Summer means boardwalks, beaches, and the ultimate road trip. So why not get your car summer ready before you decide to log hard hot miles on it? We here at Instamotor have the top 9 things you need to do to ensure that your car gets you to the beach and back without incident this summer.
You probably haven't thought about the air conditioning and cooling system in your car in at least 6 months. While winter across 40 states was warmer than it has been in previous years, it still wasn’t warm enough to pump that AC. As a rule of thumb any system that is only sort of working in your car will almost certainly fail when you need it the most, so be sure to get your AC checked out by a qualified mechanic. If you want you can check it yourself—WikiHow has a pretty good how-to on their site(that’s been cited by Edmunds.com). Oh—and yes, you probably should have that cabin air filter replaced (if your car has one)—it will keep those summertime allergies a little more at bay.
While you’re at it—check your coolant levels. You can do it yourself or have a certified mechanic take a look. Coolant mix is important, too. Your radiator tank should be full and you can get a coolant tester at any auto parts store. Chat up the clerk and see if you need to mix water with the ethylene glycol—just make sure no pets are around, they like the sweet taste of the coolant, but it’s deadly if ingested.
Before any long road trip you need to ensure that your car's kicks are ready for the road. Tires, while likely something you don’t think about, are the single most important part of your car and have a huge impact on both safety and handling in any changeable summer weather. If your tires are worn or under-inflated they can wreak all kinds of havoc on a summer road trip—including causing massive crashes.
If you put winter tires on, it’s time to swap them for the summer shoes. Running winter tires on summer roads wears them out quicker, so avoid running them for too long. When you swap your tires, make sure the summer tires are inflated and balanced correctly. You can find details on the proper pressures for your new-to-you car on your driver’s side door.
Problems with your tires can cause big problems with your braking and handling ability as well, so inspect your tires regularly, especially if you plan to put some miles on them this summer. Look for uneven wear, bubbles in the sidewalls, or visible wear bars. All are signs that it’s time for a new set of tires. One way to see if you need new tires is to use the penny trick. Put a penny in the tread with Lincoln’s head upside down. If you can see all of his head your tread depth is less than 2/32 of an inch and its time to change out the tires.
If going is important, stopping is crucial. Summer traffic can vary widely from bumper-to-bumper to high-speed dashes. In fact, summer traffic in general moves much faster than winter traffic, which means that while you were doing battle with the commute while the temperature was cool, your brakes were taking a beating. Thermal cycling, or the constant changing in temperature of your brakes, can wear on them quickly. If you are feeling like a pro, you can check your brakes yourself—or better yet take your gently used car to a mechanic and have them check the brakes for you. The best way to see them is to get the wheels off your car. You want to look for cracking and significant wear. Things like crumbling edges and heavy discoloration can be a clear sign that its time for new brakes. Take your car to a certified mechanic if you find you do need any new parts.
In addition to checking out pads and rotors you should check brake fluid. If the fluid in the reservoir looks low, don’t refill it. In a lot of cases brake fluid will drop to match the wear on your brake pads. A low level could also be a sign of a leak, too. Your fluid should be clear (not cloudy or dirty) and the reservoir should be as close to the full mark as possible. If the brake fluid is dirty, it needs to be flushed and replaced—something you can do yourself if you want, but it can be complicated. If you notice that your fluid is low or grimy, take your car to a certified mechanic to give it a good once over.
If your car has an automatic transmission, you should check your fluid levels and color. It should be bright red and at the right level according to the dipstick. Too much fluid can cause too much pressure in the system resulting in rough shifts and slipping gears. Too little and you can burn out your torque converter. If your fluid is too low, check your manual to see what kind of transmission fluid you need and then head to your local auto parts store to pick some up if you need a top up.
If your car is a manual, checking your transmission fluid can be a bit trickier. You’ll need to jack the car up and crawl around to find the fill plug (a recessed plug or bolt in the side of the gearbox housing). When the car is level, (which is a crucial step) the fluid should just touch the bottom edge of the plug’s hole.
If you're unsure about your levels in either case, make a visit to your local certified mechanic and have them check it out for you.
While you’re poking around, you should also check your battery. Be sure there isn’t any corrosion around the terminals. Some older batteries need to be topped up with distilled water—but most modern batteries need little to no maintenance. If you do notice corrosion, you can clean it up with some baking soda and a toothbrush, but be sure to check the battery again in a few weeks to see if the corrosion has come back. If it has, it could be a sign of a bigger problem that should be looked at by a mechanic.
Ignore the old advice that your parents may have given you—any car built in the last 10-15 years does not need to have its oil swapped based on season. (The old adage was that you want a lighter oil in the winter and a heavier one in the summer). Modern engines are designed to withstand a wide range of temperature changes with the factory oil.
Before you head out on a long trip its always a good idea to check your oil and see if you need an oil change. You can often do this simple task yourself or take your car to a certified mechanic to do it for you.
If your power steering fluid is low, top it up. If it’s dirty, it’s time for a change. Dirty fluid can damage your steering system and low fluid can make your car hard to turn and cause premature failure of your power steering pump. If the fluid is dark brown, you’ll need to have it flushed and refilled—something best left to the pros. Take your new-to-you-car to a certified mechanic if you are facing this issue.
Wipers get beaten up over the winter—with all the ice scraping and snow moving they do. It’s likely time to change them out for summer versions to make your road trip safer. Winter blades are generally more flexible than summer ones, and if your blades are streaking, its time to change them out. Be sure when you head to your local auto parts store that you pick up the right size and clip style—different cars have different connection points and the ones you buy need to match your car’s needs.
While you are at it, check that the windshield washing fluid is topped up—and ready to go.
Winter is tough on the exterior of your car—so before you head out, shine her up. Grime from winter storms builds up over time and it can be damaging to the exterior of your car. Be sure to get all that grime off before hitting the road–plus get all those old French fries out from under the seats. No one likes reheated French fry smell when they get back into the car after sitting in the summer sun.
For more tips to get you ready for any road trip, check back with Instamotor—we’ve got all your new-to-you car needs covered.
Digital media content producer/consultant & former CNN senior producer, now running CN'TRL : Cars, Tech, Real Estate & Luxury.