Making Your Car Last … and Last … and Last
Buying a car is a big investment. While in inflation adjusted dollars, the cost of a new car has not actually risen that much (due to cheaper labor overseas, and efficiencies in manufacturing), for most people just starting out, a new car is a substantial investment – easily a year to half a year's take home income. Making that investment last is in your best interest as a car owner.
Cars, in routine operations, run with temperature extremes ranging from ambient air to three hundred degrees. While they're designed to handle this range, that range of temperatures, and the sheer amount of power involved in running a car, should give you some appreciation for the high quality engineering behind your car's engine, and should give you some hints on what to do to reserve the life of your car.
First of all, do not put off maintenance. Routine maintenance of your car is just like getting a physical every year from the doctor; it's not that you expect to find something wrong, but that you want to find the small problems before they grow to become large ones. In similar light, do not put off changing the oil; remember when we talked about the wide range of temperatures your car undergoes in routine operations? Well, your oil is what protects the moving parts of your car when it runs. Motor oil is meant to coat the parts of the car and lubricate them, and also transmits heat from friction and wear and tear. The "clinginess" of oil to engine parts is its viscosity, and in general, engines are built and tuned to run within a certain range of engine oil viscosities and weights.
That lubrication effect from oil helps prevent the single largest cause of engine damage: Grinding and wear from road grit, metal particles ground off from inside the engine and more. The oil traps these microscopic particles, and keeps them from abrading the surfaces. These accumulated particles, plus carbon that's "cooked out" of the oil in high temperature circumstances, form engine oil sludge, which is one of the things that regularly changes the oil, and running an engine cleaning test, clears up. Think of it as clearing the gun out of the engine to make it run better.
Speaking of engine damage and damage your car, it's pretty clear that anything that makes your oil last longer is going to be beneficial to your car's health and operations. One of the big culprits in engine damage, especially with new cars, is the "break in" phase. Drive gently during the first 50-100 miles you own the car; and vary your speed regularly over the first 500 miles. What you're trying to do is give your engine an opportunity to "work in" all the places where contact occurs; this is the time when most of the internal particulate damage to a car is done. By varying your speed for the first 500 miles or so, you're helping to ensure that proper seating of your piston rings takes please, which will help reduce oil consumption for the life of the car. Also, be sure to flush and change the oil after the first 1500 miles or so; this will eliminate microscopic bits of metal and grit that get shaken loose during the break in phase.
After changing the oil, be sure to replace it with a high quality synthetic motor oil. Synthetics are formulated to maintain viscosity over a wider range of temperatures, and to avoid high temperature breakdowns and boil off. They produce fewer carbon deposits, and retain their viscosity for up to three times longer, and offer generally better protection through their cycle.
The other place where routine work and careful driving can greatly extend the life of your car is the transmission. Drive gently – avoid making sudden starts and stops. After you're done with the break-in period, try to maintain a constant speed when you drive. It does not save any time to accelerate and break suddenly, but it does wear the engine out faster. Likewise, only change gears when you need to – this prevents wear and tear on the transmission. Like the advice above about engine oil, use a high quality synthetic for your transmission fluid, and replace the transmission fluid early on a new car, for the same reasons you do your first oil change after 1500 miles.