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Monthly Archives: February 2017

Do You Really Need to Change the Transmission Fluid?

Yes, though how often this service should be performed varies by manufacturer and vehicle, and it’s open to debate.

The manufacturer’s maintenance schedule for many automatic transmissions doesn’t call for fresh fluid until 100,000 miles or, with some Ford transmissions, even 150,000 miles. A lot of mechanics say that is too long and it should be done at least every 50,000 miles. Manual transmissions may be on a different schedule, so it’s best to consult the maintenance schedule in the owner’s manual.

Like other vital automotive fluids, transmission fluid deteriorates over time. Hard use — such as frequent stop-and-go city driving, hauling heavy loads, trailer towing — will accelerate the deterioration. That kind of driving raises the operating temperature of the transmission, and heat puts more strain on the transmission and the fluid, which helps facilitate gear shifts, cools the transmission and lubricates moving parts.

If you do a lot of driving under high-stress conditions, you should check the transmission level more often and have a repair shop check the condition of the fluid. Transmission fluid often is red but can come in other colors, and as it deteriorates it tends to turn darker. It may also acquire a burned odor that could indicate it needs to be changed or that the transmission is developing mechanical problems. Another indication it needs changing is dirt or other debris in the fluid. When you take your vehicle in for an oil change or other routine service, the repair facility may urge you to pay for a transmission-fluid change or flush. Even if they can show you that the fluid is darker than original, that might not mean you need fresh fluid right now. Step back, check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual and see what the manufacturer recommends before you decide. This also will give you time to price shop.

Many repair shops use flush systems that force out the old fluid and pump in new fluid. Though that sounds good, some manufacturers say you shouldn’t do that (Honda is one; there are others), so you need to know this before you agree to a flush. Look in your owner’s manual. Some manufacturers, such as Honda, also call for their own type of transmission fluid and warn that using other types could cause damage. Moreover, some automatic transmissions have filters that should be cleaned or replaced when the fluid is changed. Make sure the repair facility is using the correct fluid and procedures for your vehicle.

If you have never changed the transmission fluid in your vehicle and have more than 100,000 miles on the odometer, should you change it now? We have seen mixed opinions on this, with some mechanics suggesting you should just leave well alone if you aren’t having shifting problems. Adding fuel to this theory are stories about older transmissions failing shortly after they finally received fresh fluid. We have a hard time accepting that fresh fluid causes transmission failure, so our inclination would be to have it done if you’re planning on keeping the vehicle a few years or longer. However, fresh fluid is not a cure for gears slipping, rough shifting or othermechanical problems, so don’t expect a fluid change to be a magic elixir.

Do You Really Need to Change Your Oil Every 3,000 Miles?

No, you don’t, according to every auto manufacturer we’ve talked to. The main advocates of the 3,000-mile oil change schedule are those who would profit by it: repair facilities, quick-lube chains and service departments at some new-car dealers.

Years ago it was a good idea to change the oil and filter frequently, but because of advances in engine materials and tighter tolerances, as well as the oil that goes into engines, most manufacturers recommend intervals of 7,500 miles or more.

Ford, Volkswagen and Porsche, for example, recommend oil changes every 10,000 miles. So does Toyota on several engines, including the Prius’ 1.8-liter four-cylinder and the Camry’s 2.5-liter four-cylinder. BMW says owners can go up to 15,000 miles between oil changes (with synthetic oil).

The intervals vary by manufacturer and engines, so consult your owner’s manual or maintenance schedule to see how often to change the oil in your vehicle and what type of oil to use. You may be surprised. We were surprised to learn that the Camry’s 2.5-liter engine requires 0W20 synthetic oil, for instance.

Manufacturers suggest you change oil more often for “severe” driving conditions, such as frequent trailer towing, extensive stop-go driving or idling in traffic, driving in extreme heat or cold, or frequent short-distance driving in which the engine doesn’t reach full operating temperature.

Some car companies, Ford and General Motors among them, equip most vehicles with oil life monitors that tell you when it’s time to change the oil based on vehicle speed, engine temperature, climate conditions, number of cold starts and other factors. They can all cite examples from owners who say the oil-life monitors indicated they could go even longer than the recommended change intervals.

