Basic Car Maintenance Tips & Services Checklist

Between work, family events, and the dozens of other obligations people have, basic car maintenance can fall by the wayside. However, performing regular maintenance on your vehicle matters more than you think.

Following basic car maintenance tips may help keep your car running. But that’s not all. There are many rewarding advantages to proper car maintenance that don’t have to do with getting from point A to point B. Keeping your car maintained will help your vehicle last longer. It can even help you snag a higher resale price if you decide to sell.

Something as simple as checking tire pressure or washing your car can add value to your vehicle. Yes, it’s that simple! From better fuel efficiency to retaining resale value, these simple car maintenance tips can help improve your vehicle-owning experience.

In addition, if you drive a new Toyota, you can take advantage of ToyotaCare. Every purchased and leased new Toyota comes with the ToyotaCare scheduled maintenance plan and roadside assistance. Learn more about ToyotaCare here.

1. Don’t Skip Scheduled Car Maintenance Services

Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual and find out when your recommended car maintenance services should be scheduled. Usually, basic car maintenance involves checking or replacing parts like spark plugs, wires, fluids, and serpentine belts.

Scheduling maintenance services through your dealer may be best. There are at least three good reasons for this:

  • The first reason: genuine parts and expert customer care. Your Toyota dealer will have the knowledge and parts to keep your car running well. Dealers often put a sticker on your vehicle that includes a reminder of the date of your next maintenance service. Yet, some locations will take it a step further with reminder emails about your appointment. That way, you can schedule a time that works for you and better remember the date and time of your appointment.
  • The second reason has to do with history. Going to the same Toyota dealer for maintenance means you'll have a complete service history for the vehicle. Potential buyers may consider this an added bonus when considering your vehicle for purchase.
  • The third has to do with price. A well-maintained car with up-to-date records attracts a better resale price. If you do decide to sell, you could get a much better payout.

2. Read Your Owner’s Manual

Your owner’s manual will tell you when your recommended services should happen. It contains a great deal of other helpful information, as well.

Your owner’s manual will give you insight on the correct oil and gas to use, how to diagnose problems, and how to use your vehicle's infotainment system. It will help you to get started and will give you a good base of knowledge about the features and requirements of your specific vehicle. Each vehicle is different, so the best way to understand your vehicle’s needs is to read your vehicle’s owner’s manual.

3. The Importance of Oil Changes

As we move further away from the days of conventional motor oils, most newer vehicles no longer have to have an oil and filter change every 3,000 miles. High-efficiency engines and high-quality oil have changed the way we approach this service. Some vehicles don’t have to get an oil change more than once every 7,000 - 10,000 miles. Due to how efficient engines and motor oils have become, commonly-held advice may not be correct anymore.

Getting an oil change is a simple way to keep your vehicle in good running condition. Without clean oil to efficiently lubricate your engine’s moving parts, serious damage can occur. In fact, not maintaining the oil can void your warranty and even cause engine failure. If that happens, you’ll be spending thousands of dollars to fix the problem.

When you need to change your car’s oil depends on the type of oil you use. If your car uses conventional motor oil, it likely should be changed every 3,000 miles or 3 months. If your car has synthetic oil, it likely should be changed every 5,000-10,000 miles or 6-12 months. See your owner’s manual or contact your dealer if you are unsure of which type of oil is recommended for your specific vehicle.

4. Use the Correct Octane Rating

Higher is not always better when it comes to gasoline. You might be tempted to use a higher octane fuel to get more power. If sports cars perform better with higher octane fuel, what about your car?

There's a reason sports cars require higher octane fuel. They're designed to use it. The engine itself is often electronically tuned to account for a particular octane level when delivering fuel to the engine cylinder. Using a higher octane fuel than your car was tuned for can result in lower engine efficiency instead of improving performance. Be sure to look in your manual for the fuel rating your car needs.

5. Check Your Tire Pressure

Checking your tire pressure is important for your safety as well as overall maintenance. If your car doesn’t have a tire pressure sensor or TPMS, invest a few bucks in a tire gauge and check your tire pressure regularly. Having the right tire pressure helps to improve fuel efficiency and control regular tire wear. Good tire pressure will also help you know if your vehicle is correctly aligned. Don't forget to check the spare tire!

This may also come into play regarding leased vehicles. Some lease terms specifically address wear and tear on the vehicle. Preventing undue damage to your leased vehicle can sometimes affect your payments, depending on the lease terms. Tire pressure, for example, is one variable that affects the wear and tear of a vehicle’s tires. Maintaining proper tire pressure may prevent undue damage which, in turn, can affect your lease terms. See a dealer for more details.

What if you own your car? As an owner, required maintenance advice is always good to follow because maintenance can help extend the life of your vehicle. Did you know that Toyota has been the Kelley Blue Book® Best Resale Value Brand for three years in a row: 2017, 2018, and 2019? If you own a Toyota, keeping it in great shape means you’ll be able to take advantage of strong resale value potential.

