New Year's Resolutions for Your Car

It's a running joke in adult life, that we make resolutions to exercise more, watch our diet, get some weight off, drop a bad habit, get out and socialize more, etc etc. We stick with the resolution for a few weeks, then it quietly gets forgotten about and we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off and go on about our business as though nothing happened.

When it comes to your car, though, New Year's resolutions should be easier to manage and stick with. Yes, you probably keep up on things like oil changes and air filters, but there are other systems and tasks that need attention, too.


1. Keep Your Cool

radiator cap with caution label

Your car's cooling system does a lot more than just protect against overheating in the hot months. It helps power the heater and defroster, and prevents freeze-ups in winter conditions. 

Your cooling system needs regular maintenance to stay healthy, though. Antifreeze contains anti-corrosion agents that help prevent the buildup of scale in the cooling system, which can plug tiny passages in the radiator and heater core and reduce cooling efficiency. Still, corrosion can accumulate over time, and that's why it's important to have the system flushed and refilled with the proper coolant at regular intervals. It's simple to test the condition of the coolant with a hygrometer and determine whether it's time for maintenance.

Ready to flush your radiator? Here's how. 

2. Get Your Life in Gear

Cross section of a transmission | Source | Vestman/Flickr

Keep those gears moving... by inspecting and changing your transmission fluid. Start by pulling your transmission dipstick when the engine's warm and get a look at the fluid. Take a nice whiff of it while you're at it. The fluid should be magenta in color - almost clear - and should have a sweetish smell. If it's darker and has a burnt-caramel or burnt-toast smell, that's a problem.

Heat is the absolute enemy of transmissions and automatic transmission fluid (ATF), as the ATF breaks down and can no longer cool and lubricate internal parts. Your car's manufacturer has recommended service intervals for an ATF change and flush, and you should honor those recommendations. If you have a truck that's often used for hauling heavy loads or towing a trailer, you should probably consider shortening that interval for such severe duty, and might even consider installing a transmission cooler.

A couple of words of warning, though.

At one time, there were only a few formulations of ATF available. Now there's more than a dozen, each with additive packages of friction modifiers and detergents that are specific to a certain make and model of vehicle. Be completely certain you're using the right ATF, even as an add-on; using the wrong formulation can damage or ruin a transmission. Also, some schools of thought believe that if your vehicle has more than 120-150k on the odometer and the fluid hasn't been changed in a very long time, it's best to perform a full flush. The logic here is that a flush contains detergents that can dislodge sediment and other deposits that can then circulate and plug valves or hydraulic passages in the unit. It's best to talk to a tech for advice if that's the case, or simply do a drain and fill.

3. Make Meaningful Connections

positive battery terminal

You go out to start your car and it turns over very slow, or you just hear a dispiriting "" that doesn't turn the engine over. Your battery's not that old, so what's the problem? Connecting with other people is great, but this year, make a solid connection to your battery.

It's really easy to neglect your battery cables and terminals. A cable clamp (positive or negative, either one) that's even just a little loose can be enough to prevent your battery from accepting or delivering a charge at startup. What's even more common is a buildup of corrosion on the terminals and clamps, which shows up as a fluffy bluish-white deposit. This stuff is a really efficient insulator and can also prevent your battery from charging.

It's easy to fix, though. Just remove the cable clamps and clean the posts and clamps thoroughly with a wire brush (a special brush is available just for this purpose), then apply a dab of anticorrosion gel before you put everything back together again. For an added measure of protection, use a battery terminal protector kit to help prevent corrosion problems.

4. Embrace Change

left front corner of car on winding road

Change in your life can be refreshing, and if they could speak, your tires would agree. Front tires and back tires are subject to different forces and different types of wear. Front tires have to deal with the inertia that happens when you hit the brakes and the vehicle's weight shifts forward (not to mention having more weight to contend with just by being under the engine). In addition, the outside edges of front tires will wear from cornering forces. That's why rotating your tires regularly is important for even wear.

Rotating tires only takes a few basic tools like a jack and jack stands, a lug wrench, and a torque wrench. Here's a detailed guide to get you started.

Some tires should be rotated front-to-rear, while others specify an X pattern for rotation. Regardless of how yours should be rotated, the interval should be at about every 5,000 miles to ensure proper tire wear, ride quality and handling. If you have your oil changed at about that interval, that's the perfect time to rotate the tires for easy tracking of intervals. Also keep in mind that failing to rotate tires can void a tire warranty.

5. Have Clarity of Vision

closeup of right headlight assembly

To make good choices in the new year, you'll need to have clarity. It also helps when you're driving down the road.

No, you're not slowly going blind or just imagining it. Your headlights' polycarbonate or acrylic lenses can become cloudy and yellowish over time due to UV ray exposure, road grit and general wear and tear. The good news is that you don't need to replace the whole lens and housing; headlight restoration kits make it pretty easy to get that clear lens surface back again in just a few simple steps. You'll be amazed at the difference it makes in your headlights' projection and effectiveness.

6. Stop and Relax

brake fluid reservoir

You can't stop and you certainly won't relax if your brake system isn't working.

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning it attracts and holds water. Droplets of water in brake fluid can boil and turn into steam during hard braking, and while fluid cannot be compressed, those little bubbles of steam can. The result is spongy brakes and brake fade during a hard stop. More than that, brake fluid can become contaminated and break down over time. The fluid should be clear and yellowish; if it's starting to look brown and muddy, you need to have the system flushed and the fluid replaced.

Here's an easy test. Just take the top off the master cylinder (that thing that's bolted to the firewall, with brake lines running out of it) and scrape a screwdriver along the bottom of the reservoir. If it comes up with any sort of gunk on the screwdriver blade, it's time to flush the brake system and refill it (which will take a lot of brake bleeding to eliminate air). Again, be certain to use the exact formulation of brake fluid required by the manufacturer.

And when completing this project has you feeling ambitious, move on to these other jobs on what is one of the most important systems in your vehicle.

7. Clean up Your Act

Car interior with leather seats

And your ride! Yeah, it's not really a mechanical maintenance thing, but a good thorough cleaning will make you feel better about driving your vehicle. Especially with something that's spacious like a minivan or SUV, it's pretty easy for fast-food wrappers, articles of clothing, soda cans and other junk to accumulate until it feels like you're driving around in a rolling dumpster.

Spending a little scratch to have the carpets and floor mats vacuumed is one thing, but going all-in on a detailing job that takes care of upholstery stains, A/C vent dust and all the other hard-to-get stuff can really be worth it. Chances are it'll motivate you not to let that interior get so nasty in the future, too.

Now that it's past the first of the year, what's your excuse for not taking care of your vehicle?

Last updated November 11, 2021