It is all too easy to take the modern car for granted.
Most of us simply unlock the door, climb in and when we turn the key or push the start button the engine fires up. Reliability is such that formerly essential supplies such as jump leads, WD40 and spare oil and screenwash have probably found their way into the garage instead of the boot, rendered obsolete.
Is our nonchalant attitude fully justified, though? Shockingly, according to the Vehicle Operator and Services Agency, 40 per cent of cars fail their MoT test at the first attempt - and for faults that can be easily checked by anyone, regardless of mechanical ability. Tyres, driver visibility and non-operational lights are the top three failure items.
To make matters worse, ignoring unusual noises and leaving out simple, but essential, checks can leave us with unwanted maintenance bills and even unsafe vehicles.
Combat the top three
Starting with tyres, then, to avoid MoT failure they must be free from damage. Heavy kerb-bashing can cause a bruise or bump in the rubber, so feel around the tyre face to make sure yours are in good order.
Next, inspect the tread depth. The legal limit is 1.6mm, with most tyres starting life with 8mm. You can use a special gauge or the edge of a 20p piece to check. The less tread you have, the worse the tyre is at displacing water and therefore performing on wet roads. This ultimately means that if the tread is at an illegal level, it’s unsafe - not to mention that three penalty points per tyre can be added to your licence.
When the weather turns cold, it’s also a good idea to check the pressures because these fall with the temperature gauge, potentially leaving a car with reduced braking power and cornering ability, as well as increased fuel consumption.
Moving on to visibility, a chip or crack in the windscreen in line with the driver’s sight will lead to the dreaded fail slip. Most insurance companies have a windscreen claim facility, which does not affect your premium and typically carries an excess of at least £75.
Visibility also includes the condition of wiper blades and whether there is sufficient screenwash - the cap for this reservoir is usually yellow and bears a symbol indicating its purpose. Running out of screenwash is potentially very dangerous, especially on the motorway, where dirty spray is kicked up from lorries and other vehicles, covering all that follows in a cocktail of grime, salt and precipitation.
Then there’s your lights. It’s so easy to check these, yet many people seem to have no idea they are driving around with only one headlight or rear light. It’s all about being seen, so make sure you clean the lenses regularly, too.
Help avoid expensive repair bills
Oil and coolant (a mixture of water and antifreeze) are two vital ingredients to keep an engine happy. Failure to check both, or letting either get too low, could lead to some scary bills, the worst being for catastrophic engine failure.
The oil needs to be changed when a service is due, indicated on the dashboard display or in accordance with the manufacturer guidelines in the handbook; time or mileage, whichever comes first. However, to maximise the life of your engine, it’s best to change the oil once a year, regardless of whether the car needs a service. Waiting for the oil warning light to come on is certainly not a good idea, because this can actually indicate low oil pressure, which often signifies that the damage has already been done.
The level on the dipstick should be between the maximum and minimum marks. Many fairly new cars can burn quite a lot of oil until the engine beds in, sometimes getting low in between service intervals, so it is best to keep checking. Never be tempted to overfill the engine to compensate for losses such as this, however.
As for the coolant, there will be a measure indicator on the header tank. The coolant mixture needs renewing in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions.
Another important tip is to keep an eye on your dashboard and look up any warning lights that appear. Many modern cars alert us even if a bulb has failed, usually with a beep first, and then the illumination of a light.
A particularly scary light for diesel car owners is the one for the diesel particulate filter. Our postbag is filled with reader concerns about these emissions-related items, so read the manual to find out how to regenerate the filter without having to buy a costly replacement as a last resort.
Finally, listen to your car. Are there any strange knocks or grinding noises coming from the engine/wheels/not sure where, but I can hear something funny? If so, take the car to your trusted mechanic because a problem diagnosed early might prevent a much larger bill further down the line, as well as ensuring your car is in the best possible shape for facing challenging driving conditions.
Checking and servicing are essential for mechanical longevity and safety. Setting aside no more than 15 minutes every week could save you hundreds if not thousands of pounds and will ensure you are less likely to suffer a breakdown, or worse still an accident.