6. Get Your Tires Rotated

As much as we want them to, tires don't wear evenly on their own. The front tires and the back tires carry different loads on different vehicles. The best way to ensure more even wear and tear is to get your tires rotated. It can also help the car drive better.

It is recommended to have your tires rotated every 5,000 to 8,000 miles. Your Toyota Service Center professionals are maintenance experts, and tire rotation is just one of many services they can offer to you.

Check the balance of the tires during this appointment, too. Depending on your vehicle, you’ll also want to check on the alignment of the wheels every few rotations. Keeping your car’s tires and wheels properly balanced and aligned will help keep your car running in top shape.

7. Check Out Your Car

Take a few moments to look at your car each day. There are a few reasons to do this, but the main reason has to do with vehicle health. Regularly reviewing your car clues you into things on the exterior that need tending to such as tire pressure, cracks in the windshield, and chipped paint.

When you're inspecting your car, be sure to check the lights (are they hazy? clean them!) and tire tread. Many tires have tread indicators, but if not, you can always use the penny test.

Stick a penny in the tread of your tires. If you can clearly see Lincoln's full head, it's probably time for new tires. If you can see some of his head, your tires are worn but still usable.

8. Learn Your Vehicle’s Warning Lights

No one likes seeing a warning light turn on. It could turn a simple spin around town into a stressful drive home. That's why you should learn what each warning light means and what to do when one is on.

Often, having a warning light on is not a serious thing. It could mean you're low on gas or that your car is due for a scheduled service. Other times it could mean you have low oil pressure or your coolant system isn’t keeping the engine cool enough to run. If one of these warnings come up, your car needs service as soon as possible. Your owner’s manual should let you know what each light means and how to address them. Your Toyota Dealer can always answer questions about warning lights as well.

9. Get Your Car’s Fluids Checked

Like tires and lights, it's a good idea to check your vehicle's fluid levels. Even if you leave changing them up to the pros, you should still know how to check them.

A good way to learn about your vehicle’s fluids is to review your owner’s manual. If you need help with checking the fluids, you can ask your dealer's Toyota mechanic for tips.

In general, you can keep your car in top shape by making sure these fluids are full and fresh:

  • Radiator Coolant/Anti-freeze Fluid
  • Transmission Fluid
  • Power Steering Fluid
  • Air Conditioning Coolant
  • Brake Fluid
  • Washer Fluid
  • Motor Oil

10. Ask About Serpentine and Timing Belts

The serpentine belt is one of the most important parts of your car and one that flies under the radar. Usually made of rubber, these belts are used to drive and assist timing of many important car parts, like the AC condenser, water pump, power steering, and alternator. If damaged, your engine could overheat and stop. The serpentine belt is vital to your vehicle's performance and needs care.

A timing belt or chain, on the other hand, can be found inside your engine. It drives the camshaft when there aren’t any gears driving it directly. Basically, the timing belt controls when the engine valves open and allows fuel and air into the cylinder. It can also drive the oil or water pump depending on engine type.

These belts feature teeth on the inside and are usually made of more sturdy materials such as neoprene, metals, but can also be made of rubber. Interference engines that use rubber timing belts rely on the integrity of the belt to run properly. If the belt were to break while driving, catastrophic engine damage can occur. Vehicles that use timing chains rather than rubber timing belts may never need a replacement.

We suggest asking your Toyota service professionals about timing and serpentine belts, as well as your vehicle’s engine during your scheduled service.

11. Check Your Car Battery

While most modern batteries don't need much tending to, it's good to know how to check them and where they are. This is especially true if you suspect there's an issue with your battery.

The best time to check it is when you check your vehicle fluids. Just take a quick look at your car battery while the hood is popped. Make sure there isn't any corrosion and/or build-up on the battery's contacts. If there is, don't worry. All you need to do is clean the contacts with a battery cleaning brush. Your Toyota Service Center can handle this maintenance for you. However, if you’re a do-it-yourself kind of person, you can buy one at any auto parts store.

If you have corroded car battery terminals, don’t worry. Just follow these steps to get them looking new again:

  • Make sure your car is turned off.
  • Loosen the nut of the negative clamp and unfasten the cable from the battery.
  • Do the same for the positive clamp.
  • Ensure both positive and negative clamps are fastened without touching each other or any connected conductive surfaces.
  • Mix one tablespoon of baking soda with one cup of hot water.
  • Use a battery cleaning brush to mix the ingredients and scrub it on the top of the battery.
  • Clean the clamps and posts with the mixture and rinse with cool water.
  • Once it is dry, lubricate using petroleum jelly or dielectric grease on all exposed metal on the battery terminals and prepare to put it back together.
  • Reattach the positive cable to the positive terminal and then reattach the negative cable to the negative terminal.

