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used car buying guide

The first step to maintaining a new-to-you vehicle is collecting as much information about its service history as possible.Mihajlo Maricic/iStockPhoto / Getty Images

The key to a long and peaceful relationship with your new-to-you vehicle is to know as much as possible about its service history. Then, if you discover any gaps in that history, make a plan to fill the gaps yourself.

If you bought a nearly-new certified pre-owned (CPO) vehicle, the selling dealer should have given it a thorough going-over, but try to confirm what exactly was done. If you bought privately, the seller might provide records of all service and repairs performed under their ownership. Or if the vehicle came with a history report like Carfax, it may list when and where past service work was done (though possibly not in much detail).

On newer cars, Globe Drive auto-mechanics expert Lou Trottier says, “most manufacturers now use a maintenance-minder system built into the vehicle that tells the owner what to do and when.”

Failing the above, consult the manufacturerʼs maintenance schedule for that model – on the manufacturer’s website, if there’s no owner’s manual – and perform whatever tasks were last due previous to the vehicle’s current mileage. “So if it’s at 80,000 kilometres, and spark plugs and transmission oil were due at 60,000, then they should be done,” Trottier says.

Spark plugs, transmission oil – what else should you consider doing on an “if in doubt, do it” basis?

At the very least, check all the fluid levels: engine oil, transmission fluid, coolant, brake fluid and, on older vehicles with hydraulic power steering, the power-steering fluid.

Unless the oil on the engine dipstick looks really clean, do an engine oil-and-filter change as a matter of course. Synthetic oil is good insurance even if your vehicle doesn’t specifically require it.

Transmission oil-change intervals tend to be much longer than for engine oil but still, for peace of mind, it’s worth doing anyway. And yes, that includes so-called sealed-for-life transmissions, especially if you have reason to believe the vehicle has previously been worked hard (used for towing, for instance).

As Trottier, the owner-operator of Mississauga-based All About Imports, wrote recently in Globe Drive, “Most transmission manufacturers test their transmissions up to 100,000 miles, or 160,000 kilometres, as that mileage is typically deemed be an acceptable lifespan.”

In reality, most vehicles last much longer, so, “regardless of the fluid colour, and understanding that every once in a while a fluid change may cause an internal issue, I would still suggest you get it replaced,” he advises.

Mileage aside, the appearance of the transmission fluid can indicate its condition. To check, drip some fluid from the dipstick onto a white paper towel. Fresh automatic transmission fluid is bright red and clear. Light brown and semi-transparent should still be okay, but if itʼs dark brown and opaque, change it.

Manual gearboxes may require periodic oil changes, and rear- or all-wheel-drive vehicles have separate rear and/or front axles with their own oils.

Many vehicles require the coolant to be replaced every number of years, so that should also be on the “if-in-doubt” list. These days, most vehicles have long-life coolant, but that doesn’t mean forever coolant; if it’s over 100,000 kilometres, change it, Trottier advises.

Coolant-changing is also the time to replace any hoses that look iffy, as well as drive belts for engine ancillaries such as the alternator, air-conditioning compressor and, if applicable, water pump and power-steering pump.

One other fluid that’s easily overlooked is brake fluid. Over time, this can absorb moisture, not only reducing braking performance but also corroding brake hardware, leading to expensive repairs. “Most manufacturers recommend once every two years, regardless of mileage driven,” Trottier says. “As for power-steering fluid, it’s usually inspected for colour and replaced when visibly contaminated,” he adds.

While we’re still under the hood, inspect the engine air filter; better still, replace it. (It’s not a pricey item.) And speaking of filters, check to see whether your vehicle has a cabin air filter that needs changing.

Most modern vehicles require new spark plugs at 160,000 kilometres, but the biggie on the engine itself is the camshaft drive belt, also known as the timing belt. On many engines, the camshafts are driven by toothed rubber belts that need replacing at certain intervals. A common interval is 60,000 miles (96,000 kilometres), but some (especially for severe duty) are shorter than that, while on newer vehicles the interval may be much longer.

At the very least, a timing-belt failure will stop your engine dead in its tracks, but everything will work again (albeit at a price) once a new belt is installed. In the case of so-called interference engine designs, however, a failed belt disrupts the carefully choreographed movements of engine internal parts, valves will collide with pistons, and you will have a catastrophic engine failure. No one wants that.

Find out whether your engine has a timing belt (as opposed to a chain drive) and if so, when it’s supposed to be changed. If the engine is an “interference” design, and you don’t know whether a required belt change was done in the past, do it now. Often the water pump is driven by the same belt, and now is a good opportunity to replace the pump at the same time.

Also consider replacing the battery. The consensus seems to be that a battery will last three to five years, though I’ve found original-equipment batteries on new cars last much longer. Cheap aftermarket batteries are more likely to die young, and if your used vehicle came with a “new” battery, there’s a good chance the seller installed a cheap one just for the sale.

Tires are another wear item that may have been replaced on the cheap to help sell the car. Be wary of tire brands you’ve never heard of. Historically, they have tended to perform poorly in comparison tests, and some have been subject to safety-related recalls. If in doubt, research them online.

Even if the car has trusted name-brand tires with adequate remaining tread depth, how old are they? Industry wisdom suggests that tires more than 10 years old (from date of manufacture, not sale) should be replaced, even if the tread depth is still good. Even younger tires should be replaced if there’s visible deterioration like cracks in the rubber.

A code moulded into the sidewall tells you its age. Find the letters DOT, followed by a series of characters ending in a four-digit code. The latter is the date of manufacture in a week/year format: for example, 0715 means the seventh week of 2015.

You should also find out whether your new ride has a brake-pad-wear indicator. If it does, all’s good until it lights up. If not, a visual inspection will be needed to determine whether the brake pads (and possibly rotors) need replacing soon. Of course, if the brakes are noisy or you feel roughness through the pedal, they’re already toast.

Finally, there’s little point ensuring your car can keep driving into a healthy old age if the body is going to rust out from under you.

Wash the car regularly and deal quickly with any paint chips or scratches where rust can start from the outside. When the weather allows, hose off road dirt and salt accumulated on your car’s underside, especially where it tends to build up inside the wheel wells. Then, even if the vehicle wasn’t rustproofed when new, consider getting it done. Treatments like Krown or Rust-Check, which spray water-repellent fluids inside the hidden cavities, cost $150 or less and should slow the progress of any inside-to-outside corrosion that may have started but isn’t yet visible.

That said, Trottier cautions that some manufacturers may not honour the corrosion warranty if doors are drilled during rust-proofing treatments or chemicals are sprayed on door electronics, so check with the manufacturer first.

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