Statistically, most cars reach the end of their life cycle without being involved in a crash.
They’re often gradually driven into the ground and scrapped when the cost of repairs outweighs their value. Call it automotive Darwinism or rampant consumerism; either way, this cycle can be delayed or stopped altogether by simply taking small, basic steps to keep your car in good condition.
Here’s a list of what you should avoid doing to ensure your vehicle lasts as long as possible.
Driving with the oil light on
There are some warning lights you can safely ignore; the red oil light is not one of them. Stop as soon as possible if it comes on while the engine is running and turn the car off. Check the oil and top it up as-needed. While a faulty sending unit can trigger the light, we wouldn’t bet an engine on it.
Running out of fuel
Running out of gasoline or diesel can wreak havoc on your car by letting debris enter the fuel delivery system. At best, you’ll have a few fuel filters to change. At worst, you’ll need to pay a mechanic to tear apart your fuel-injection system. It’s usually wise to fill up when you’ve got about a quarter tank left.
Keeping a car under a cover all the time
There’s nothing wrong with occasionally keeping your car under a cover but don’t make it a habit. Covers trap moisture, so it’s like parking your car in a damp garage all the time. If your car is older, keeping it in an artificially humid environment can cause (or accelerate) rust problems.
Letting rust spread
It doesn’t matter whether you drive a Subaru or a Porsche: sooner or later, most cars rust. Get rust spots treated and/or repaired as quickly as possible. The tiny spot you see under the carpet in the driver-side footwell may not look like it’s worth worrying about but give it enough time and you’ll begin to lose coins through it. It’s cheaper to get rust fixed before it begins to chew through metal.
Putting gasoline in a diesel (and vice versa)
Cars have become stunningly advanced but there’s not a single model capable of running on both gasoline and diesel. Don’t mix them under any circumstances to avoid an expensive repair bill.
The fix is fairly straight-forward if the fuel doesn’t leave the tank so don’t try to start the engine if you accidentally put gasoline in a diesel or vice versa. Even cranking the starter motor for a few seconds will send the wrong fuel to the engine and the repair bill skyrockets once the cylinder head comes off.
Every car needs basic maintenance but the intervals vary from model to model. Check your owner’s manual (or look online) to find out when you should change the oil, the various belts and the brake fluid, for example, and get it done on time. Maintenance intervals aren’t ballpark suggestions.
Remember to look under your car to make sure it’s not marking its territory with one or more of its fluids. If you do spot a leak, figure out what’s leaking and where it’s coming from and get it fixed as quickly as possible. Oil and coolant are the most common leaks; brake fluid is the most dangerous.
Riding the clutch
If your car has a manual transmission, an excellent way to kill the clutch prematurely is to drive with your foot resting on the pedal. Keep your foot off the clutch pedal when you’re not changing gears because even a slight amount of pressure starts to disengage it.
Letting a car sit for too long
Cars are designed to be driven on a regular basis and letting one sit for months on end (or, worse, years on end) can cause expensive damage. Seals dry out over time, which causes leaks if they’re part of your engine and lets water in if they’re around your doors or windows. The sun takes its toll on interior parts, like the dashboard and the upholstery. And, in extreme cases, the engine could seize.
Towing/hauling too much
Never exceed your car’s towing and hauling capacity. Doing so can damage the drivetrain, suspension parts and even the chassis. All cars can tow, even a Smart ForTwo can pull a small trailer, but check the maximum capacity (either in your owner’s manual or online) before hooking anything up.
Using the wrong oil
Read the owner’s manual before adding oil to the engine. While the brand you buy doesn’t matter much, make sure the oil you’re pouring in has the correct viscosity, like 10W40. Using the wrong oil wears out your engine prematurely. And, keep in mind the type of oil you need might vary depending on the temperature where you drive. Finally, if your car needs synthetic oil, use it.
Not using the jack points
Most cars have two jack points per side: one behind the front wheel and one in front of the rear wheel. These points are made strong enough to handle the car’s weight so that’s where the jack should always go if you need to change a wheel, for example. Putting it elsewhere can damage structural parts like the rocker panels and the floors, and potentially cause the jack to go through bodywork and causing the car to fall on you, which of course would be hugely dangerous.
Putting only water in the cooling system
Never fill your car’s cooling system with only water. It freezes in the winter and causes rust year-round. Use the type of coolant recommended by your car’s manufacturer and mix it with the correct amount of water if needed. You’ll find this information in the owner’s manual, online or by calling the nearest dealer.
Leaving the windows open during a rain storm
With few exceptions, car interiors and water don’t mix. Leaving your windows and/or your sunroof open during a rain storm damages the upholstery, the carpet, the various trim pieces and the numerous electric parts like the window switches. Double-check that everything is closed when the sky darkens.
Driving while the engine overheats
Stop as soon as possible if your engine begins to overheat. The temperature gauge will normally tell you if something is wrong, though your car may have a warning light instead. Even if nothing looks amiss, pull over if you smell something burning or if you see smoke coming from the engine bay.
We’ve heard a lot of urban myths about overheating. Some claim driving faster will keep the engine cool by channeling more air to it while others assert turning the heater on will keep the temperature in check. These methods sometimes work but the best practice is to stop, identify the problem and fix it.
Driving through deep water
Driving through deep water in a standard city car isn’t recommended because the risk of ruining the engine is high. Keep in mind most SUVs on the market aren’t equipped for hardcore off-roading. The only way to safely cross a river in a car is to fit it with an aftermarket snorkel to raise the air intake.
Shifting into reverse while moving forward
Never shift into reverse unless you’re at a complete stop. Doing so can cause expensive damage to the transmission. This is less of a concern on a vehicle with an automatic transmission, especially if it’s relatively new, but it’s possible to accidentally select reverse while moving forward in a car with a stick-shift.
Making too many modifications
The aftermarket is brimming with parts motorists can buy to modify their car but it’s important to know where to draw the line. While fitting an upgraded sound system likely won’t ruin your car’s resale value, more permanent changes (like shaving the door handles) can make selling it a nightmare.
Fitting cheap parts
Saving money by installing cheap replacement parts is enticing, especially if your car is near the bottom of its depreciation curve, but it’s never recommended. At best, bargain-priced parts will fail sooner than high-quality units made by carmakers or their suppliers, like Bosch. At worst, they’ll turn your car into a rolling safety hazard that puts you, your passengers and the folks around you in danger.
Not using common sense
Regardless of what you drive, whether it’s by passion or by necessity, don’t forget a car is ultimately a piece of machinery that needs to be operated with care and common sense. If you’re unsure whether your Ford Focus can drive over a deep rut in a dirt road, don’t try it. As tempting as it is to channel your inner Lewis Hamilton in a BMW 3 Series, remember there are other road users – including some on two wheels. Driving, like much else in life, requires a little bit of foresight to keep the shiny side up.