If you’re nervous about going 10,000 miles or more between oil changes, then do it every six months, when you probably should also have your tires rotated (also explained in your owner’s manual). GM says to change your oil at least once a year even if the service indicator warning light doesn’t come on. With longer recommended intervals between oil changes, it’s more important to check the oil level at least once a month to make sure you have enough.

But to change oil every 3,000 miles is probably wasting money. Environmentalists say it also adds to the glut of used oil that must be recycled or disposed, and the state of California is trying to discourage the practice.

If the guy at the quick-lube shop says he’s only trying to help you when he recommends frequent oil changes, consider this: It is not in the interest of an auto manufacturer for you to suffer premature engine failure caused by worn-out oil. If that happens, they might have to pay for repairs under warranty and probably will lose you as a customer. Yet, they’re the ones advising you to follow longer oil-change intervals.

What’s a Cabin Air Filter and When Should You Replace It?

The cabin air filter, a feature found on most late-model vehicles, cleans the air that comes into the interior through the heating, ventilation and air-conditioning system. It catches dust, pollen and other airborne material that can make riding in a car unpleasant, particularly if you have allergies or other respiratory problems.

Recommendations on when it should be replaced vary by manufacturer — some say every 12,000 or 15,000 miles, others longer — and how often can depend on how much you drive and where. Check the maintenance schedule in your owner’s manual. If you drive in heavy traffic in an urban area that has poor air quality, you could need to replace the filter annually or even more often. However, that also could be true in a desert climate where there is a lot of dust.

Some signs that you need a new cabin air filter are reduced air flow through your climate control system, such as when you crank up the fan too high and get more noise than results. Another is persistent bad odors. Even if you don’t have these warnings, you should have the filter checked at least once a year, and you may be able to do that yourself.

Many cabin air filters are located behind the glove box and are easily accessible by freeing the glove box from its fasteners (instructions should be in the owner’s manual). Others are located under the dashboard and may not be easy to reach, or under the hood where fresh air enters the climate control system. Some of these filters are expensive, as in $50 or more at dealerships, so you could save money by buying a replacement at a parts store and doing it yourself.

If a dealership service department or repair shop recommends you get a new cabin air filter, ask to see the current one. Depending on how long the filter has been in service, you might be shocked at what you see: leaves, twigs, insects, soot and grime that literally cover the entire surface that comes in contact with incoming air. You’ll know it’s time for a new cabin air filter.

How Often Should I Replace My Accessory Drive Belt?

Most vehicles have a rubber belt on the front of the engine that drives accessories such as the air-conditioning compressor, power steering pump and alternator. If this accessory drive belt (also called a V or serpentine belt) breaks, the battery won’t get charged, the air conditioner won’t blow cold air and the power steering will go out. In addition, if the belt drives the water pump, the engine could overheat.

Most manufacturers call for periodic inspection of the belt as part of scheduled maintenance, but few list a specific replacement interval, and inspection intervals vary widely.

Mercedes-Benz, for example, says to inspect the belt every two years or 20,000 miles, while Volkswagen says to check it every 40,000 miles. On most Ford vehicles, the manufacturer says to start inspecting it after 100,000 miles and then every 10,000 miles. On many GM vehicles, the first recommended inspection is at 150,000 miles or 10 years.

Though these belts often last many years, they can become cracked or frayed and need to be replaced. That’s why they should be inspected at least annually on vehicles that are more than a few years old. In addition, if a belt needs to be replaced, the pulleys and tensioners that guide the belt should be inspected to determine if they caused damage other than normal wear.

A belt that isn’t cracked or frayed may look like it’s in good shape, but grooves on the hidden side may be worn enough that the belt slips on the pulleys that drive the accessories. That will cause problems in systems that rely on the belt to keep things humming. For example, a slipping drive belt may cause the alternator to work intermittently or at reduced power, and the battery won’t get fully recharged as a result, perhaps triggering a warning light.

Another sign of a worn belt is a squealing noise under acceleration. That could indicate that the belt is slipping because of wear, a belt tensioner is loose or a pulley is out of alignment.

Most modern vehicles use belts made from ethylene propylene diene monomer, a synthetic rubber that lasts longer than older types of engine belts. Most belt manufacturers estimate the typical lifespan of an EPDM belt to be 50,000 to 60,000 miles, and some say it’s more than 100,000 miles. However, it can be hard to tell how worn one is with just a visual check because EPDM belts are less likely to crack or lose chunks of rubber than other types. They should be inspected by a professional.