Maintaining Your Vehicle: Basic Car Maintenance for New DriversUpdated Jan. 1, 2021
Modern vehicles are generally quiet, responsive and easy to operate. As you gain more experience behind the wheel, your car’s controls will start to feel like an extension of your own body. When vehicle systems work this seamlessly and efficiently, it is easy to forget just how many complex processes and moving parts are coming together to propel you along the road.
- Frame designs
- The engine
- The fuel system
- The exhaust system
- The electrical system
- Steering and suspension
- The braking system
- Vehicle inspections and professional servicing
As part of your driver’s education program, you must develop a basic understanding of how essential automobile systems operate. This will ultimately help you to become a better, safer driver and control the vehicle more effectively. Moreover, understanding how your vehicle works will ensure you have the desire and the know-how to keep it in good working order.
Well-maintained vehicles are safer vehicles. This module will cover the basics of vehicle operating systems and general automobile maintenance. Keep in mind that the information we include here should not be considered a substitute for the maintenance information in your vehicle owner’s manual. That handbook will always be the ultimate resource when it comes to understanding and maintaining your car.
We do explore some complex mechanical and electrical systems in this module, though these details are not intended as a “guide” to working on your vehicle yourself. Anything more than the most basic of maintenance tasks must always be carried out by a professional mechanic or technician.
Before we dive straight into the essential systems responsible for controlling and powering your vehicle, let’s look at the structure which is designed to contain and protect these systems – not to mention you and your passengers.
Older automobiles were built with what is known as the body-on-frame design. This meant that the body of the car was constructed around a rigid metal frame, which was usually made from steel. This approach created vehicles that could handle an enormous amount of stress and needed little, if any, realignment. It also allowed technicians to alter a vehicle’s bodywork without interfering with the chassis. Unfortunately, body-on-frame vehicles were incredibly heavy and not particularly resistant to impact, making them unsafe during collisions.
Modern cars generally incorporate a unibody design, that removes the need for the vehicle to have a rigid frame. Unibody vehicles feature a floorpan that provides structure and serves as a base for other essential components to be fixed to. This makes for a cheaper, lighter car, which is far more impact resistant. Traditional body-on-frame designs are still used, though they are more often found in large vehicles like buses and trucks.
Historically, vehicle bodywork was predominantly made from steel. This metal alloy has the advantage of being strong but is incredibly heavy. Modern vehicle bodies are usually made with lighter materials, such as carbon fiber, aluminum and plastic. These materials are still strong and resistant to wear, though being lighter, they allow for better fuel efficiency than steel.
The power needed to move your multi-ton vehicle along the roadway is generated and processed in the engine. Most road vehicles are powered by internal combustion engines (ICE) which use gasoline as a fuel source. Though two vehicles may look very different from the outside, their engines produce energy the same way. The amount of energy an engine is capable of producing does vary quite a bit from vehicle to vehicle and is largely determined by the number of cylinders it has.
Have you have ever wondered how the fuel in your gas tank is used to turn the vehicle’s wheels? The first section in this module breaks down the process for you. Internal combustion engines turn fuel into energy via a simple and elegant process known as the four-stroke cycle, during which controlled explosions are used to move cylinder pistons, which rotate the engine’s crankshaft.
Simple though it may be, this cycle relies on every contributing component being perfectly aligned and each step being timed to within a fraction of a second. The timing belt is responsible for coordinating the four-stroke cycle. Without it, the engine will not be able to produce power and could become irreparably damaged.
Other essential engine systems
This section also covers other essential engine systems that manage power and keep the engine running smoothly. These are:
The transmission system.
Your vehicle’s transmission manages how much power is transferred from the engine to the wheels, as the engine produces too much energy to power the wheels directly. In an automatic car, a torque converter will move up and down transmission gears for you. In a manual, the driver must operate the transmission using a gear stick next to the driver’s seat, and the clutch pedal.
The cooling system.
This system’s job is to remove excess heat from the engine using a network of tubes carrying coolant fluid. If the engine becomes too hot due to low coolant levels, excessive temperatures outside the vehicle or a cooling system malfunction, an engine temperature warning light will appear on the dashboard instrument panel.
The lubrication system.
The engine’s moving parts must be kept lubricated with motor oil, otherwise they will wear and cease to function correctly. Motor oil is stored in the engine’s oil reservoir, pumped around the engine and recycled. Though, you will need to check your oil levels intermittently and keep them topped up.
