Whether you are a new, young driver or someone who has never owned a car before, learning the basics of car care makes both driving and ownership more fun. Even veteran car owners should be familiar with the basics.
Start with the owner's manual. If you don't feel like reading every word, at least get familiar with where to find important information. At the top of the list should be the maintenance schedule. To some new drivers, the driving categories may be confusing, but you can't go wrong by using the more frequent service (often called "severe") schedule.
Observe the warning icons on the instrument panel and identify what they mean. Turn the ignition key to ON, but do not start the engine. All of the lights should come on, at least briefly. This is called the bulb check. If you can't check all of the icons before they go out, turn the key off and back on. If you can't identify an icon, look up its meaning in the owner's manual.
Check all of the lights so that you can see and be seen. Turn on the headlight and flashers then walk around the car. Ask a friend to check the brake lights as you apply the brakes. Some bulbs are easier to replace than others and your owner's manual usually lists the bulb's numbers.
Don't forget to check the interior lights while you are at it.
Check all fluids, including engine oil, power steering, brake and transmission as well as windshield washer solvent and antifreeze/coolant. Check the oil by removing the dipstick. It usually has a yellow handle. Wipe it clean then reinsert the dipstick. Pull it back out and verify that the level is between the full and add lines. Add a quart if it is below the line.
The other fluids are visible in translucent reservoirs and may have a full and low line on the outside. See that the fluid level is correct. For windshield washer, simply fill it to the top. If other fluids are low, find a knowledgeable assistant or professional auto tech to correct the level.
Learn what fluids go where. They are not interchangeable with one another.
Check the hoses and belts to make sure they are not cracked, brittle, frayed, loose or showing signs of excessive wear. Squeeze hoses to be sure they are not too soft. If in doubt, ask your auto technician to check them when you get your next oil change.
Check the battery. Make sure the connection is clean, tight and corrosion-free. Clean corrosion with a paste of baking soda and water. Rinse thoroughly. If in doubt, have a professional test the battery.
Know how to jump-start a car. Connect the red cable (or red clamp) to the positive (+) battery post on the dead car then connect the other end to the positive post of the donor battery. Next, connect the black lead to the negative (-) terminal of the donor battery then the other lead to a ground at least a foot away from the dead battery. Allow a few minutes for the dead battery to charge up then remove the cables in reverse order.
Wear eye protection. Batteries produce hydrogen gas and a spark or flame can cause an explosion. Never lean over a battery when working near it.
Check the exhaust system. If you hear exhaust noise have the system checked for leaks, damage and broken supports or hangers. Exhaust leaks can be dangerous; correct them right away. You may be able to slide beneath an SUV or van and spot holes, cracks or broken hardware. Otherwise, ask your mechanic to check the system when the car is on the lift.
Check the tires, including tire pressure and tread depth. Use a gauge to check that the tire pressure agrees with the label on the door, not the maximum pressure molded into the tires' sidewalls. Uneven wear indicates a need for wheel alignment. Check the tires for bulges and bald spots.
See if the wear bars are showing perpendicular to the treads. Evenly spaced around the tires, wear bars appear when tread depth is less than 2/32 inch. Some people suggest inserting a nickel between the treads. If Jefferson's head is fully visible, replace the tires.
Check the pressure in the spare. Discover where it is and how to take it out of stowage in the event you must change a flat. Locate the jack and any tools needed to operate the jack and remove the lug nuts from the wheel.
Practice changing a tire. Check your owner's manual for the lifting locations so you will know where to place the jack. Placing it in the wrong spot could damage the car's floor or fuel lines or brake lines.
Practice changing tires in a driveway or parking lot where you will be safe. If you must change a flat on the road, drive to a safe place. Although you may ruin the tire by driving on a flat, it is better than risking your life.
Check the wiper blades. Worn wipers streak, making it hard to see clearly when driving during precipitation. Although not difficult to replace, they can be confusing so do not hesitate to ask for help.
Since your first car may be a used car, it may not have all the electronics and infotainment systems common in a new vehicle. In fact, it may seem simple and antiquated with a modicum of switches and gauges, so much so that you may be tempted to multitask. Avoid the temptation.
Your cell phone may be your most valuable bit of safety equipment, but you must use it in a safe manner. Do not talk or text while driving. Use the phone to call for roadside assistance after you are safely off the road. Then stay inside the car until help arrives.
Most new cares come with roadside assistance, at least for a period of time. Most used cars do not and most new car owners start with a used car. Consider joining AAA or other roadside assistance program. (It would make an excellent birthday present if someone needs a hint.)
For more on basic car care, check out the Car Care Council’s 60-page Car Care Guide in English or Spanish.