Car Tune-Up: A Checklist for Success

By Renee Valdes 08/04/2023 5:27am

Car tune-up

Quick Facts About a Car Tune-Up

  • Beyond oil changes, most routine service intervals are six months or 5,000 miles.
  • A typical tune-up includes an oil change, tire rotation, and inspection of things like spark plugs, belts, hoses, and more.
  • Look for service centers and dealerships that provide competitive prices for tune-ups, ranging from $40 to $150 for a minimal job that replaces spark plugs and spark plug wires.

Preventive maintenance is always a good idea to ensure your vehicle continues running as expected. Experts say that once a year is usually a good rule of thumb to keep your car in tip-top shape.

We’ll tell you about knowing when your vehicle needs a tune-up, what a typical one includes, and more.

How to Know Your Car Needs a Tune-Up

Because of sophisticated electronic ignition, spark plugs with lifetimes that exceed 100,000 miles, and onboard diagnostics, the traditional tune-up for engine timing and plugs is a thing of the past. The same goes for lubrication of joints, bearings, and other suspension bits. All these moving parts are sealed and lubed for life.

When a routine service is called for, it’s to inspect worn items primarily. This includes the brakes and wiper blades and checking and replacing air filters. Even coolant flushes or transmission fluid intervals are no longer an annual need. Engine coolant may be replaced every two or three years, while transmission oil can go even longer.

Check Your Interval

Beyond oil changes, most routine service intervals are six months or 5,000 miles. These intervals are based on a 3-year/36,000-mile warranty, which is more or less the industry standard. Powertrain warranties commonly extend to 60,000 miles. Some carmakers offer longer warranties–Hyundai and Kia, for example, offer a 5-year, 60,000-mile standard warranty. They also give 10 years, 100,000 miles on the powertrain. Volkswagen’s standard warranty is six years, 72,000 miles bumper to bumper and under the hood.

Another element of new car warranties is that the first routine maintenance visits are free with some but not with others.

Still, nothing lasts forever. A tune-up usually involves replacing various wear-and-tear parts that do just that. They eventually wear out and fail to do their jobs. Sometimes, failure to replace a worn-out part can affect the performance of other parts of your vehicle. A perfect example would be the air filter which should typically be changed once a year. A blocked or dirty filter can restrict airflow to the engine, causing the fuel mixture to run richer. This wastes fuel, which can cause problems with other parts under the hood.

What a Typical Car Tune-Up Service Includes

When it’s time to get your vehicle serviced with a tune-up, here’s what you can expect, from an oil change to tire rotation and inspections of things like spark plugs, belts, hoses, and more.

1. Spark Plugs

Spark plugs ignite the fuel mixture in the engine, providing the power to make your car go. Sitting atop your engine’s cylinder head, it receives a spark from the electronic ignition in modern vehicles or the distributor cap and rotor found in older cars. Eventually, conventional spark plugs will wear out at around 30,000 miles to as high as 40,000 miles, which could cause stalling, starting problems, and engine misfires. Higher-cost platinum-tipped spark plugs may not need to be replaced as often. At the same time, replacing your oxygen sensor, spark plug wires, PCV valve, and fuel filter might be appropriate.

2. Oil Change

One of the main components of a tune-up, an oil change, is the equivalent of a blood transfusion for your engine. Due to its long life and the ability to combat high heat and thermal breakdown, synthetic motor oils can go approximately 10,000 miles or 12 months between oil changes. An exception would be if you regularly operate your vehicle in dusty, dry regions, in which case we recommend an oil change every 5,000 miles or six months for vehicles 2016 and older. Today’s newer-tech engines often use synthetic-blend or full synthetic oil and are engineered to go anywhere from 7,500 to 15,000 miles between oil changes. Check your vehicle’s owner’s manual for the oil change interval to know for sure.

3. Filter Replacements

Filters help protect your engine and vehicle from ingesting dust and other particles, either fluid or airborne, from inside your engine.

Air filters are your first defense in keeping dust and debris out of your engine. 

Oil filters help to trap metal particles or other contaminants from entering and circulating through your engine, which could cause premature wear.

Fuel filters prevent contaminated fuel lines and tanks, which can cause hesitation when accelerating, rough idling, and even fuel pump failure in extreme situations.

