By on February 4, 2010

I hate spending money. To me the act of letting go of my hard earned dollars is the equivalent of forced labor at a future point in my life. Not that I won’t pay for things that I really enjoy. Family, vacations (within reason), educational tools, and even good friends are on that radar. But cars are ‘things’ and most of them are used for the miseries of daily commuting. An activity I rank right up there with filling out paperwork and paying bills. How do I keep those dollars and time where it belongs? I simply plan for the future and invest when necessary.

For example, when it comes to motor oil, I could care less about the name. What I do care about is a circular symbol that comes from the American Petroleum Institute. The API SM designation (SM is the latest rating for conventional motor oil) is all you really need to get a good quality motor oil in the United States that will easily last 5,000 miles. If the motor oil has it, it’s fine. If not… you’re either buying diesel oil, a unique synthetic, motorcycle oil, or complete trash. I usually wait to get two $4.99 deals on a Black Friday sale (Pep Boys had it this year), and maybe one more $9.99 deal during the year. Total cost is about $21.

Do I care about oil filters? Again, not really. I know that not all filters are created equal but most of them are made by about six different companies. They are all generally good. A good filter should really cost no more than $2 to $3 for most cars when you use a special offer. Next time you’re in a parts store, check out the store brand they keep in back versus the Purolator or Fram. I guarantee you that the store brand will be virtually identical to one of those filters at half the price.

Oil change intervals? Every six months or 5,000 miles is fine. If you’re not much of a driver once a year is perfectly dandy as well. Oil in a sealed environment doesn’t wear out that much. Unless you’re driving an antique there’s no reason to buy a pre-lube oiler. Additives are also a modern day placebo as are earth magnets and nearly every transmission ‘helper’ in today’s market. Spend your money on high quality auto parts instead.

Other filters? I change the air filter every 15k and I simply look at the filtration element. Paper filters can absorb a lot of dust and for daily driving, they’re the way to go. K&N’s are really for the performance crowd and the success of those also vary from slight to placebo. But they cost you less in the long run. Perhaps. For now I would just buy a regular air filter for a commuter scooter. Throw in coupons and rebates, and you’re looking at a filter once a year in the $5 to $10 range. If you drive more than 10,000 miles a year just combine it with an oil change package.

Transmission fluids? Here’s where it gets interesting. I am a fervent believer in regular changes. As for the frequency of those changes, it really depends on the model. For minivans and other unique models with transmission issues (I’m looking at you Volvo XC70 and 2nd gen Honda Odyssey), I would buy a Mityvac excavator and do a few quarts once a year. If you do a lot of long-distance driving in the summer you may want to invest in a transmission cooler. Even a good friend of mine who has a fleet of Chrysler minivans for his mini-warehouse business has found that the few hundred dollar cooler saves him from a $1000+ repair. If you change the fluid and always top off at the exact mark on the dipstick, your car will drive smoothly for a very long time.

For most front wheel drive cars, I would simply opt for a change of transmission fluid every 3 years or 30,000 miles along with the fuel filter. My 1994 Camry still drove and shifted like new after 239k miles because I always kept up with this. I also probably received a $1000 premium on it as a result as well when it came time to sell it. It literally shifted better than many near-new cars of that time and that $150 investment I spent in the short run paid big dividends in the end. If you own a RWD full-sized car tranny changes will likely not be needed. They are over-designed for their purpose and I have yet to find a local government or taxicab company that services the transmissions on these cars.

Other fluids? I replace coolant and power steering fluid with a Mityvac every three years. Brake fluid I replace every six years although that may be a bit overkill. However on the second change on the coolant and steering fluid I usually will replace the hoses as well along with the brake fluid and hoses. $30 in hoses usually saves me from a $300 plus repair down the road.

Most radiators should be replaced every 10 years and/or 150k and using a company like is definitely advisable. If you’re ever in doubt as to what to buy, enthusiast groups can help with choosing the appropriate replacement parts that usually conk out. If a starter or alternator goes out, I’ll usually rebuild it unless the manufacturer made them as a disposable item. Everything else I pretty much replace as time goes on and I’ll always opt for the more expensive and better made component even if it cost $50 more.