Common engine problems
If your engine will not start, is making unusual sounds or is overheating, you may need to get it checked out by a professional. However, there are a few trouble-shooting tactics the driver can employ, to rule out simple and easily fixable problems. Find out everything you need to know about common engine and transmission malfunctions here.
The fuel system
The fuel system includes the gas tank, fuel pump and pipelines, fuel filters and fuel injectors (or carburetor). Together, these components work together to supply the engine’s combustion chambers with air and gasoline to burn. The fuel system is designed to be incredibly low maintenance, though it will need to be fully serviced and cleaned out every couple of years.
When problems in vehicle fuel systems do occur, they are usually caused by a build-up of carbon deposits from fuel, and impurities from outside the vehicle. The fuel filters will need to be changed periodically, during an annual or semi-annual service. Impurities are cleaned from the fuel system by the filters. They last a long time but will become less efficient at performing this task as they accumulate more deposits. This may result in impurities causing blockages in other parts of the system. If this happens, unusual engine behavior will likely be your first warning sign.
When the fuel system is compromised, the air-fuel mixture injected into the engine may be out of balance. This could lead to:
- Unexpected loss of power while driving
- Erratic acceleration
- Difficulty starting the engine
- The engine turning over but not starting at all
Fuel system contamination must be dealt with immediately, or it could lead to damage in your engine or other essential vehicle systems. Fuel leaks – anywhere in the system – are even more dangerous. Gasoline is toxic and highly flammable. Stop driving the car right away, if you can smell fuel in the passenger compartment after refilling the tank.
The exhaust system
In addition to generating thermal energy, the combustion process produces various waste gases, which are not needed to power the vehicle. As well as being of no use, several of these waste gases (carbon monoxide, nitrogen monoxide and nitrogen oxide) are incredibly toxic. The exhaust system connects the engine cylinders to the tailpipe and is responsible for carrying harmful waste gases away from the vehicle.
The main components of the exhaust system are:
The exhaust manifold.
This network of pipes collects waste gases from each cylinder and funnels them into a single pipe.
The turbocharger (in some vehicles).
This component harvests energy from venting exhaust gases, to power an air compressor which alters the air-fuel mixture, allowing more fuel to be burned in the engine.
The catalytic converter.
Situated further along the exhaust pipe, this component converts some of the pollutant waste gases into less harmful substances, before they are released into the atmosphere.
This reduces the noise produced by your vehicle’s engine, by canceling out certain sound waves as they pass through the exhaust system.
The chimney-like protrusion underneath the vehicle’s rear-bumper is the tailpipe. It is important that the tailpipe does not become blocked with debris, mud, snow or other material. If exhaust fumes cannot escape, they may back up the exhaust pipe and leak into the passenger compartment of the vehicle.
The exhaust system’s job is a simple one: transport waste gases safely away from the vehicle. Failings in the exhaust system are extremely dangerous, as they may result in a build-up of carbon monoxide and other harmful gases elsewhere in the vehicle. Carbon monoxide itself has no smell or taste and is completely invisible, though other exhaust gases are more easily detected. If you smell exhaust fumes anywhere in the vehicle or can see gases leaking from the engine compartment, do not drive the car until it has been checked out by a qualified mechanic.
Other common exhaust malfunctions are:
- An increase in exhaust smoke – this may be caused by a poorly lubricated turbocharger or a malfunctioning catalytic converter.
- An increase in engine noise – this usually indicates a problem with the muffler.
- Decreased fuel economy and poor engine performance – may be caused by a split in the exhaust manifold.
The electrical system
Burning fuel is not your vehicle’s only source of power. Using the engine battery and the alternator belt, your car also produces and stores electricity, which is used to power various electrical components. The newer the vehicle, the more electricity-powered features it is likely to have. Problems with the electrical system can be difficult to diagnose and can cause all kinds of malfunctions throughout the vehicle.
The main components of the electrical system are:
This supplies power to the starter motor and spark plugs, to begin the combustion process and get the engine running. It can also power the vehicle’s other electrical features but will quickly run out of charge if the engine is not running.
The starter motor.
This initiates combustion in the engine. If the starter motor fails, the engine will not start.
This converts kinetic energy produced in the engine to electrical power, which recharges the vehicle’s battery and powers electrical features. If there is a problem with the alternator, the battery cannot recharge and will quickly run out of power. If this happens, you will not be able to start the engine.
These are loops of wire that connect the car’s electrical features with its power source. Electrical current must be able to flow continuously through the circuit’s wires for the electrical components to function. If a circuit is broken, none of the electrical features powered by that circuit will work.
