Few excursions can delight like the summer road trip, the promise of the open road beckoning as you toil in your cubicle all week. When the weekend hits, you throw your bags in the trunk, gas up your car, and hit the road expecting smooth sailing until… Hey, what’s that check engine light mean?
With some easy maintenance maneuvers, the perfect drive is within your reach — and you don’t necessarily need to don a pair of mechanic’s rubber gloves (or shell out hundreds of dollars) to get there. Here’s what you need to know before you merge onto the interstate with the throngs of vacationers jockeying to beat Summer Friday traffic.
Read Your Owner’s Manual
That hefty handbook jammed in your glove box is your bible —it's as important to your drive as your valid license. If you’ve never touched it, give it a read before your next trip. Each car is a unique creature with its own set of preferences, from the type of gas it guzzles to the way it likes its tires rotated. Follow your owner’s manual’s recommendations, and you will achieve the holy triumvirate of safety, performance, and fuel economy.
Most importantly, the book includes a legend that will decode what that emergency light suddenly flashing on your dashboard is trying to tell you.
Pop The Hood
Checking under the hood regularly can prevent 70% of the causes of highway breakdowns. That’s huge! Once you pop the hood, squeeze hoses to test for cracks, and check for frayed belts that could indicate leaks (here’s a basic summary of where to look). You’ll benefit from the peace of mind that comes with self-education, but don’t let these private sessions replace regular maintenance.
Pro tip for beginners: The latch to release the hood is usually on the left-hand side of the steering wheel on the lower dash, but the owner’s manual will reveal its location if that’s not the case.
Your Car Won’t Start
You put the key in the ignition and…your car sounds like it’s been strangled. If you forgot to turn off your car’s lights or radio when parking overnight, you may have a dead battery on your hands. It’s an easy fix if you’ve got access to a pair of jumper cables and a running car. First, pop each car’s hood. The positive cable (in red) links the positive terminal of your dead battery with the other car’s battery. The negative cable (black) attaches to the negative terminal on the other car’s battery and to a grounded part of your car’s engine compartment. If you’re stranded without a pair of cables, call AAA, the manufacturer’s roadside assistance service, or a tow truck.
There’s Smoke Coming From The Tailpipe
You may have blown a gasket that lets engine oil mix with engine coolant. If that’s the case, your car will overheat quickly, but you’ll probably be able to drive a short distance safely. Check the engine’s temperature gauge on the dashboard. If it’s more than halfway into the “hot” zone, leave the car in a safe spot and call AAA.
There’s Smoke Under The Hood
If smoke starts emanating from your engine, pull over immediately, but don’t pop the hood quite yet. Smoke could indicate a fire; steam means the engine is overheating and needs to cool. It can be hard to tell the difference, but popping the hood for a closer look will only cause trouble: If it’s a fire, you’ll feed it with oxygen. If it’s steam, an overheating radiator could spray you with scalding engine coolant. Get out of the car and find a safe spot at least 40 feet away before calling 911 to report a possible fire.
There’s An Oil Puddle Under Your Car
Where there’s an oil puddle, there’s likely a leak. Don’t start the car until you check the engine oil level by popping the hood and looking at the dipstick in the oil reservoir. If the dipstick reveals a normal range, you can probably make it about 10 miles to a dealer or mechanic, as long as you don’t floor it. If it’s below normal levels, call a tow truck to take the car to a dealer or mechanic.
There’s A Nail In Your Tire
You’re about to hop in the car, when you notice a ginormous nail plugged into your tire treads. If you have a tire gauge (you should!), check the tire pressure. If it’s above 25 psi (tire pressure is measured in pounds per square inch), Karl Brauer from car bible Kelley Blue Book recommends pouring water over the nail to see if any bubbles appear. If not, you can drive a short distance to a tire repair shop, keeping your speed below 50 mph. If you hear or see bubbles, put on the spare or call a tow truck to take you to the nearest tire center. Don’t forget to check the pressure on the spare before mounting it.