Tires… I would go to Tirerack for ratings and then wait for a Black Friday or Cyber Monday sale. One company offered my favorite tires at a $200 discount and the total price came to a little over $250 for a brand new set of 80,000 mile tires. I never opt for the cheap tires. A crappy set will make a car drive like a box of rocks and life’s too short for that. Speaking of which I would also opt for the same formula when buying shocks or struts.

Finally I would give any vehicle a good wax once a year. If you love it you can do it more often, but few do. If you absolutely hate waxing then you can always hire the kid down the street or someone who enjoys the work. There’s nothing wrong with delegating these things to someone who has the interest or financial incentive. Those of you who have kids already know the program on that. I wash and vac my own vehicles once a month (again, it’s your call) and generally stick with whatever good brand is on sale. Meguiar’s, Mother’s, and their ilk are fine. But you don’t need to use a super-premium product to wax a piece of steel.

If you do most of the above, your maintenance expenses should come out to about five hundred a year on average. The DIY’er will have the benefit of a toolbox. The dealer queens will pay the multiple. In between the two your car should last well past the manufacturer’s period of ‘planned obsolescence’. My advice is to map this out. Tape it on your garage wall, and highlight the services whenever they’re done. Then treat yourself to a really good beer or meal out. You earned it along with enough savings for a real long vacation from commuting.

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32 Comments on “Hammer Time: Keeping the Commuter...”

  • avatar

    Well Said. Still waiting on the “Hammer Time” book to come out. Do these approaches differ for domestic/import brands? You more careful with a volvo versus a ford?

  • avatar

    I agree with all except for the fuel filter (for select vehicles). Toyota has often said their fuel filters are lifetime. So at my dealer, to test the recommendation, every vehicle that dies a lonely death gets the fuel filter removed and inspected. So far we have done corolla, previa, camry, pickup, almost every model. Most of them in excess of 300,000km or more and they have been impressively clean – not in need of replacement.

    Other manufacturers I cannot say, but in my Toyota experience they are indeed lifetime.

    And as for starter – replacing the copper contacts is usually the way to go. The solenoid is usually good for the life of the vehicle – the contacts will carbon and corrode over time and that is what limits the ability to start the vehicle.

  • avatar

    I had a cheapo oil filter installed by a lube shop fail and almost take out the engine on a car so since then it’s been nothing but Napa gold filters and 2x a year oil changes (same time as seasonal tire changeover).

  • avatar

    I know, opinions are like….. but I think you got your coolant/power steering fluid change interval crossed with your brake fluid interval.

    While I’m at it,I’m sure you didn’t mean you Mityvac the coolant. You’ll have as much old coolant stuck in the engine block and heater core if you don’t flush it.

    If you are replacing a radiator from an internet source, be careful of the “made in China” crap. It won’t last. I’m already on ‘fooled me twice…’.

    Finally, any general comment on maintenance should include a timing belt replacement,if so equipped(you Honda guys know what I’m talking about), especially if you’re talking about keeping a car 5+ years. It may not be a DIY project, but its one where you have to break down and do, or you’ll go boom.


    • 0 avatar

      So does any car maker still use timing chains on any of it’s engines? I know belts are supposed to be quieter but the funny thing is I couldn’t hear the timing chain on my 307V8 Oldsmobile, of course the quadrajet and dual exhausts may have drowned it out but still…

      I think manufactures went to belts because the chains were about the only thing that wouldn’t break on those old engines, think of all the billable labor hours they were missing out on!

    • 0 avatar

      “So does any car maker still use timing chains on any of it’s engines?”

      My 06 Civic Si uses a timing chain, as do all of the other 8th gen Civics. Recommended “check” interval is 150k. I don’t expect it’ll need replacing while I have the car.

    • 0 avatar

      Both of my Jeeps(’99 and ’09)have chains.

    • 0 avatar
      bill h.

      All four cylinder Saabs since the Model 99 have had chains.

