Did I ever tell you about the time my husband brought home an old Toyota Tercel? I didn't ask for it, believe me, but there he was, puttering into the driveway in that gold 1985 hatchback. I don't know about you, but while my husband is smart, educated and ultra-handy, he can still be pretty darn clueless sometimes.
Anyway, I don't want to cast any aspersions on the Tercel itself. Properly maintained, it was one of the most reliable cars ever built. But my husband just trusted that it would keep running fine, so he didn't take these three simple post-purchase steps that could have saved us some headaches down the road.
Change the Oil
When you're buying a used car, I don't care how convincing the previous owner is when he or she tells you, "I changed that oil religiously every 3,000 miles!" I like to assume the best of people, but in this case, I always assume the worst. It takes time, energy and money to keep up with car maintenance, and folks don't necessarily have all three at once.
So here's my advice: pretend like that oil hasn't been changed since the car rolled off the assembly line, and change it immediately, whether you do it yourself (my preference, of course!) or pay for the service. My husband dragged his feet on this for a while with the Tercel, since the oil level looked fine on the dipstick, and we had some strange engine issues that cropped up down the line. I don't know for sure that old oil was the culprit, but I wish we'd just handled it and changed the oil right away. Today, tens of thousands of miles later, the Tercel's running great with regular DIY oil changes, thank you very much!
Get Fresh Tires and an Alignment
Unless the existing tires are fairly new and a high-quality type that's properly fitted to the car, I always advise starting from scratch with a new set. Hey, you'll have to buy tires at some point, right? Why not do it right away? It's the same idea as the immediate oil change: you want the car to be yours from the get-go, and that means buying a set of top-notch tires yourself. As a fringe benefit, the tire shop will balance the wheels, which should minimize any vibrations you're feeling on the road.
Also, make sure you have a four-wheel alignment done, because a misaligned car will eat those nice new tires for breakfast. Finally, don't forget to rotate the tires and balance the wheels at the prescribed intervals; ideally, try to find a tire shop that will perform this service gratis for the life of the tires. My husband decided to keep the tires that came with that old Tercel, since the car itself cost so little to acquire, and the result was that we lived with a jittery ride until the tires were so far gone that he had to get new ones. The difference with the new rubber was night and day. Don't make the same mistake!
Take a Road Trip
With summer here, this one's a no-brainer. This is the most fun DIY tip I'll ever give you: after buying a used car, just hop in and drive! Most trips we take in cars are short, and that's the worst thing for the engine and other drivetrain components, because they need plenty of time and heat to get properly warmed up. That's why I think of long highway drives as spa treatments for my cars. Engines are happiest when they're humming along contentedly for sustained stretches.
With the gold Tercel, we noticed that the more we drove it on trips like this, the smoother it felt (well, once we resolved those engine issues and put on new tires!). There's nothing like a getting-to-know-you road trip in your "new" used car to knock out the car's cobwebs and help the two of you get on the same page.
What Works For You?
I'm always eager to hear how you folks tackle real-world problems like "breaking in" a used car. Let me know in the comments! Are there any additional procedures you'd recommend?
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