll want to have your oil changed before you leave, and you'll want to consider the type of engine oil you need for the trip. If you're traveling in hot weather or under severe service conditions, such as towing a trailer, you should consider choosing a fully synthetic engine oil such as Mobil 1 with SuperSyn 5W-30 for newer cars, or the 10W-30 formula for older and higher-mileage vehicles. A synthetic oil like Mobil 1 is suitable for all conditions, but it has qualities that enable it to protect engines in hot weather and high-speed conditions, while optimizing your engine's efficiency and reducing oil consumption.

  • Tire Pressure and Tread - Many people believe the proper tire pressure is listed on the tire itself. Actually, the number on the tire is the maximum amount of pressure the tire safely can hold when it's cold. To find the right pressure, expressed in pounds per square inch (psi), look on your driver's side door jamb, on the inside of the fuel filler door or in your owner's manual in the glove compartment for the recommended tire pressure and check the pressure before you leave. Also, look at the tread on all four tires to make sure it is not too worn or unevenly worn, which can signal a wheel alignment problem or the need to replace front end parts. If your tires are on the bubble in terms of wear, it's best to install new tires now rather than take a chance on them failing while you are on the road. Remember, over-inflation or under-inflation combined with heavy loads, heat and high speed, can lead to a blow out, so take the few minutes it takes to check all four tires -- plus the spare.

  • Brake System - The fluid in your brakes attracts and absorbs moisture. If you haven't had a flush in the last year (or if your car hasn't), get one before you leave. Moisture and brake parts don't mix. Water-laden brake fluid causes severe damage to very costly brake parts and lowers the fluid's boiling point. A lowered boiling point can lead to brake failure during hard or prolonged brake application, which can be common on long road trips. Heavy traffic and hills seriously stress brakes and brake fluid.

"Finally, keep your speed down, make sure you have a charged cell phone and know whom to call if your car breaks down in a remote area," reminds Goss. "Planning ahead and considering the small details before you leave will help you to hit the road safely and with peace of mind."