    • 0 avatar

      The 4.6 Modular motor in my Vic has two really long ones. I have never heard of one of these chains breaking. I do know they’re a bit of a bitch to change out. Not like the friendly little chain and gear set we all used to have to replace in our old V8 Detroit iron at about 100K. And, of course, who could forget having to clean out all those itty bitty pieces of white nylon stuck in your oil pickup. They didn’t put that sump screen in there for nothin’.

    • 0 avatar

      Agree. But a comment from Europe, oil and oil filter is half the price in the USA than over here. Is that the reason you change it twice as often? Most people here change after 9500 mi and it seems like you guys have way more problems with your cars than we have.

    • 0 avatar

      Chains, CHAINS, C H A I N S?!

      In Honda/Accord-LAND they are / were still dealing with BELTS! Ya have to change them every 100k depending on mileage / how much I could be raped for a belt job / tensioner / water pump. And drop $130 separately to pick up at “the parts counter”, and another 450-500 at a non-dealer, and or 7-800 for a dealer service. AND EVEN THEN hoping they don’t screw up the tension on the belt to where the motor actually slows down, when ya try and leave a light!


      CHAINS?! Isn’t that where EVERY automaker for every vehicle should be?
      I think Toyota just RECENTLY start using them, with Honda following on the Accord for current m.y.

      I WISH I had CHAINS on my motor.. wouldn’t have half of the mait. that they require?

  • avatar

    Watch out for 90’s and later GMs with DexCool in their cooling systems. After I got my ’94 Roadmaster this summer I went to drain the coolant (unfortunatly at 112k probably for the first time)and out came a kind of reddish brown mud. Several flushes and a removal and cleaning of the resivoir later I now have greenish brown coolant and a plugged heater core.

  • avatar

    Regarding tires, I’m a Tire Rack guy myself, HOWEVER, do not be bashful about calling a local place, telling them exactly what you want and what Tire Rack will charge. I’ve now done this twice and the local place matched the Tire Rack price for the OTD price.

    Everything is negotiable.

    • 0 avatar

      Heh – me too, except until now. Local tire shop threw my paper back at me this time and started telling me about “like services”.

      “I want the tires put on” apparently isn’t LIKE the list of crap that they’ll force on me that’s purportedly “FREE” . . .

      “you’ll have to mail them the tire for warranty replacement” On a yokohama? If something fails on one of my tires, I’ve got more than a replacement tire on my mind.

      Love tirerack myself — found a wicked deal on dicounttiredirect this time though so I went through them. No Tax + Free Ship is a helluva sales pitch!

    • 0 avatar

      I used to use Tire Rack almost exclusively, until I had a problem and they told me to pound sand. I’ve been happy since switching to Discount Tire.

  • avatar

    These are great ideas for saving money while keeping you car in good running condition. Is there a site were sales like these can be found? If not, do you guys think there would be enough interesting in a site that tracks and let’s people know of upcoming sales on automotive related items like tires, oil, etc? I think something like that might be handy for the DIY auto guy.


  • avatar

    “…total price came to a little over $250 for a brand new set of 80,000 mile tires.” No spirited BMW/Mercedes driving I guess. My 540 sport loved to eat a $1,000 set of tires every 20k miles. Other than that, a great article.


  • avatar

    I agree & do pretty much exactly what you have listed above (including the oil change intervals)…except my rides use only Amsoil synthetic oil & the Amsoil EAO oil filters.

    Tranny fluid (Amsoil again) & coolant flushes (OE coolants) every 2 years or 30k miles.

  • avatar

    I pretty much have been convinced by you Mr. Lang. My goal is to keep my Palio running until at least 2015 (when it’ll be 10 yrs old). So far so good.

    But down here a few things are different. Labor is cheap. So I take it to my mechanic every 10k km and change the oil every 5k km. And if I notice anything different in the car, I don’t take long to check it out.

    Great piece.

  • avatar

    What’s this “transmission” fluid you speak of?
    Manual Transmission FTW.
    Especially for a commuter car.

    Last commuter car = 130K+ miles when I sold it (
    Engine oil and filter changed every 4months on average. First 90K I used synthetic but after that I just put whatever in.
    Never touched the transmission. Original Clutch and gear oil. Shifted fine and never slipped. (and I beat the crap outta that car)
    Changed the coolant every 2-3 years.

