Hammer Time: Keeping the Commuter

Steven Lang
by Steven Lang
hammer time keeping the commuter

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 radiator.com 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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2 of 32 comments
  • Derek Howell Derek Howell on Feb 04, 2010

    I appreciate the practical advice. More of this.

  • Accs Accs on Feb 04, 2010

    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.

  • Jeff S Still a nice car and I remember these very well especially in this shade of green. The headlights were vacuum controlled. I always liked the 67 thru 72 LTDs after that I found them bloated. Had a friend in college with a 2 door 71 LTD which I drove a couple of times it was a nice car.
  • John H Last week after 83 days, dealership said mine needs new engine now. They found metal in oil. Potential 8 to 9 month wait.
  • Dukeisduke An aunt and uncle of mine traded their '70 T-Bird (Beakbird) for a brand-new dark metallic green '75 LTD two-door, fully loaded. My uncle hated seat belts, so the first time I saw the car (it was so new that the '75 models had just landed at the dealerships) he proudly showed me how he'd pulled the front seat belts all the way out of their retractors, and cut the webbing with a razor blade(!).Just a year later, they traded it in for a new '76 Cadillac Coupe de Ville (they had owned a couple of Imperials in the '60s), and I imagine the Cadillac dealer took a chunk out to the trade-in, to get the front seat belts replaced.
  • CaddyDaddy Lease fodder that in 6 years will be on the 3rd owner in a poverty bound aspirational individual's backyard in a sub par neighborhood sinking into the dirt. The lending bank will not even want to repossess and take possession of this boat anchor of a toxic waste dump. This proves that EVs are not even close to being ready for prime time (let's not even talk about electrical infrastructure). EVs only exist in wildly expensive virtue signaling status-mobiles. FAIL! I know this is a Hybrid, but it's a Merc., so it will quickly die after the warranty. Show me a practical EV for the masses and I'll listen. At this time, Hybrids are about the way to go for most needing basic transportation.
  • Jeanbaptiste The bubble free dash on the R32!