Ask LH: How Can I Keep My Older Car Running Smoothly?

Ask LH: How Can I Keep My Older Car Running Smoothly?

Dear Lifehacker, I have recently purchased a car that is 10 years old and has less than 90,000km on the clock. It runs beautifully and I’d like to try and keep it that way. Besides getting it serviced at regular intervals and not driving like a moron, do you have any tips for keeping it running smoothly? I’ve seen advertisements for the Hiclone and other engine adapters which apparently help improve efficiency. Are they really worth it, or are there specific gadgets that I should keep an eye out for? Thanks, Driven

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Dear Driven,

When it comes to car reliability, the most important consideration usually centres around the initial purchasing decision. Simply put, some makes and models are more prone to engine trouble than others, especially without regular maintenance. What you want is a car with good fuel efficiency and low upkeep requirements — in addition to giving you less hassle, this can also save you thousands of dollars over the lifespan of your vehicle.

If you’re unsure about your car’s reputation, pay a visit to some automobile forums and see what other owners think. If the general consensus is that it’s a bit of a lemon, you might be better off selling it while it’s still in good nick. You can check our expert’s guide to buying and selling used cars here.

We also flung your question to Gizmodo’s resident car guru Campbell Simpson. Here’s what he had to say about general car upkeep, as well as the validity of so-called fuel extenders:

You’re onto the right track — a little bit of TLC goes a long way with cars, and as long as you drive with mechanical sympathy you’re doing just about as much as you can to extend the service life of your car. Being smooth on the accelerator and brake, and the clutch if it’s a manual, means you won’t have to replace brake pads or other consumable components before their time.   If your car is sitting around the 90,000km mark, it’ll probably be due for a major service some time in the next year or two, and it’s likely that service will include a timing belt change. This might cost a little bit more than you want to pay — I shelled out around $1000 for the timing belt change on my Polo GTI at the 125,000km mark — but it’s a mandatory piece of preventative maintenance that stops your engine block from becoming an expensive paperweight. (Of course, your car might use a timing chain that never needs replacement, so read around the ‘net for advice.)   Don’t fall prey to the marketing claims of the Hiclone or Firepower or any other allegedly-fuel-saving devices — they’re all snake oil. Look for an independent scientific test, and multiple peer reviews of that test, before you buy anything that makes outrageous claims about improving your car’s fuel efficiency, especially when it claims a massive 20 per cent improvement from a piece of metal. I could go on for hours about why it’s going to make precisely zero difference, but I’ll just summarise with this — yeah, right.   One thing that might improve your fuel efficiency and engine performance, depending on the car, is a freer-flowing air filter, but even then the gains are marginal. A bottle of injector cleaner, upper engine cleaner or octane booster every 10,000km can help clear up or prevent carbon deposits that can slightly impact volumetric efficiency. Regular scheduled maintenance — fresh oil and oil filter, new spark plugs and a quick check-over of your battery and electrical system — is all you need to do.   Honestly, the best thing you can do to improve your car’s fuel efficiency is to pay attention to traffic when you’re driving — don’t accelerate away from lights quickly, predict the flow of traffic so you can lift off the loud pedal and coast when possible, and don’t ever accelerate towards a red light or a stop sign — if you do that, you may as well be throwing money away. Take your time and spend a few seconds more on every trip, and you will save dollars in the long run.

If any petrol-head readers have additional engine maintenance tips of their own, let Driven know in the comments section below.

Cheers Lifehacker

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  • I’m chiming in again to say please don’t buy a Hiclone or fuel-saving tablets or any of that rubbish. They don’t work. Just drive your car with a bit of care and she’ll be apples.

    • Just reading your tips, thinking you sound just like me haha.

      I never understood why people accelerate towards a red light!! crazy.

      If the car is turbocharged, then upgrading the air intake system will almost certainly result in better efficiency, same as removing the restrictions in the exhaust will. If it is a NA engine then sell it.

  • one your first 10 or so tanks of fuel, get a feeling for what fuel gives you the best fuel consumption too.
    i drive a 1995 nissan micra but i use 98 BP fuel because it gives me about 60 to 70 km extra per tank, thats compared to 91 BP fuel and also compared to 98 Shell fuel and Catlext Vortex and thats an extra 2 day of driving to work for me, so i justify it that way.
    i also use it, because i believe the marketing about cleaner fuel, better for your engine, blah blah blah, but thats coz i dont know any better.

    also, find a mechanic who will spend the time of day explaining things to you about your car, chances are if they are willing to do that, they may very well be aiming to save you coin too – but ask around and look on forums for a good, honest mechanic.

    • How much would 60-70km of the cheaper fuel cost though? Is it more or less than the difference in price for filling the tank with the different fuels?

      • It would be very close either way.

        A 1995 Micra has a 42L tank. So we can assume he uses about 40L each fill (most people wont wait until it’s completely empty).

        They have a combined fuel usage of 5.4L/100km but we’ll also assume being an older car it uses a bit more, say 7L/100km.

        Normally it’d be about 20 cents difference between 91 and 98.
        40L at $1.50 for 91 would be $60
        40L at $1.70 for 98 would be $68

        For an extra 60km the car would burn 4.2L of 91 and cost $6.30 for a total cost of $66.30.

        As you can see though I’ve used a few assumptions but it would be pretty close.

