Home > Car Cleaning And Maintenance >  

Keep Your Vehicle Running with This Car Tune Up Checklist

Top 11 Steps to Tune Up Your Car

Replacing Air Filter

You always hear about how important it is to “tune-up” your car, but do you really know what that entails? A modern tune-up is entirely different from what we did years ago. Today, it mainly consists of checking over components of the car and ensuring everything is in working order. With our car tune up checklist, you’ll be able to quickly identify what needs to be done to keep your vehicle running longer. These are basic things, so don’t expect a full instructable about an engine tune or anything fancy – these are just the essentials to keep your ride healthier and running for longer.

Of course, if you have an older vehicle, your car might require a little more attention and auto repair than most. Always consult your owner’s manual if you are unsure of intervals and proper car tune-up procedures. A good car care routine will drastically improve your vehicle’s lifespan and overall engine performance.

Equipment Needed for Car Tune Up Checklist

Before proceeding, you should gather your materials. For our car tune up checklist, you’ll want:

  • Fuel filter
  • Ratchet-type socket wrench
  • Spark plugs
  • Spark plug socket
  • Service manual & owner’s manual
  • Spark plug gapping tool
  • Screwdrivers (Phillips and flat-head)
  • Wrench set
  • Spark plug wires
  • Air filter
  • Oil filter
  • Engine oil
  • Coolant
  • Distilled water
  • Clutch/brake fluid
  • Transmission fluid
  • Windshield washer fluid
  • Power steering fluid
  • Older cars might require a distributor cap and rotor

Important Note about Fluids

If you plan to change your own fluids, make sure you dispose of them appropriately. Take them to a facility that is equipped to handle the disposal. Don’t ever throw them away with your household garbage, flush them down a toilet, or dump them down a storm drain.

1. Check and Change the Oil

The first step in our car tune up checklist is to check your oil. If it’s not time to change it yet, then simply top it off, if needed. It’s critical that you check your oil levels frequently to ensure a longer life. To check it, make sure you have a cool engine. Remove the dipstick and wipe it off with a paper towel.

Take notice of the rag. If it’s black, chunky-looking, or has sediment, you should probably go ahead and change the oil. Then, put your dipstick back into the oil reservoir and check it once again. This will tell you how full your oil level is.

If it’s low, and it doesn’t need to be changed, make sure you add the appropriate type of oil to your engine. Consult your manual to find out the recommended viscosity.

Some cars recommend changing the oil every 3,000 miles. Of course, this varies depending on what type of oil you use and the kind of car you drive. As cars utilize more advanced technology, this number seems outdated. Even Advance Auto Parts says that most new cars don’t need oil changes this often.

When it’s time to change the oil, make sure you drain it completely. Then, reinstall the plug and fill it back up.

You’ll need something to drain the oil into and jack stands or ramps for the car. Most people prefer to have their oil changes done at a shop because it’s inexpensive and quick. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you just want to make sure you have the space to perform this task.

Keep in mind that the oil filter should also be changed every time you swap the oil.

2. Inspect Your Tires

Not everyone thinks about their tires or tire pressure during their car tune up checklist, but they should. Your safety relies on the quality and health of these rubber circles. No one wants to be broken down on the side of the road because of tire issues.

By regularly inspecting and rotating them, you have less chance of tire failure. Make sure you periodically check the air pressure of your tires. Invest in a pressure gauge and ensure that the pressure in your tires matches what’s on the doorjamb sticker.

It’s also imperative that you examine the wear and replace them as needed. To get more life out of them, you’ll also want to rotate your tires periodically. If you’re going to do this yourself, you’ll need several jack stands. Otherwise, most shops have hydraulic lifts to get the job done faster.

3. Check All Fluid Levels

Make sure you check all your other fluid levels as well. This includes the transmission fluid, windshield washer fluid, coolant, and power steering fluid. You don’t just want to ensure they are full, but also clean.

Your transmission fluid dipstick is easily identified, but you could look in the manual if you aren’t sure where to find it. In some automatic transmission vehicles, it’s the only other dipstick other than oil. Other cars have dipsticks for coolant and power steering, so this varies.