Make sure you wear gloves and try not to touch any part of the corrosion. If there are any cracks on the battery or it’s leaking fluid (acid), get it replaced.

12. Don’t Wait to Replace Wipers

Old and worn-out windshield wipers won't work very well, or at all, which means you won't be able to see if you are driving in inclement weather. Don’t wait for a larger repair job to replace your wipers. Replace them before you think you need to.

The best time to replace wipers is if your windshield is still dirty after running them. For example, if you see streaks after using the wipers, it may be time to get a new set. Wipers are inexpensive and simple to replace. Your dealer, mechanic, and local auto parts store can all help you find the right wipers for your car.

13. Replace the Engine Air Filter

Think of the engine air filter as your car’s lungs. Your car "breathes" better with clean filters. According to FuelEconomy.gov, the official U.S. government source for fuel information, replacing filters improves acceleration and fuel economy.

Your vehicle's engine works best on a mixture of air and fuel. Any debris or other contaminants that get sucked into your engine along with air can damage its ability to run well. That's why it's important to replace a dirty or dusty filter for a cleaner engine.

Refer to your owner’s manual or stop by your local Toyota dealer to see if your air filter needs changing. If you have been in an area with a lot of dirt and dust, check your air filter. You may need to replace the air filter sooner than you think.

14. Check Your Spark Plugs

Clean and working spark plugs are essential to a smooth running engine. However, as with the battery, your spark plugs can get covered in buildup. Dirtier spark plugs mean the engine has to work harder to get a spark. You may have to clean or replace the spark plugs throughout the life of your car. Luckily, spark plugs are one of the easiest and cheapest engine parts to replace.

Check your owner’s manual for when it's best to replace them. In general, you should check about once every year. For assistance with this task, you can ask your dealer's Toyota mechanic to check them for you.

15. Check Your Brake Pads

Your vehicle may have built-in sensors to alert the driver if the brake pads need attention. You should listen for signs of problems just in case. If the brake pads need replacing, you might hear squeaking or even metal grinding. Any noises you hear from your brakes could be worth checking on. Brake linings wear gradually, so you might not notice if they are not working great until something goes wrong.

Being proactive about brake maintenance can prevent you from having to replace more expensive parts like rotors.

16. Wash Your Car

A clean car not only makes for a happy driver, it helps the car run better, too. This is probably the simplest car maintenance advice, but it's easily overlooked. With how busy life gets, car owners often don't make time to clean out and wash a car. Here's why you should.

Washing not only keeps your vehicle looking good, it is also a good way to maintain that new-car finish. Allowing a layer of dead bugs, bird droppings, dirt, and chemicals to accumulate on your vehicle can strip away wax and, eventually, the paint. Without a protective layer, your vehicle can begin to rust.

If you decide to wash your car yourself, don’t use household cleaning agents like hand soap or glass cleaner. These cleaners can strip off the protective wax. Use a cleaning product designed specifically for cars instead.

Of course, the exterior of your car isn’t the only thing you need to clean. As with maintaining its interior, maintaining the outside of the engine is important, as well. Dirt build-up in your engine can do damage in the long term. When the engine has cooled, use a wet cloth to clean minor debris from the inside of the engine. You can buy a special cleaner for the inside of your engine, but warm water and a towel works fine, too. Cleaning your engine is a simple way to help keep your car in top running condition.

17. Be Nice To Your Car

This may seem like a silly tip, but it's true. Similarly to the human body, pushing your vehicle hard can take a toll over time. Taking off quickly or applying the brakes suddenly increases premature wear and tear. Jerking around on the steering wheel can also cause damage over time. By driving smart and safe, you can keep your car happy and running in better shape for longer.

18. Keep Automotive Tools Handy

One of the best ways to keep your vehicle running great is to work on a problem as soon as it arises. You can do this if you have the right tools. Carry the basic automotive tools with you at all times.

Here’s a good list of tools to keep in your car:

  • Wrench set
  • Socket set
  • Pliers (with wirecutter)
  • Jack
  • Jack Stands (2x)
  • Lug Wrench
  • Jumper Cables
  • Fluids (coolant, motor oil, and water)
  • Electrical Tape

You can keep a small set of tools in your trunk for easy access. Also, make sure you have a clean pair of jumper cables with your tools. Being prepared is key when it comes to quickly addressing problems with your car.

19. Consider Covering Your Car

Depending on where you live, you can help your car last longer by covering it up. Keeping your car away from sunlight and other outdoor elements can add years to the life of the paint job. You can buy special car covers for your brand and style. Keeping it in the garage or under a carport is also a useful option. Keeping paint fresh and new helps keep your car from rusting and breaking down.

All the information you need to keep your car in top running condition will be found in your owner’s manual. Check with your car manufacturer if you need a new one. Remember, basic car maintenance can save you a ton of money and maintain your car’s value in the long run. For that reason, keep these car maintenance tips in mind!