        • it says it has a 42L tank, but the most i ever put in at the pump is 35L and thats when the odometer is on about 510km (give or take 20km)
          thanks for the maths though 🙂

          • Not a problem, I was slightly wrong with how I calculated it though.
            Quick correction:
            35L = $50.4 for 91 or $57.75 for 98.
            You would only get around 450km out of a tank of 91 which equals 7.78L/100km
            Or 510km out of 98 which is closer to 6.8L/100km.

            You would need an extra 4.67L of fuel to go an extra 60km or $6.72

            Making the difference only marginal $57.12 for 91 or $57.75 for 98.

            Once you factor the time it takes for each time you have to refill (especially if it’s 2 extra days travel you get out of the tank) it works well to keep doing what you’re doing.

        • in SA, 91 Octane, usually on a good day is around $1.44 sometimes as low as$1.40 (but rarely) and on those days the 98 is about $1.64,$1.65, or $1.67 (depending on which BP i manage to luckily pick to fill up)

  • Regular maintenance, good quality oil and filters, get a scanner to be able to check engine lights yourself (they cost about $40 and stop you getting ripped off). Make sure the timing belt change is done on time, and check bushes/rubbers and shocks.
    Most modern cars will run nearly forever if serviced properly at regular intervals.
    Fuel additives are total bullshit for modern cars, steer clear of all of them.

  • A few things that affect fuel economy other than the style of driving you perform are spark plugs, O2 sensor and airflow meter.
    The spark plugs are responsible for actually burning the fuel, so ensuring that they are in good condition and the correct type for your car is important. Things like gap and temperature range can vary, across plugs that may all fit your car. Poor condition plugs can lead to your car simply not burning all of the fuel delivered to a cylinder, causing a rich fuel smell in your exhaust (don’t sniff it lol). You’re literally blowing unused fuel out of your exhaust. My car is doing this now, and I’ve got a slight miss. Must get on that…
    Your O2 sensor measures exhaust gas to see how much oxygen is making it into the engine (and our of the exhaust). It adjusts how much fuel it puts into your engine accordingly. When these start to fail, or go completely, you will probably get a check engine light. To keep your car running safely under failure, it will go to a safety fuel map, delivering way more fuel to your engine than is needed to prevent it from running lean (boom). You will smell fuel in the exhaust again.
    The final thing is the MAF or airflow meter. This measures the amount of air coming in via your intake. The sensors on these can vary, but are usually a hot piece of wire that is cooled by the passing air. The temperature changes the conductivity of the wire and adjusts the fuel being delivered accordingly. If this wire gets dirty it can start messing with your fuel efficiency. So it’s important to keep your air filter clean for this reason. Super cheap/Bursons/Autobarn all sell a special product to clean the MAF. It comes in a pressure pack and can be squirted onto it once removed. I just used contact cleaner.

    All these things should be regularly checked by a mechanic. But sometimes they’ll only worry about it if getting a fault code or you report a check engine light. It’s good however to know who’s who in the zoo, or in this case, under your bonnet and being aware of it yourself.

    Drive safe!

  • Preventative maintenance. Don’t wait for something to break, fix it when it is weak. find a good mechanic that will point out a few small things and repair then cheaply, as they are probably genuine, as opposed to a mechanic that gives you a $2000 list of things that aren’t needed.

    I hate it when people complain there car isn’t running right, do nothing about it, then complain more when it gets worse.

  • To get the most out of your car, you want to free up all the intakes and the exhaust. Making your intake as free-flowing as possible will allow more air to be pushed through the engine at a faster rate, which improves power as well as economy. Getting a freer flowing exhaust helps too, (especially if you get extractors with a hi-flow catalytic converter) as it causes less back-pressure in the manifold, allowing for exhaust gases to be “pulled” out of the engine faster, meaning less power is wasted “pushing” them out.

    Plus, with a high flow cat and extractors as well as a good quality exhaust system, your car will have faster throttle response, more torque, more power, and will sound lovely. 🙂
    I’ve got an 05 BA MKII XR6 and I’ve just put on a 2.5″ (going to 3″ this week) Redback exhaust system (catback, getting around to doing headers and cat soon) and it sounds mean but also I’ve noticed it has improved power and given it better economy.

    Basically, work on the intake and output of the car. Keep it all well lubricated, regular services, proper fuels, etc. 😀

  • When you find a good mechanic, stick to him. He is not neccessarily the guy with a big name badge. Stick to the manual service intervals for your car, a good mechanic knows to do this. Falcons and Commodores regularly run as taxis to 700,000 km or more, so 96,000 is nothing as long as you look after the car.

  • The first point is do not buy a car unless it has a good reputation, even then you may get a lemon.
    Second point, maintain it correctly with good oil, fuel and quality proven parts that are correct for the car.
    Third point keep it clean inside and out and you will enjoy the drive.
    Fourth point, practise your driving skills when ever you drive it and you will enjoy it even more.

    • I definitely recommend mighty car mods. There a couple of aussie guys that like to muck around with cars. But you end up learning a heap about the basics of car maintenance with a great deal of confidence.

  • If you really want fuel efficiency, look at fitting a small turbo.
    As long as you can avoid using the extra torque to it’s full and continue to drive the way you currently do, you’ll see a significant saving. It may be outweighed by the cost but that depends on how long you plan on keeping the car. If your car has a performance variant, it may already be turbocharged so you could buy off the shelf parts and save a little that way.
    This is especially good if your car is a diesel!
    Low boost pressure won’t overly affect the car’s longevity either.

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