The fuse box.
Every circuit has a fuse, which is designed to perish and break the circuit in the event of short circuits and power surges. The fuse for every circuit in your vehicle is found in the fuse box, which is usually housed in the glove compartment or under the dashboard.
This section covers the basic trouble-shooting techniques required to diagnose a problem with your vehicle’s electrical system. If the engine will not start, there could be a problem with the starter motor or the battery. A flat battery may be caused by:
- A problem with the alternator which prevents it from recharging.
- The driver accidentally leaving their lights or another electrical feature running, while the engine is switched off. This problem can usually be solved by jump-starting the vehicle with another car’s battery.
If individual electrical features (such as the lights, stereo or air conditioning) are not working, there may be a problem with the wiring in that circuit. You may be able to rectify the issue by replacing a blown fuse. If this does not work, you should seek assistance from a professional mechanic.
Steering and suspension
The next two sections in this module will teach you about the basic components in car’s steering and suspension systems. These two systems are closely related and must work in harmony, for the driver to be able to control the vehicle. The steering system allows you to manipulate the angle of the front wheels and guide the vehicle across the roadway. The suspension system’s job is to manage your connection with the road; it must strike a balance between maintaining traction and protecting the vehicle from impacts caused by irregularities in the road’s surface.
The steering wheel is connected to a long telescopic shaft called the steering column, which extends towards the lower front end of the vehicle and joins the axle. Connecting the steering column and the front axle is the steering gearbox. The gearbox converts the rotational force exerted on the steering wheel into lateral force, which shifts the steering rack and alters the angle of the wheels. Steering systems are extremely resilient but will eventually become worn and start to malfunction. Strange noises emanating from the steering column are usually an indication that the system is in need of a health check.
Practically all modern vehicles have a power steering system. Power steering makes the job of directing the vehicle easier for the driver, by using a motor and hydraulic piston to supply the energy needed to turn the wheels. Power steering failures are usually caused by a hydraulic fluid leak or a problem with the electrical system. Both these problems can only be remedied by a qualified mechanic.
The suspension system relies on shock absorbers and springs (which work together as struts in most vehicles) to manage the relationship between the body of the car and the wheels. The springs allow the vehicle’s wheels to hug the surface of the road, by moving up and down as the car moves over bumps and dips in the pavement. As the suspension lets the wheels move independently, the main body of the vehicle is not disturbed, giving driver and passengers a smoother ride. The shock absorber’s job is to disperse the energy absorbed by the springs as they expand and contract, preventing the car from bouncing up and down on its springs following dips and bumps in the road.
Suspension systems will need to be tuned and realigned every year or so. This varies based on the make and model of vehicle and how much impact the suspension system has sustained. If the springs become looser, the body of the vehicle will move up and down more and the traction between the tires and the roadway will be reduced. You will have the opposite problem if the springs are too tight; traction will be improved but you will have a bumpier ride, as the springs cannot absorb impact from the roadway.
The vehicle’s tires and the air they contain are also part of the suspension system. As your wheels roll over the pavement, the tires will flatten and reform, absorbing impact from the road. It is essential to maintain the proper air pressure in your tires, as any deviation from the recommended pressure will affect how the vehicle handles. Tires that are under-inflated behave much like tight springs; they will have increased traction but will not be able to absorb impact from the road. Over-inflated tires behave like loose springs, in that they cushion the vehicle but cannot provide sufficient traction.
The braking system
So far, this module will have covered the vehicle systems which produce power and allow you to control the vehicle. This next section deals with the essential safety systems that let you rein in the car’s kinetic energy, in order to slow down and stop. All road vehicles have two distinct braking systems: the service brakes and the parking brake (or emergency brake).
The service brakes are designed to slow down and stop the wheels while they are turning, by applying pressure to them using brake shoes, or brake pads. The friction resulting from this contact converts some of the wheel’s kinetic energy into heat, where it can dissipate into the air around the wheel. The main problem that can occur with service brakes is overheating; if the pads or shoes become saturated with heat, they cannot absorb any more kinetic energy or slow down the wheel any further. Practicing proper braking techniques and getting routine brake system services is the best way to protect yourself against dangerous service brake malfunctions.
The parking brake can also be used to stop a moving vehicle during an emergency but is primarily designed to hold a stopped vehicle in place, by fixing the rear-wheels with brake pads or shoes. The service brake system is hydraulic, but the parking brake is purely mechanical. The rear-wheel brakes are applied and released using the parking brake lever next to the driver’s seat, which connects to the braking mechanism with a taught steel cable that runs underneath the vehicle. Like the service brakes, the parking brake will need regular check-ups to remain in good working order. When things go wrong with the parking brake, it is often due to the steel connecting cable losing tension. This can easily be rectified by a mechanic.
