6 Car Myths That Cost You Money Every Year
Most of us view our vehicles as something between an immutable feature of daily life and a rabid, suicidal dragon that gorges on explosions until it inevitably explodes itself. That's because we all know it's only a matter of time until something goes horribly wrong with our cars, and then we're epically, mythically screwed. As a result, various rules of thumb for regular car maintenance have been passed down through the generations -- precious wisdom handed to us by our ancestors in order to stave off, for a spell, the ruinous, virgin-eating car repair monster. But many of these rules are, at best, wildly outdated and, at worst, a total waste of money.
Note: I work as a mechanical engineer on diesel engines for locomotives. I can back up how a car engine works and the science behind these myths, but I don't want to give the impression that I'm a professional mechanic. As with all Cracked articles, you should probably use this as a jumping-off point and explore the information more on your own, rather than take it as gospel. Because if something goes wrong and you tell somebody that you got your bad advice from a website spinoff of a defunct Mad magazine imitator, they're going to laugh at you. Forever.
Change Your Oil Every 3,000 Miles
To maximize your engine's life, you should change the oil and filter every 3,000 miles. At this point you should also say several quiet prayers to the gods of breakdowns and have a mid-ranking church official -- no lower than a nun but no higher than a bishop -- bless the water in your vehicle's coolant.
The idea that you should change your car's oil every 3,000 miles is so pervasive that it has its own Wikipedia page ... specifically debunking it. This misconception has its roots laid all the way back to the 1970s, when oil technology was still developing and the engine operating environment wasn't nearly as smooth and controlled as it is today. Back then, 3,000 miles was actually a pretty good rule of thumb. So was "Never trust a European" and "Chest hair, son: Always chest hair." However, just like international relations and grooming habits, engine and oil technology have improved drastically over the decades. The life of the oil in your car has now increased far beyond that allegedly sacred 3,000-mile barrier.
So why do we hang onto it? Because no one has bothered to tell the oil-change industry. Those poor, naive fellas still "recommend" changing it every 3,000 miles, despite the fact that synthetic oils lasting up to 15,000 miles have been available for years. If only somebody would show them the backs of those bottles in their tiny, uncomfortable lobbies; why, we're sure they'd immediately mend their ways and return all that needlessly spent money of yours.
Sure, 3,000-mile oil changes won't hurt anything, but neither will 1,000-mile changes or 500-mile changes, or just a big hose attached to a barrel in your trunk that constantly pumps only the finest, freshest artisanal crude right into your engine block.
So how often should you actually change your oil? However often the manufacturer of your actual engine tells you to. For most cars built in the last decade or so, that's around 7,500 miles, but could be as high as 20,000.
Shit, some people sell their cars before they ever see that number.
Warm Up Your Engine Before You Drive
Whenever you start your engine, particularly on cold days, you have to let it warm up to its normal temperature before driving, otherwise it will turn into a bear and eat your dog. Or wait, no, that's feeding ferrets after sundown. If you drive a cold engine, the whole blasted thing will self-destruct, right?
As long as you're not flooring it everywhere you go, you can get going as soon as you turn the key. This myth comes from an understandable place: Various engine parts and oil do take some time to warm up before they can operate at full capacity. However, an idling engine takes much longer to warm up, so it ends up experiencing far more cold-start wear and tear than if you just hopped in and drove it.
Think about it: When your engine is idling, it's still producing power, so what difference does it make if that power is being used to move the car or just scratch its shiny metal ass? Additionally, there are other parts of your car that also need warming up, like your transmission and wheel bearings, and those don't get any help until you actually get the thing moving.
Plus, there's another one of your components that needs warming up to function: your catalytic converter. Until that gets up to operating temperature, your emissions are through the roof. Every second you let your car idle in the cold, a single tear freezes to Al Gore's face. And that's only funny the first dozen times or so. Just avoid highway speeds and rapid acceleration for a few miles, and you can drive right off, winter be damned.
Of course, that all applies to newer, fuel-injected cars. If you've got an old carbureted classic out there, you can hang out in the parking lot for a while, if only to let the opposite sex get a good heaping eyeful of you.
Fuel Additives Are Good for Your Engine
Gasoline is a bunch of dead dinosaurs. It's just chock full of dirt, sediment, bone fragments and the occasional restless raptor soul. Using a fuel additive helps keep deposits from building up and clogging your fuel system. Some of them may also increase gas mileage and prevent fuel line freezing, but only if you kiss them after and promise to call.
Gasoline does indeed have crap in it that can clog up your fuel system. That's why every gasoline manufacturer since 1995 has been required by law to add detergents that prevent deposits and buildups. Using an aftermarket additive is basically like rubbing two bars of soap together; you're not actually cleaning anything and you look really stupid doing it. Gasoline antifreeze additives are largely useless, too, since most gasoline is good for temperatures down to -40 degrees Fahrenheit, and if you're driving in climates colder than that, just move. There are way nicer places, even in Canada. You don't have to live like this, Saskatchewanites.
