Car Care: Common car services explained

Does your car really need all those "flushes", "brake adjustments" and "tire rebalancing" services or your dealer tries to sell you something you don't need? Do modern cars still need a tune-up? Do all those filters really need to be replaced? We have done our research and consulted with top car experts. Here is what we found:

Tire rotation

Tire RotationTire rotation is a service where the tires are moved or "rotated" between front and rear axles. It helps to even up the tire wear, as front tires wear differently than the rear ones. While doing a tire rotation, your mechanic can also check your brakes, as they are more accessible when tires are removed. Regular tire rotations prolong the life of your tires, however, some cars don't need it and in some cases, tire rotation can cause undesirable effects. Read more: How often should tires be rotated?
Value for the money: Rating: four and a half stars
Price range: $18-$55
Time to perform: 20-30 minutes

Air filter replacement

Air filterAn engine air filter  prevents dust and sand from getting into your engine. A very dirty air filter restricts air flow and adds strain on your engine.  An air filter needs to be replaced every 20,000-30,000 miles or if it's found to be too dirty. Usually, your mechanic checks the condition of the air filter in your car  during regular oil changes. This is how a dirty air filter looks compared to the new one. In most cars, an air filter is fairly easy to replace. Some car owners change their air filters as a DIY project. Many car manufacturers post the instructions on how to replace an air filter in the owner's manual or in the 'Owners' section of the manufacturer's website. Read more: How often should an air filter be changed?
Value for the money: Rating: four  stars
Price range: $30-65
Time to perform: 10-20 minutes



Cabin filter replacement

Cabin FilterA cabin or 'pollen' filter is installed in the heating and ventilation system of your vehicle to filter air entering the cabin. When a cabin filter is very dirty, you may notice reduced air flow or unpleasant odor from the air vents. Compare: dirty vs new cabin filter. Air you and your passengers breathe inside the car comes through this filter. A cabin filter is usually recommended to be replaced every 15,000-30,000 miles; check your maintenance schedule for details. It needs to be replaced more often if you regularly drive on unpaved roads. Read more: When a cabin filter should be replaced?
Value for the money: Rating: four and a half stars
Price range: $40-$95
Time to perform: 5-30 minutes

Transmission fluid flush

Transmission flush machineMany car manufacturers recommend changing your automatic transmission fluid at certain intervals (typically 30,000-60,000 miles). This is needed because over time, transmission fluid becomes contaminated and loses its lubricating qualities. As the fluid deteriorates, your transmission starts wearing faster. There are two ways of changing automatic transmission fluid in a car: 'drain and refill' and 'transmission flush'. The difference is with the 'drain and refill' method, only about 30-40% of transmission fluid can be changed at once, while the 'transmission flush' method allows changing 85-95% of transmission fluid at one service. A transmission fluid flush is performed with a special flush machine that a technician connects in series to one of the transmission fluid cooler lines. With the engine running, a flush machine pumps old transmission fluid out, simultaneously replacing it with new fluid. There are a few things to be aware of:
– Some car manufacturers, (e.g. Honda) don't recommend using the transmission flush method; you can ask your dealer or check your owner's manual to make sure.
– In high-mileage cars, the 'drain and refill' method is usually considered safer, as it's less 'intrusive'.
– It's very important to use only the recommended transmission fluid type.
– Some car manufacturers don't recommend changing transmission fluid at all, check your maintenance schedule for details.
Value for the money: Rating: four and a half stars
Price range: $125-4250
Time to perform: 40 minutes - 1 hour

Timing belt replacement

Timing BeltA timing belt drives the camshaft(s) in your engine and if it fails your car will be stranded in the middle of the road. Timing belt replacement intervals vary from 60K miles to 106K miles. Not all cars have a timing belt; many newer cars use a maintenance-free timing chain that you don't need to worry about unless there is a problem with it. How do you know if your car has a timing belt or chain? Easy, you can just check your maintenance schedule; if your car has a timing belt, it has to be mentioned in the maintenance schedule. If you are not ready to pay for timing belt replacement at this time, you can ask your mechanic to check the timing belt condition. Read more: When does the timing belt need to be replaced.
Value for the money: Rating: five stars
Price range: $180-$650
Time to perform: 1.5 - 5 hours

Struts and shock absorbers

Front strutStruts and shock absorbers are parts of the vehicle suspension. They absorb shocks from road bumps and potholes and keep your vehicle riding smooth. Most cars have struts in the front (one at each front wheel) and shock absorbers or struts in the rear suspension. Struts and shock absorbers don't need to be replaced in regular mileage intervals, however they need to be regularly inspected. If a strut or shock absorber is found to be bad, it must be replaced. Driving with a failed strut or shock absorber is unsafe. Struts and shock absorbers wear faster if roads are bad. What are the symptoms of a damaged strut? Is it necessary to replace both struts? Read this article: When struts and shock absorbers should be replaced.
Value for the money (if failed): Rating: five stars
Price range: $280-$420 for both shock absorbers, $600-850 for both struts
Time to perform: 1.5 - 3.5 hours

Tune-up

Tune-upA tune-up is a major service that usually includes an oil change, replacing spark plugs, engine air filter, possibly fuel filter and a few other items depending on your vehicle's mileage and maintenance requirements. How do you know if your car needs a tune-up? A tune-up is usually done whenever your spark plugs are due to be replaced or if your engine isn't running as smooth as before. For example, if your car is getting more difficult to start, if your engine runs rough occasionally, or if your gas mileage is getting worse, a tune-up is a good way to start. However, a tune-up is more of a preventative maintenance for your engine than a universal solution for all problems. If you have a specific concern with your car, a tune-up might not be the best option. For example, a warning light coming on on the dash or a certain noise or a drivability concern should be diagnosed properly and repaired accordingly. Read more: How often does a car need a tune-up.
Value for the money: Rating: four stars
Price range: $150-$360
Time to perform: 1.5 - 3.5 hours