PCV, or positive crankcase ventilation valve, can become clogged by carbon buildup. This can cause the engine to consume more oil and fuel than usual. It’s an easily replaceable device for which installation can be completed in minutes.

4. Belts and Hoses

Belts are vital to the operation of your engine. They are used to operate your air-conditioning system, water pump, alternator, and power steering unit in some older vehicles. Typically lasting between 50,000 and 100,000 miles, they need replacement when they squeal or chirp.

Other indications include cracks and wear or power steering failure. Timing belts, which drive oil and water pumps in modern vehicles, typically last around 100,000 miles. Hoses help to circulate coolant through the engine and radiator. Swelling, leaking, or bulging hoses are a sign they should be replaced immediately.

5. Windshield Wiper Replacement

Windshield wipers exposed to heat or cold usually squeal if left to do their job too long. Change your windshield wiper blades at the same time you are in for an oil change. It’s a little bit of money to spend for a whole lot of peace of mind.

6. Fluids

Each has a particular lifespan, whether engine coolant, brake fluid, transmission fluid, motor oil, or power steering fluid. Check your owner’s manual for more information, or consult your dealership’s service advisor.

7. Checks and Balances

Consider that while your car is in for service, it’s also a great time for the technician to test your battery. A brake test is also appropriate. A technician can inspect and, if necessary, replace your brake pads and rotors if they have worn into the “danger zone.” A little bit of preventive maintenance goes a very long way.

8. Tires Check

Have your tires gone prematurely bald? That could be a sign that they are out of alignment, out of balance, in need of rotation, or all of the above. While not exactly part of a typical tune-up, there’s never been a better time to have these issues addressed than while in for regular service.

Most auto dealership service departments now sell tires alongside their other parts, often at competitive prices with local tire retailers and big-box stores. Many can get specific specialty tires, even if you did not buy your vehicle from a particular dealership.

9. Tire Balancing and Rotation

Tire balancing ensures a smooth, vibration-free ride after they have been mounted on your wheels, with the bonus of extending their life. After they have been in one position on your vehicle for a specific interval, it is a good idea to move them to a different position, following instructions from your owner’s manual. By doing so, your tires should wear evenly regardless of their positions on your vehicle.

10. Wheel Alignment

Is your vehicle pulling to the left or the right when you apply the brakes to slow down or when you accelerate away from a stoplight? That’s usually an indication it’s time for an all-wheel alignment. After the tires are balanced and rotated, a technician checks and makes adjustments to guarantee they all go the same way. The result is a smooth ride and long life from your tires.

Having a proper tune-up performed on your car, SUV, truck, or minivan is one way of making sure that it is ready to take you where you want to go when you want to go. Consider it a little preventive maintenance to ensure your vehicle never leaves you in a tough spot.

How to Know Your Car Needs a Tune-Up

When it’s time to get your car serviced, your vehicle often provides signs. Read on to see what signs you might encounter.

  • Check engine light may turn on
  • Reduced performance
  • Knocking noises from the engine
  • Your vehicle stalls
  • Reduced mileage

Don’t forget to reference your owner’s manual to keep up with the timing of tune-ups. 

What Is the Cost of a Tune-Up?

Most dealership service departments advertise their ability to “service all makes and models.” However, many service centers and dealerships provide competitive prices for tune-ups, ranging from $40 to $150 for a minimal job that replaces spark plugs and spark plug wires. More specialized tune-ups run anywhere from $200 to $800, depending on how exotic your vehicle may be. Still, a “we service all …” shop may not be right for all cars. For example, we would not recommend servicing your Ferrari at your local Kia dealership. That’s because they likely will not have the specialized tools and parts necessary for the job.

By following the suggestions above and consulting with your owner’s manual and the service advisors at your local automotive dealership or auto care center, you will ensure that your vehicle continues to offer reliable and safe transportation for many miles and years to come.

Should I Get a Tune-Up?

Yes. Consider it a little preventive maintenance to ensure your vehicle never leaves you stranded. You can get car maintenance pricing for your specific vehicle that customers are paying in your area here at Kelley Blue Book.

When you’re ready, find a repair shop that can tune up your vehicle.