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Servicing your car

Making sure your car is regularly serviced is a good idea for two reasons. One, it's much less likely to break down and leave you stranded. And two, it will be safer, feel better to drive and use less fuel.

Where to get your car serviced?

If your car is nearly new and still within its warranty period (usually three or five years from new), you might want to go to a franchised dealer. The benefit is that they specialise in your make of car, and should only use parts from the original manufacturer. The drawback is that they tend to be the most expensive places to get your car serviced.

There's now an agreement in the motor trade that means you can get your new car serviced at an independent garage, and the warranty will still be valid.

If your car is older than three years old, you can still take it to a franchised dealer, but you might find an independent garage better. The benefit, as we've said, is that it tends to be cheaper. The drawback is that they probably won't be specialists in your car (but will know how to service it), and the parts they use might not be supplied by the original manufacturer.

Like all businesses, there are good and bad garages. Look for a reputable one - if it does any reasonable amount of business, it will be VAT registered - and ask friends, family and work colleagues if they can recommend a garage, or if they've heard positive reports of one you're thinking of trying.

How often should it have a service?

Your car should have a service handbook showing when it needs servicing. Each time it's serviced, make sure the garage stamps the book - it's proof of your car's service history and increases its value when you come to sell it.

Modern cars often have very long service intervals: 9,000, 12,000 miles or more. If your annual mileage is less than this, make sure your car is serviced at least once a year.

Can I do anything myself?

Yes! You don't have to get dirty, you don't need expert knowledge and you can save yourself a lot of money by doing a bit of basic maintenance yourself.

There are three things to check, ideally every week - tyre pressures, engine oil and coolant level.

Tyre pressures

The correct pressures will be in your car's handbook. If the tyres are under-inflated, the handling will be poor, the steering will feel heavy and you'll use more fuel. If they're over-inflated, the handling could be dangerous. Under or over-inflated tyres will wear out faster too.

You'll need a tyre pressure gauge, which will only cost a few pounds from a motor accessory shop. Look for the tyre valve, which sticks out from the side of the wheel. Unscrew the valve cap, push the tyre pressure gauge onto the end of the valve (follow the manufacturer's instructions) and check the reading. If the reading is too high, push your fingernail on the pin in the centre of the valve, to release a little air at a time. Keep checking with the tyre pressure gauge until you reach the correct reading.

If there's too little air, you can top it up using the tyre inflators at most petrol stations. They have their own built-in gauges, but they're often not that accurate, so it's best to check with your own gauge too.

Engine oil

Having the right amount of oil in your engine is vital. Without oil, the engine will seize up and be ruined, costing you hundreds or probably thousands of pounds to replace.

Your car will have an oil warning light on the dashboard. If it comes on, stop driving as soon as it's safe, turn off the engine and wait a few minutes, while the engine cools and the oil (if there's any left) runs back down to the sump (the reservoir under the engine that holds the oil).

Now you need to check the oil. The procedure is the same if you're just doing your weekly check.

Make sure the engine is turned off and the car's on level ground, so you get an accurate reading. Find the dipstick (it's shown in your car's handbook, and usually has a yellow handle). Pull it out, wipe it with a cloth or tissue and put it all the way back in. Wait a moment, then pull it out again and check the oil level. It should be between the Min and Max marks, and ideally at or near the Max.

If it's at or below Min, you need to top up the oil. Check which type of oil to use (in the car's handbook) and pour it in through the oil filler cap on top of the engine. Again, it'll be shown in the handbook and will probably be yellow. Give the oil a few minutes to run down to the sump, and check the level again.

Coolant level

Nearly all car engines need coolant in them to prevent them getting too hot and seizing up. If the car's cooling system is in good condition, the coolant level shouldn't change much. Checking it regularly gives you advance warning that something might be going wrong.

VERY IMPORTANT: only check the coolant level when the engine is turned off and COLD. The coolant is under pressure, so if it's hot it can escape as steam or boiling water, and scald you.

Check the handbook for the location of the coolant reservoir. It's usually a clear plastic container, with Min and Max levels on the side. The coolant should be between the Min and Max marks, and ideally at or near the Max.

If it's at or below Min, you need to top up. The coolant isn't just water; it's a mix of water and anti-freeze, to stop the coolant freezing in winter. You can buy anti-freeze from a motor accessory shop or from most petrol stations. The exact mix will be in your car's handbook, but if in doubt, one-third anti-freeze and two-thirds water will be safe.

Make up your anti-freeze/water mix, remove the coolant reservoir filler cap, top up to the Max mark and replace the cap.

Elephant Top Tip

Only check your tyre pressures when the tyres are cold - usually before you start driving. As you drive, the air inside the tyres gets hotter and expands, so checking hot tyres will give you a false reading.