What Will Go Wrong?

Murphy's Law says whatever can go wrong will go wrong. That is accompanied by the Fraschini Corollary that intones nothing is as easy as it should be. Now we all know that these two time-tested principles apply to automobiles, which are, along with DVD players, VCRs, and electric toothbrushes, among the most complicated consumer products known to woman and man. But let's get a little more specific here. When it comes to cars, trucks, minivans and SUVs, just what does go wrong? What should you, as a consumer/owner/operator really be looking out for?

Luckily, the fine folks at AAA have quantified that for us. During nationwide clinics conducted by AAA and its affiliated repair facilities during last year's AAA Car Care Month, inspections conducted on nearly 6,500 vehicles by 20 different AAA clubs resulted in a good snapshot of what could be going wrong right now on your personal chariot.

Tire pressure was the number one vehicle issue identified by the study. This is bad news because inattention to tire pressure can have serious safety implications. Low tire pressure can cause poor vehicle handling and may lead to a blow-out that can have potentially catastrophic effects. The good news is that the fix is simple and free.

"Drivers should check tire pressure at least once a month to assure tires are not under- or over-inflated," said Mike Lavoie, the 2006 NAPA Technician of the Year and owner of Lavoie's NAPA AutoCare Center in Haverhill, New Hampshire. "Low pressure in the tires can increase wear and fuel consumption, while having too much pressure may reduce traction. Keeping tires properly aligned will also help assure longer tire life and improve fuel economy."
Engine oil that was low or needed changing was the second most common malady the study discovered. Operating vehicles low on oil will typically cause wear in camshafts, bearings and valves that will cost your engine a substantial portion of its life. If the level gets too low this wear could cause very costly failures up to and including "blown" engines. Again, the fix is simple: Check the oil level regularly and change the oil at frequent intervals.

Clogged air filters were the third most common issue. NAPA's Lavoie said that maintaining and replacing air filters when needed will ensure better air flow to the engine. This, in turn, will improve engine efficiency and result in more power and better fuel mileage.

While it might seem so rudimentary as to be ludicrous, low windshield washer fluid was the fourth area that needed to be addressed. It might not even seem to be a problem, but poor visibility can be a safety hazard. The fix: Fill 'er up and check the reservoir now and then.

Insufficient or dirty engine coolant was the fifth most common issue. Having a full cooling system is essential to maintaining a safe engine temperature, and dirty coolant with depleted additives can no longer protect the cooling system's iron, steel, copper, and aluminum parts from corrosion and deterioration. Remember, overheating can destroy an engine quickly, and an engine replacement is very costly.

"The coolant reservoir should be checked monthly and topped off with the appropriate antifreeze and water mixture as needed," said Lavoie. "It's easy to check the windshield washer fluid at the same time."
Other areas cited as needing attention during the inspections included battery cables/clamps/terminals, antifreeze protection, wiper blades, tire tread, and transmission fluid.

Cleveland-based auto writer Luigi Fraschini performs a great deal of his own maintenance, and he also works on his car.