Simply remove the stick, wipe it off, and then place it back in the reservoir. Take it out once again and read the level. You want the fluid to be mainly clear with transmission fluid, with a tinge of red. Many manufacturers recommend changing the transmission fluid every 30,000 miles, while others suggest 60,000.

Your brake fluid is found in a white plastic container located inside the engine compartment. It should be clearly labeled and shouldn’t really every need topped off unless you have a leak somewhere. If you notice the fluids going down, it’s critical to have your brake system checked.

Coolant should be examined when the engine is cold. Don’t ever attempt to remove the cap while the engine is hot or radiator fluid will shoot out. If you begin to notice a sweet smell coming through your air vents while driving, it’s possible you have a coolant leak.

Both windshield washer fluid and power steering fluid are also found in the engine compartment. The power steering fluid shows different levels for a hot or cold engine, so make sure you examine the appropriate one. While the wiper fluid isn’t essential to a longer life, it does extend the life of your wipers.

4. Check the Car Battery

Take time to inspect your battery at regular intervals. You want to look for signs of wear and corrosion. Terminals often become caked with build up which causes issues for the contact points. This might lead to trouble starting the car over time. If you begin noticing difficulty starting, you may want to examine the contact points.

Clean them off with an old toothbrush, baking soda, and water. If you need to, it’s also simple to loosen the bolts holding them in place and clean out underneath them.

Many people wonder how often the car battery should be replaced. Generally speaking, a car battery should last you four to five years.

5. Test Your Brakes

Every now and then, you want to test out your brakes. When you are on an empty road with no one around, pump your brakes at a slow speed to see how they respond. They should initiate right away and the ABS needs to engage properly.

If you notice any squeaking, grinding, or delay in action, it might be time to replace your brake pads. Don’t take chances with your brake system. Sometimes you’ll need to change your brake pads every 50,000 miles. With that said, some need to be replaced after 25,000 miles while others are still going strong at 70,000 miles. Brake pad wear is going to vary greatly depending on what brand you purchase and your driving habits.

The only way to be sure is to check them yourself and change as needed.

6. Check all the Lights

Many people don’t think to do this when examining their car tune up checklist, but they should. You want to inspect the lights on a regular basis to ensure functionality. You’ll need a friend to turn the signals and apply the brakes while you walk around the car.

You’ll also want to flash your high beams at the wall to ensure they are working properly. Sometimes, these need to be aligned better to ensure they illuminate the road properly. You want to see clearly at night to avoid accidents.

7. Replace the Wiper Blades

Part of your car tune up checklist should include your wiper blades. Make sure you inspect them often and replace as needed. If you notice they begin to come loose, show gaps in the coverage, or start to crack, it’s time to get a new pair.

Remove the old blades and simply replace them with new ones. Check your manual to get the appropriate size or take the old ones with you to match them up.

8. Replace the Air Filter

Consult your owner’s manual to determine where the air filter is in your vehicle. Most of them are found in a black casing or plastic container on the top or front of the engine. You’ll notice an air intake hose attached to the housing. Typically, it’s rectangular or square and approximately the size of a loaf of bread.

Sometimes, you can simply remove the air filter and clean it out. To do this, you’ll want to use compressed air and wipe it off. This often extends the life of the filter significantly which in turn, keeps your engine running efficiently.

Some air filters are extremely fragile, so it’s imperative you understand that a blast from the compressed air might blow a hole right through your filter. That’s why you should always have a spare on hand before you start cleaning.

9. Inspect and Change Your Belts

No one really wants to deal with belts during their car tune up checklist, but it must be done. Every time you work on your vehicle, you should also inspect your belts. If they need to be changed, now is the time.

Many people call the long rubber belts running under the hood a serpentine belt. It should snake through the alternator, power steering pump, and other components. The power steering belt is another one to examine, which operates similarly.

Aligning and installing these belts is different in each vehicle. If you begin to notice high-pitched squeaking, especially when you first start the engine or take a turn, you might need to inspect the belts. Belts typically don’t cost much. To install the belt, you can look inside the engine compartment for a diagram, but not every vehicle has one.

10. Replace the Spark Plugs

When you talk about a car tune up checklist, it’s common to automatically think about the spark plugs. These should be checked at regular intervals and replaced when needed.

