Road Trip Time

Is Your Car Ready?


by Jay Ramowski

Few things in life seem to conjure memories of our youth more than the infamous family road trip. Road trips have almost no socioeconomic boundaries, and for that brief period of time riding in the family truckster, crisscrossing America’s highways to visit Grandma or the Grand Canyon, all are equal: same rest stop bathroom breaks; same fast food and same universal “are we there yet” from the back seat.

Nobody wants their vacation memories to be the time the car broke down in the middle of nowhere and had to ride in a smelly tow truck and sleep in a one-star motel bed for half of the vacation waiting on repairs. For the most part, problems can be avoided with a bit of pre-road trip preventative maintenance.

You need not be a car expert, or even car “comfortable,” to check the basics prior to leaving. Regardless of your comfort level with the automobile, the owner’s manual (likely tucked inside your glove box and never opened) is a great resource for the when, where and how of your car.

The first step to a successful road trip has nothing to do with your car at all; it has to do with you, the driver. Your mental attitude will make or break the trip. Sure you might incur traffic jams, or a jerk wearing gold chains in a Corvette cutting you off, or even a flat tire. But if you chalk it up to the experience, and look at the big picture, you’ll smile and move on.

Below are some basic tips on what to check before leaving for your big adventure. Your local mechanic can inexpensively address all of them, if you don’t feel comfortable doing so yourself.

Outside Your Car -------------------------------------------------------------------

TIRES: As the outside temperature warms up, under inflation becomes your tires’ worst enemy. Check the pressure in each tire with a tire gauge. Adjust the pressure if necessary; always inflate to your car manufacturer’s recommendation (typically printed on a sticker on the edge of the door or in the glove box). Remember to check tire pressure when the tires are cold (before driving more than a couple miles) Also, check to make sure they have tread and for anything that appears unusual, like metal cord showing, cuts, bulges or other damage. If you find something you are unsure of, stop at your local tire professional for a quick glance and opinion. Check your spare tire (if equipped) to make sure it’s inflated to the proper pressure and ready just in case.

LIGHTS: With your car idling, turn on the headlights and walk around the car, making sure all lights are working. Better to find a burned out headlight now than on a dark country road.

WINDSHIELD WIPERS AND WASHERS: Inspect both wiper blades for cracks and tears. Check that each blade is attached to the wiper arm firmly and not about to fall off at the most inopportune moment (such as that blinding thunderstorm in the Louisiana Bayou). Replace the blades if they appear worn or brittle. You can condition blades that are still good by running a microfiber cloth moistened with windshield washer fluid or Windex down the edges to remove dirt and oxidized rubber. Also check the washer system to be sure it sprays.

Under Your Hood -------------------------------------------------------------------

FLUIDS: This is where your owner’s manual will be valuable for identifying locations, but with today’s car designers using clearly marked reservoirs, you likely won’t even get your hands dirty. Check the level of all of your vehicle’s vital fluids: These include engine oil; coolant; transmission fluid; brake fluid; power-steering fluid; and windshield washer fluid. One of the most basic and effective ways to ensure your car is ready to go is to perform a spot check. Run your car in the driveway for 5-10 minutes. Then move it and inspect the area it was parked in. If there are drips of anything other than cold water (from A/C system, touch it and check), then you may want to have that leak checked by a professional.

BELTS and HOSES: While your car is cool and not running, look under the hood at the condition of any hoses and belts you see. If you see cracks or any soft places in a hose, have it checked. Typical hose life is four to six years and most serpentine belts last 60,000-80,000 miles. If they are older than that, consider having them checked and possibly replaced.

BATTERY: Summer heat is brutal on car batteries. The average life of a battery is three to four years, so if it hasn’t been changed in the last four years, consider it on borrowed time and think about a replacement.

AIR-CONDITIONER: If you’ve been driving around thinking that you just don’t seem as cool as you used to (welcome to the club), and that lack of cool is mostly from the A/C vents, consider an A/C tune-up.  Often, it’s just a matter of adding a little refrigerant and you’re cool again.

OTHER ITEMS: A few other items to consider are making sure you have a working car charger for your cell phone, some cash since there are still places where plastic isn’t king and consider a roadside assistance plan from one of the nationwide providers. It’s also nice to have a portable GPS (or maps on your smartphone) and a selection of your favorite road trip music.

Jay Ramowski is a commercial helicopter pilot, automotive consultant and professional driver based in Charleston. Jay brings an easygoing love of all things mechanical and a particular passion for cars and the people who drive them.

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