The federal government's "cash for clunkers" program has been dominating headlines for weeks now, and with good reason — it's hugely popular with car shoppers who want to score up to $4,500 by trading in their gas guzzlers for new, more fuel-efficient wheels. But what if your older car doesn't qualify for the program? Then what? Kristin Brocoff of CarMD.com Corp. and the Car Care Council's Women's Board had this to say: "For people who don't qualify, or who can't qualify for financing for a new car, it's good to have reminders about maintenance so their cars don't become clunkers." Ain't that the truth. If your ride is on the older side but you just can't replace it now, these tips can help you extend your vehicle's lifespan for as long as possible in a down economy.
1Don't skip an oil change to save money. Yes, money may be tight, but 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. If you know what you're doing, you may be able to do this bit of maintenance yourself in your own driveway. If not, though, just pay for the oil change and pinch pennies in another category.
2Have that "Check Engine" light checked out. 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.
3Pay attention to your tires. Brocoff noted that keeping tires properly inflated can improve gas mileage by up to 30 percent. Have your tires rotated every 5,000 to 7,500 miles; some stores will inspect your tires and rotate them for free.
4Stay 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.
5Take 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.
6Drive with care. Aggressive driving 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.
7Keep your motor running. Fuel-injected vehicles can benefit from periodically having a bottle of fuel cleanser added to a full tank of gas.
8Remember your heater and your AC. Run them every now and then when you least feel like doing it: Turn up the heat for a little while when it's hot outside, and turn on the AC when it's chilly. The idea is to keep these systems functioning well despite long stretches of no use.
9Avoid gas-mileage problems caused by a dirty air filter. A clogged filter lets less oxygen into the fuel system, and that can hurt your mileage. This is another bit of maintenance that you might be able to handle yourself, possibly with the help of a nice person at an auto parts store.
10Confused about whether you've got a qualifying clunker? If you're just not sure, check out this government Web site: cars.gov. The site is being updated often with new information, and its FAQs could be helpful for you.
Reach Laura T. Coffey at email@example.com.
Sources: Kristin Brocoff, marketing manager for CarMD.com Corp. (carmd.com) and a member of the Car Care Council's Women's Board (carcare.org); cars.gov; and autoserviceadvice.com