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What car maintenance is most important?

Actually, it's the little things that can yield the most results

Cars on U.S. highways last a lot longer than they once did. In the past a car was well past its prime after five or six years of driving.

Today, vehicles are just getting broken in at that point. The average driver now expects to drive their car or truck ten years – in part because they last longer but also because they're more expensive to replace.

Two or three decades ago, an automobile required a lot of maintenance, which may be why they didn't last as long. Motorists skimped on maintenance and paid the price in the end. Today's cars don't require as much and are a bit more forgiving.

Maintenance costs are rising

Still, you can't neglect the maintenance schedule and those maintenance costs can quickly add up. According to AAA, the cost of maintaining the average car in the U.S. rose 11.26% in 2012. That includes labor, parts and the purchase of a service contract.

One big reason for the rising cost is modern cars keep getting more complex and, therefore, more expensive to maintain. Parts are more expensive and mechanics -- or technicians, as they're now called -- require more training, which equates to higher hourly rates.

Higher costs down the road

"If you're like most Americans, you're busier than ever and you may not think twice about putting off vehicle maintenance,” said Rich White, executive director of the Car Care Council. “However, neglected auto care almost always means much higher costs down the road in the form of more extensive repairs or lost resale value. Following a routine maintenance schedule like the one found on the Car Care Council's website can help you drive smart, save money and make informed decisions."

If you're on a limited budget and can't afford all the scheduled maintenance, what's the most important areas where you should direct your car-servicing dollars? One of the most important things you can do has nothing to do with the engine and will actually cost you little to nothing.

Tire pressure

Automotive experts strongly recommend regular checking of tire pressure, keeping tires inflated to the level called for in your owner's manual. Tires naturally lose air and under-inflated tires will use more gasoline than necessary. More importantly, they will wear out faster. Since tires are an increasingly expensive part of today's car, making them last is an important money-saving step.

To add more miles to your tread consider having tires rotated and balanced on a regular basis. If you can afford it, consider a tire rotation every second or third oil change -- assuming your car's manufacturer recommends it. Certain types of drivetrains and suspensions don't take well to tire rotations.

Regular oil changes

In general, looking out for the fluids in your car's engine will yield positive results. Oil changes are a case in point. In the past mechanics recommended changing the oil every 3,000 miles but today's engines can go longer between fresh oil. Manufacturers vary so check your vehicle's owner's manual.

The same is true of coolant. Coolant products last longer than they once did but it's worth keeping an eye on coolant levels. These days most auto service centers include a check of all fluid levels when you go in for an oil change.

No more tune-ups

Unless you're driving an antique car, one bit of maintenance you don't need is a tune-up. That was a regular feature of car maintenance in days gone by but no more. Valves don't need to be adjusted, a computer controls the timing and you won't find a carburetor to remove and take apart. You might need to change spark plugs at some point, but today's plugs should last 100,000 miles or so.

In older cars the odometer only went to 99,999 because cars getting over 100,000 miles was a rarity. That's all changed now and to keep your vehicle on track to reach 200,000 most mechanics strongly recommend getting the major scheduled service at 60,000 and 120,000 miles. At that point mechanics usually flush the coolant and replace the timing belt and spark plug wires. These two services tend to be a bit pricey but if you plan on driving your car past 120,000 miles it's probably worth it.

"Whether you visit a professional service technician or do it yourself, starting a preventative maintenance program with a thorough vehicle inspection this fall can help keep your car safe and dependable for the harsh winter months ahead," White said.

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