    Automatics stink in traffic. Makes your mind go dead to the world.

  • avatar

    I disagree with the 10 year radiator replacements. IME the time to failure varies too much. I’ve seen them last as long as 40 years (’50 Chev and ’64 Triumph) and as little as 4 years (’95 and ’97 Neons).

  • avatar
    bill h.

    Disagree on the brake fluid interval–six years between flushes is just asking to have caliper components corrode due to the hygroscopic behavior of glycol-based brake fluids, not to mention big bucks for a new ABS module.

    Every other year seems far safer, and is not that expensive. With a $50 pressure bleeder, you can even DIY without need for a helper to pump pedals. While you’re at it, doing the hydraulic clutch system on MT cars so equipped is also a good preventative procedure.

  • avatar

    “While you’re at it, doing the hydraulic clutch system on MT cars so equipped is also a good preventative procedure.” Good call. I’ve had the clutch master cylinder die on my 84 RX7, and on a 1964 International pickup back in the dark ages. The RX7 one at least might have been prevented by changing the fluid. However the Cornbinder was practically new, so…?

  • avatar

    For tires I like Les Schwab Tire Centers. Les Schwab is a west coast/intermountain west tire chain based out of Prineville, Oregon. The employees are all trim and well groomed and they seemingly run everywhere. Their service is impeccable. Just don’t go for the cheap Chinese tires–go for the Toyos.

    For oil changes I play the odds and go to Wal Mart (and hope they don’t strip the plug).

    • 0 avatar

      Makes me happy to hear you say that.

      Not that I’m happy for your unfortunate luck.. just happy to know I’m not the only one.

      I had a 92 Accord.. with 230k that I took around to get an oil change or tires done every so often, and SOMEHOW I was ALWAYS being billed for a new plug.

      It was getting to the point that the hole must resemble a stripper.. cause EVERYONE is getting a piece!

  • avatar

    I beg to differ on oil changes, and here’s my math:

    Assume 4 quarts of cheap oil is $6, and a cheap filter is $3.

    Nine bucks for an oil change every 5k miles. Twenty-seven bucks gets you 15,000 miles.


    $22 for Mobil 1EP, and $7 for a Genuine Toyota filter. For twenty-nine bucks, I save the labor of 2 oil changes.

    Cheap stuff isn’t always the least expensive.

  • avatar

    Anybody know of a good place to take Mercedes to replace rear brake pads? The dealer is quoting $550 just for the rears which seems wild to me. I am in the DC/Northern VA area. Thanks.

  • avatar
    Steven Lang

    Owner CSI ratings for the Altima vs. other models on carsurvey.

    Altima: 71% happy / 14% sad
    Camry : 63% happy / 13% sad
    Accord: 72% happy / 15% sad

    Your Altima benefits from having been made for several years and the owner comments reflect a vehicle that is durable for the long haul.

    As a long time car guy, I would opt for keeping the vehicle.

  • avatar

    I agree with BostonDuce and Billh,

    Brake fluid every 3 years or the fluid will boil on a really long hill or too many agressive stops. I love the BMW but the maintenance costs are outrageous at the dealer, and I hate to DIY now that I’m getting older. Not being able to walk right for 3 days is no longer the fun it used to be. A fun read, thanks.

  • avatar

    I appreciate the practical advice. More of this.

  • avatar

    MAN oh man!
    I have to agree with you for the majority of your mentioned.
    However, I am not like most in here. I don’t have the choice of the Vette, Jag or the 72 Chrysler Newport. I have a standard commuter, but I do try and make it the most of what Ive got, with my next choice being much better.

    I had a brain freeze a while ago about putting oil into my 00 Accord with 203k. Couldn’t for the life of me figure out which oil I needed in the car.. and which viscosity. My wife and I walked into the DEVIL’s (WMART) store for other things.. and wanted to pick up a jug of oil.

    Longest story short..
    Found a site online that mentioned the oil needed..
    But Im always curious as to who makes what oil and is one or the other preferred, same with antifreeze.

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