Get Regular Engine Tuneups
Engine tuneups help keep your car running at peak performance and should be done regularly by your mechanic to extend the life of your engine. If you don't get a full tuneup every six months, your vehicle will fold into itself and implode. And is there anything worse than that? The sudden absence of a useable car is like waking up one morning to find that your wallet's been stolen and you've suddenly lost access to both of your feet just below the ankles.
Most "engine tuneups" are just an expensive way to get your spark plugs and air filter replaced. You see, old cars had a lot of different components working in a precarious balance. Things like ignition timing, idle adjustment and air-fuel mixture all needed to be within a certain range to operate optimally. Getting a knowledgeable mechanic, or a drunken uncle who "swears he 'members how to do this," to tune these things on a regular basis prevented your engine from getting too far out of whack.
Today, however, everything is controlled by your car's computer and can't actually be changed at all without buying a new chip. While it's probably prudent to have a mechanic check your car every 50,000 miles or so to gauge the state of your spark plugs, belts and fluids, and to make sure that raccoons aren't nesting in your turbo booster, your engine's computer can handle the month-to-month: It checks everything millions of times per second anyway, making fine adjustments and tweaks automatically for best performance.
Winterize Your Car
Due to the brutal conditions that winter months put your car through, many mechanics recommend you bring it in for winterization so they can replace your fluids with cold-weather-resistant ones. You're also going to need new fuzzy dice; the pink ones are only for summer. They got some blue winter dice in the back, but they'll run you about two hundos. Better safe, though, right?
With the exception of putting on snow tires and adjusting your tire pressure, your car is ready to go. This myth is another carry-over from olden times when men were men, women were sexy steak dispensers and engine oil was a lot simpler than today. For example, it used to be that you used one grade of oil in the summer and another during the winter. That's because oil gets thicker when it's cold and thinner when it's warm. So a summer oil (like SAE #30) would be too viscous during the winter, and a winter oil (like SAE #5) would be too thin for the summer, necessitating you to change oil with the seasons.
Nowadays, oil is designed to function in both summer and winter, because some genius fluid engineer at some point figured out that seasons are things that just keep happening. That's actually why modern oil grades are hyphenated, such as 5W-30. That means it works as both 5 and 30 grade oil (the "W" stands for "winter" and not "weight," as is popularly believed). As for engine coolant, unless you're living pretty far north, even summer coolants are rated to -34 degrees Fahrenheit. And if you find yourself saying, "Well, it gets way colder than that here," you need to shut up. Not because you're wrong, or bad, but because talking uses breath, and breath is heat escaping your body. The only way you'll live to see another beautiful Sasketchewanese sunrise is to conserve that warmth in grim, grim silence, friend.
High-Octane Gasoline Is Better for Your Engine
Using premium or super-grade gasoline will give you more power and better mileage, and make your engine run smoother. Think about it: paychecks, simultaneous sexual partners, amount of successive fights you've won against crocodiles -- bigger numbers are always better.
With the exception of a small percentage of automobiles that require high-octane fuel, using plus or premium-grade gas won't do anything for your car. High-compression engines like those found in sports cars require high-octane gas, but not for the reason you might think, which is to go from "fun" to "funnest" as fast as possible. It's because those engines like to squeeze the gas and air in a super tight piston-driven bear hug, and the gas can sometimes get too excited and prematurely explode inside the engine (presumably while muttering shameful apologies into its shoulder). When this happens, it causes a phenomenon known as detonation or "knocking." Even though the engine tries to reassure the gas that it's perfectly natural and isn't anything to be ashamed of, it still wouldn't mind if the gasoline got a little help with its "staying power," which comes in the form of higher octane ratings.
The vast majority of cars, however, use lower compression engines, so knocking isn't an issue with regular gas. Using higher grades won't make your engine run smoother, won't give you more power, won't improve your gas mileage and sure as hell won't make everybody in high school who makes fun of your hand-me-down Geo Metro sorry. The octane rating is purely a measure of how well the gas will resist knocking and has nothing to do with energy content.
In fact, as many gas stations now add 10 percent ethanol to their gas (pure ethanol sports a beastly octane rating of 113, but actually has 34 percent less energy than gasoline), the overall octane rating is usually two or three points higher than what the label says anyway; i.e., 87 gas is actually closer to 90 with 10 percent ethanol added. That means that even if your highfalutin, special-needs engine requires 89, you might be able to use 87 rated E10 in total safety. Plus, that way, you'd be stickin' it to The Man, who keeps tryin' to tell you what numbers you can and can't use. Who does he think he is, The Count? You go ahead and stick your 87 octane right in his craw and pump it until it goes "click."
For more reasons to trust no one ever, check out 8 Gadgets That Lie to You Every Day and The 6 Most Horrifying Lies The Food Industry is Feeding You.
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