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Image: Auto mechanics work in Philadelphia
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Keeping tires properly inflated can improve gas mileage by up to 30 percent. It's also important to have your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles or so, and have your wheel alignment checked periodically.
By Laura T. Coffey
TODAY contributor
updated 9/18/2009 2:03:43 PM ET 2009-09-18T18:03:43

After dominating headlines and drivers’ imaginations for weeks, the federal government’s Cash for Clunkers program ended in late August. Maybe you’re among the consumers who tried without success to score up to $4,500 by trading in a gas-guzzler for new, more fuel-efficient wheels.Or maybe you simply ran out of time to apply for the program. If you’re still driving an older car around town, what should you do now?

In short, you should give your ride as much TLC as you reasonably can. Kristin Brocoff of CarMD.com Corp. and the Car Care Council’s Women’s Board said it’s good for drivers of older vehicles to “have reminders about maintenance so their cars don’t become clunkers.”

Indeed! If your ride is on the older side but you just can’t replace it right now, don’t procrastinate about maintenance because you’re terrified about getting sucked down a financial rabbit hole. On the contrary, routine maintenance can save you hundreds if not thousands of dollars in the long run. The following tips can help you extend your vehicle’s life span without spending too much.

1. Remember the routine stuff. By getting regular tuneups and vehicle inspections, you can avoid gas-mileage problems caused by a clogged air filter or worn spark plugs and other ignition parts. Also, if you skip an oil change and then push it for another week, and then another week, and then another week, you’re asking for high-dollar trouble. To find out how often you should be doing these things, check the book that came with your vehicle and follow the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule. Cost for taking these steps: $20 to $250+.

2.Check out that “Check Engine” light. A CarMD survey found that 10 percent of U.S. drivers are driving around with their “Check Engine” lights on, and half of those drivers have had the light on for more than three months. “People are afraid because they don’t want to spend the money, but that light comes on for a variety of reasons, including lots of little things,” Brocoff said. The reasons can be as minor as a loose gas cap or the need for a new oxygen sensor or air filter, she said. Cost to have the “Check Engine” light inspected: $0 to $100.

3. Take care of your tires. Brocoff noted that keeping tires properly inflated can improve gas mileage by up to 30 percent. Proper tire inflation also will help the tires last longer. In addition to taking these steps, have your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles or so, and have your wheel alignment checked periodically. Some stores will inspect your tires and rotate them for you for free. Cost for taking these steps: $0 to $120.

4. Be kind to your brakes. Addressing brake problems early almost always will save you money. For example, a good brake rotor can be worn below specifications in just a few miles if a worn brake pad starts digging into it. As a general rule, though, ask for reasons and evidence if anything other than your brake pads or shoes need to be replaced and the rotors or drums need to be resurfaced. Cost for a typical brake job: $130 to $300.

5. Be alert for safety recalls or technical service bulletins. If you’re having quirky, recurring problems with your vehicle, you may not be alone. Ask your repair shop whether any technical service bulletins have been issued for the make and model you drive. Also be aware that safety-recall information may arrive in your mailbox looking like junk mail, Brocoff noted. Open mail that’s related to your model of vehicle; it could lead to free repair work. Cost for staying on top of these issues: Free.

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6. Take advantage of coupons and discounts. Some repair shops and dealerships offer coupons and discounts for regular customers, so ask about them. You also may be able to prepay for services at a discount. “Earlier this year I prepaid for all my oil changes and tire rotations for the year and got 30 percent off,” Brocoff said. “It was kind of a bulk discount.” Cost for inquiring about such deals: Free.

7. Drive with care. Aggressive driving, hard stopping, accelerating to stops and long periods of idling can harm your fuel economy and the environment, too. Letting your engine idle for more than 30 seconds will burn more gasoline than restarting the engine, so turn the engine off if you expect a lengthy wait. Cost for breaking any of these habits: Free.

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8.Keep things clean. Fuel-injected vehicles can benefit from periodically having a bottle of fuel cleanser added to a full tank of gas. This helps to keep the injectors cleaned, conditioned and residue-free. Cost of a bottle of fuel cleanser: $5 to $10.

9. Give your battery, belts and hoses some love. Check to see that your battery’s posts and connections are corrosion-free and that your battery has all the water it needs. If your battery is more than three years old, have a certified repair shop test its ability to hold a charge. If necessary, invest in a new battery. Also, have your vehicle’s belts and hoses examined for wear and tear regularly. Failure of a belt or a hose is the most common cause of a roadside breakdown. Cost to have battery, belts or hoses inspected: Free. Cost of battery replacement: $150. Cost of replacement of belts and hoses: Up to $250 or more, depending on what needs to be done.

10. Stay focused on the big picture. Yes, the idea of dropping a few hundred — or even a few thousand — dollars into your vehicle may make you wince. But buying a new vehicle could easily set you back $20,000 or even more, especially when you factor in the taxes, registration fees and interest on your car loan. What’s more, the average new car loses 20 percent of its value as soon as it’s driven off the lot. On a $25,000 car, that’s a $5,000 loss off the top, not to mention the 7 to 12 percent the car will depreciate every year. By way of comparison, it’s hard to imagine sinking $5,000 into car repairs and maintenance.

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