A large section of this module is dedicated to tire function and maintenance. This often-overlooked vehicle component is responsible for absorbing impact from the road and generating the traction which allows you to brake, accelerate and steer. Tire failures are often disastrous, as they can cause complete loss of braking and steering control. Obviously, a collision or crash would be extremely difficult to avoid if this occurred while the vehicle was in motion.
Except for the periodic tire rotations which must be performed by a professional mechanic, looking after your vehicle’s tires is your responsibility. If they are under-inflated, over-inflated, worn or damaged, your ability to control the vehicle will be affected and you entertain the risk of complete tire failure. The maintenance information in this section will teach you how to maintain your tires and detect any problems before they become dangerous.
Choosing the correct tires for your car can be a challenge, as there are several different types and grades of tires available. Your vehicle owner’s manual will advise you on which type of tire is best suited for your car, based on the environments you drive in most regularly. Tires are graded based on their ability to:
- Resist treadwear
- Maintain traction in wet conditions
- Function well at high temperatures
All the information you need to choose the correct tire will be printed on the tire’s wall, as a series of numbers and letters. We teach you how to decode this information in our full section.
To make sure your tires do not malfunction, you must:
- Replace them when the tread becomes too worn
- Replace them at least once every six years, regardless of how worn they are
- Rotate the front and back tires once every six months to a year
- Keep them inflated to the correct pressure
- Inspect them for signs of damage or uneven wear
- Choose appropriate tires for the conditions in which you are driving
Vehicle inspections and professional servicing
The systems and component parts in your vehicle are built to be hard-wearing but they are not everlasting. Over time, friction, dirt, heat, cold and moisture will cause parts of the vehicle to wear and ultimately fail. You can prevent expensive repairs and dangerous vehicle malfunctions by monitoring the health of your vehicle and dealing with small problems before they turn into big problems. To achieve this, you will need to book regular service appointments with a professional mechanic and carry out frequent vehicle inspections yourself.
You must carry out vehicle inspections on a weekly, monthly and six-monthly basis, to perform small maintenance tasks that do not require a mechanic and check for larger problems that may warrant a service. The basic tasks which you can carry out yourself include:
- Checking that essential systems like the lights, windshield wipers and seat belts are functioning correctly.
- Checking and topping up oil and fluid reservoirs under the hood.
- Cleaning the vehicle inside and out to prevent dirt from contaminating internal systems.
- Checking your tire pressure (including the spare tire)
- Checking locks, latches, hinges, weather strips and drain holes for signs of corrosion and blockages.
- Testing your parking brake.
In our final section, we explain how regularly each of these tasks must be carried out. Remember that the vehicle’s manufacturer is the ultimate authority on maintenance and periodic inspection procedures. Be sure to go through the owner’s manual in addition to utilizing our guidance.
Your vehicle should have a full professional service at least once every 12 months. Some older models of vehicle may require a service every six months; check your vehicle owner’s manual for further information. The maintenance tasks which can only be carried out by a professional mechanic include:
- Replacing engine oil
- Replacing the oil filter
- Rotating the car’s tires
- Replacing the air filter
- Checking the brakes, suspension, steering and cooling systems.
- Checking the engine valves, ignition system, battery, transmission, drive belts and exhaust.
Some of these tasks must be carried out every 3,000 to 5,000 miles, while others can be performed as infrequently as every 30,000 miles. Of course, if your vehicle is not due a professional service but you believe there may be a problem with the brakes, engine, or another essential system, you must have the issue investigated by a mechanic immediately.
The importance of vehicle maintenance
Your ability to stay safe behind the wheel depends on the driving decisions you make, your fitness to drive and your vehicle’s ability to respond to your commands. Engaging in regular inspections and staying tuned in to the health of your vehicle will help you to avoid serious mechanical and electrical malfunctions.
You do not need to understand the finer workings of your vehicle’s engine, fuel system or exhaust to know when there’s a problem. Listen to your car and feel how it responds to your instructions. If it starts to handle poorly, accelerate erratically or behave in any other unexpected way, get it checked out by a mechanic right away. Even minor, unusual sounds in the engine can indicate the presence of a dangerous problem. Pay attention to your vehicle and never ignore your instincts – your life may depend on it!
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