Spark plugs are essential to fuel combustion, so you want them in top working order. Any spark plug failure could cause your engine to stall.

Consult your service manual to determine the proper procedure of replacement for your vehicle.

Considering the cheap cost of spark plugs, it’s better to replace them regularly, and replace the whole set at once rather than just one at a time. As engine components go, these are cheap, and replacing them is a very easy job.

11. Add Fuel Injector Cleaner

As the last aspect to our car tune up checklist, you’ll want to consider adding fuel injector cleaner every 15,000 miles. It’s easy to find decent cleaners as they are available at most auto parts stores. If you haven’t done this yet, you can start at any time. Just keep track of your mileage, so you can get into a schedule with it for the future.

Maximizing the Life of Your Vehicle

Following our car tune up checklist is a great way to care for your car, but there are other ways to maximize the life. Follow these six tips and you’ll find that you have fewer repairs to perform in the long run.

1. Drive Less

This might seem obvious, but it helps to prolong the life of your vehicle. The more often you cold start your car, the more wear you put on the engine. To extend the life, you want to start and stop it only when necessary.

Of course, you don’t want to avoid driving your car completely as that’s not the proper way to care for it either.

The best way to handle your running around is to consolidate trips. If you need to run out to buy some dog food and get dinner, why not run the two errands at the same time instead of at two separate times? This helps you to avoid a cold start and makes your driving more efficient.

2. Accelerate Slowly

When you attempt to go from 0 to 60 mph in your vehicle, you put a lot of strain on the transmission and engine. There’s really no reason to accelerate like a race car driver. Slow down and enjoy the ride a little more.

Even when you find yourself in a hurry, it’s easy to accelerate gently and smoothly. Work up slowly to the speed you desire. If you drive an automatic transmission, imagine that you’re shifting the gears to help you understand the wear you’re placing on your car.

3. Be Gentle on the Brakes

Make sure you don’t slam on your brakes. If you drive a manual transmission, you can shift into a lower gear to slow down. As a driver of an automatic transmission, you need to be more aware of how often you brake. Look ahead and start decelerating slowly.

Going from accelerating to braking quickly puts excessive wear on the brake pads and will cause you to change them more frequently.

4. Shift Smoothly

If you drive a manual transmission vehicle, make sure you shift smoothly. Changing out a clutch is complicated and expensive. When you hard shift, you accidentally grind gears which causes wear. In addition, revving the engine too much strains your transmission. You don’t want to make repairs to your transmission, so take the time to shift smoothly. Smoother shifting can improve your fuel economy too.

5. Utilize the Best Fuel

Read your owner’s manual and pick the best gas for your vehicle. Also, avoid filling up when the fuel tanker is on site. Gas stations that just had fuel delivered tend to have a lot of water and sediment stirred up inside the tank. Sure, there are filters on the pump, but they can’t possibly catch everything.

If there aren’t any other stations around, wait about 15 minutes before pumping. This allows the gas to settle in the tank.

6. Repair Issues as They Occur

The best tip for prolonging the life of your vehicle is to fix things as you need to. As soon as something doesn’t seem right, check it out and repair it, if possible. Neglecting to care for your car only causes larger, more expensive problems down the road.

Schedule out time to perform the car tune up checklist and you’ll know that you’re doing everything in your power to maintain your vehicle.

Final Thoughts

If you aren’t familiar with vehicle maintenance, the car tune up checklist might seem overwhelming at first. Upon further reflection, you’ll see that most of the aspects to the car tune up checklist aren’t that difficult to perform. Consult your vehicle owners manual and service manual to get more information on how to properly care for your vehicle. If you need further help, reach out to a local shop. If that check engine light appears on your dash, then something’s up – it could be something minor or something major, so it’s best to get it looked at as soon as possible. Whether you do it yourself or have someone else follow the car tune up checklist, what’s most important is that it gets done.

About Brian Jones

Brian Jones spent over 30-years at various dealerships as an ASE Certified Master Tech. These days he works with those dealerships to create quality automotive content while spending more time with his family near Dallas, TX. In his spare time, you'll still find him playing with tools, cars, and many other "manly" gadgets. Brian's passions include traveling, pickup trucks, and anything related to motorsports.