By Bill Basore
Road-trip season is upon us--and almost two-thirds of American car owners have been putting off automotive maintenance, according to findings from CarMD. To help summer motorists maximize their fuel dollars while avoiding the kinds of repairs that can ruin a vacation road trip, CarMD, a provider of consumer automotive diagnostic products and information, reveals the top five most frequent car repairs from its 2010 customer database.
If ignored, each repair described below can significantly reduce gas mileage and lead to roadside breakdowns. And all should be indicated by the "check engine" light standard on vehicles manufactured since 1996.
1) Replace the Oxygen Sensor
The No. 1 reason for the dreaded "check engine" light last year was a faulty O2 sensor, which monitors the amount of unburned oxygen in the exhaust and tells your car's computer when there is too much (or not enough) fuel.
A faulty O2 sensor can reduce gas mileage by up to 40 percent. During a 500-mile road trip, an unrepaired O2 sensor can cost you an extra $50 at the pump--money you could put to good use supporting local souvenir shops! If you drive an older car with high mileage, chances are you'll need to replace an O2 sensor or two as part of the normal aging process. They cost about $20 and, with today's gas prices, pay for themselves quickly.
2) Check the Gas Cap
A loose, faulty, or cracked gas cap is the second most common "check engine" light culprit, accounting for more than 9 percent of the 2010 repairs in CarMD's database. A faulty gas cap can reduce fuel economy by several miles per gallon--and loose, cracked, and missing caps cause an estimated 147 million gallons of costly fuel to evaporate each year.
The good news? This is an inexpensive and easy problem to repair, even during a road trip. Make sure your gas cap is actually on your vehicle and in good condition. Tighten the cap after every fill-up or consider a locked cap.
3) Replace the Catalytic Converter
Although this is the third-most-common repair on the CarMD list, it should not even be in the top 10. A catalytic converter normally won't fail unless a smaller faulty part, a spark plug or O2 sensor, is ignored for too long. A failed catalytic converter can cost as much as $2,000 to repair and will quickly cause severe damage to your car. Bye-bye, summer road trip. Hello, backyard staycation.
4) Replace the Mass Air Flow Sensor
The MAF sensor measures the amount of air supplied to your car's engine and determines how much fuel to deliver into the engine--and it is particularly susceptible to dry, dusty summer road conditions. When malfunctioning, the MAF sensor can result in a lack of power, engine hesitation, or surge upon acceleration. And if left unfixed, a bad sensor can lower fuel economy by 10-25 percent.
Keeping your MAF sensor healthy is as easy as regularly replacing the air filter for about $20. Replacing the actual MAF sensor will run roughly $300 in parts and labor--just what it costs a family of four to buy tickets for a day at Disneyland.
5) Replace Spark Plug and/or Spark Plug Wire
The small but mighty spark plug, responsible for igniting a car's air/fuel ratio, can cause big problems when it fails. At a minimum, a faulty spark plug reduces your gas mileage by 10-20 percent. More concerning is a failed spark plug's potential to cause a misfire that can melt and permanently damage a catalytic converter.
Spark plugs need to be replaced every 30,000 to 40,000 miles, but they can fail earlier due to oil or dirt build-up in an engine. Do it yourself for less than $10, or have it done by a mechanic for several hundred bucks. The savings of replacing spark plugs in a timely manner can be in the thousands of dollars--and the knowledge you've ensured your family against a serious road-trip mishap.
Quick attention to any warning lights you've been ignoring is not the only thing to keep in mind when packing the trunk for that weekend getaway or summer drive, of course. Behind on your regularly scheduled fluid changes? Have your tires been inspected, wiper blades tested, lights and turn signals checked? Go through that maintenance checklist now--and you won't cut into your vacation time and budget later.