Wheel alignment

Wheel AlignmentWheel alignment is a service where a mechanic checks and adjusts the angles of the wheels relative to each other and to the car body. The wheel angles change over time as a result of wear of the suspension components and sagging of the springs. Hitting large potholes and curbs can also throw your wheel angles out of alignment. If your wheels are not aligned properly, your car won't handle well and your tires and suspension will wear faster. Even your fuel economy may drop. Signs that your wheels are out of alignment include steering wheel being off center when driving straight, pulling to one side when driving on a level road, tire screeching when turning, poor handling, uneven tire wear. For most cars, the wheel alignment is not listed in the maintenance schedule. Typically, it is recommended if there are any signs that your wheels are out of alignment. The wheel alignment also needs to be done after some steering or suspension repairs, after accidents or after lowering or raising the suspension. Read more: How often should the wheel alignment be done.
Value for the money: Rating: four stars
Price range: $89-$125
Time to perform: 40 minutes - 1.5 hours

Fuel System Flush

Fuel InjectorFuel system flush is a service where a special solution is run through the engine fuel injection system to clean the fuel injectors and de-carbonize the engine combustion chambers. This service is commonly recommended for older high-mileage cars that have some issues with the engine performance or excessive emissions. In some old engines, the fuel system flush can even restore the engine compression to a certain degree. However, this service won't be much of a benefit if you do your oil changes regularly and your engine runs fine. This service is not something that is recommended by car manufacturers and is not included in the regular maintenance schedule. In addition, cheaper fuel injector cleaning additives are widely available and can be purchased in Walmart and other stores.
Value for the money: Rating: four stars
Price range: $89-$159
Time to perform: 45 minutes - 1 hours

Wheel balancing

Wheel BalancingWheel balancing is a service where the wheels are balanced on a special tire balancing machine or wheel balancer. Wheel balancing is usually recommended when you have a vibration that is suspected to be coming from one of your wheels. This type of vibration is more noticeable when driving at highway speeds (55-65 mph). To balance a wheel, a technician removes it from your vehicle and spins it on a computerized wheel balancer. If the wheel is out of balance, a technician will attach small weights to the rim to compensate. Wheel balancing is also done whenever a tire is replaced. Sometimes, a vibration might be caused by a tire that is out of round or has flat spots. To diagnose this type of problem, a wheel must be tested on a more advanced balancer, such as, for example, Hunter Road Force. Wheel balancing is usually not listed in the car manufacturer's maintenance schedule. It's only recommended if your car has a vibration issue.
Value for the money: Rating: four stars
Price range: $55-$120
Time to perform: 30-45 minutes

Filling tires with Nitrogen

Nitrogen in tiresFilling tires with nitrogen is more of an option than a necessity. Nitrogen does help keeping your tires from losing pressure longer, but the advantage is small. Consumer Reports did a study on nitrogen in tires, where they measured a loss of tire pressure over one-year period in tires filled with nitrogen compared to tires filled with air. The result was that after one year, tires with nitrogen lost, on average, 1.3 psi less than tires filled with air (tires were initially set at 30 psi). In another study, NHTSA also observed that nitrogen-filled tires keep pressure longer, but they noted that nitrogen in tires is not a substitute for regularly maintaining tire pressure. One often mentioned downside is that when your tires are low, not every shop will have nitrogen to top them up. In our view, if your mechanic will fill your tires with nitrogen for free or for a very reasonable price, why not? If you have to pay more, it's up to you how much this option is worth.
Value for the money: Rating: three stars
Price range: $55-$80
Time to perform: 30-45 minutes

About maintenance schedules

Your vehicle's maintenance schedule lists  basic regular services that your car needs and recommended mileage intervals when those services need to be done.  Checking your maintenance schedule might be useful when your dealer or a repair shop suggests some additional services that "are recommended at this mileage." You can find the maintenance schedule in your car's owner's manual or in a separate brochure that came with your car. Some car manufacturers post maintenance schedules online; here are a few links: Toyota Owners - Find a maintenance schedule in the Warranty and Maintenance Guide that you can download in the pdf format (Follow the tab "Resources" and select "Manuals and Warranty")
Nissan Maintenance Schedules
Chevrolet Maintenance Schedule
Ford, Lincoln & Mercury Maintenance Schedule
Hyundai Recommended Maintenance Schedules
Mazda Manuals and References
Typically, there are two maintenance schedules; one for normal and one for severe driving conditions. 'Severe' conditions include extreme hot and below-freezing temperatures, towing a trailer, driving only short trips, off-roading, racing, etc.  The main difference is that the schedule for severe conditions recommends shorter service intervals.
Many newer car (e.g BMW, Honda, GM) have an in-vehicle maintenance reminder that will display when your next maintenance service is due. One thing to be aware of is that these systems have limited capabilities. For example, in many cars the maintenance reminder system may calculate when your next oil change is due, but it might not know if your engine oil level dropped. It's also worth noting that industry experts don't always agree with car manufacturers in terms of maintenance requirements. In recent years, car manufacturers increasingly compete for lower ownership costs. As a result, it's not uncommon to see less stringent maintenance requirements, for example, 10,000- or 15,000-mile recommended oil change intervals. However most car experts will probably tell you that your car needs more frequent services.