Do You Know Enough to Keep Your Car Out of the Garage?


By: Dave Davis

7 Min Quiz

Image: PeopleImages/E+/Getty Images

About This Quiz

The average automobile is made up of more than 30,000 parts, and with that level of complexity, it’s challenging to keep everything running in harmony. You — or a mechanic — will have to work on it from time to time to keep the system going. But how much of it are you willing — and able — to do yourself? How long can you keep your vehicle out of “Service Bay 3” and in your own driveway? Here’s a quiz to separate the “self-sufficient drivers” from the “customers.”

One of the keys to keeping your vehicle in your own garage and out of the mechanic’s is preventative maintenance. It takes some effort and a little money at that moment, but those who know how to care for their automotive baby properly will save themselves considerable time, money, energy, inconvenience and grief by doing a little work now to avoid a lot of misery later.

Another crucial skill is understanding what your vehicle is telling you as your travel together. Which sounds are normal “road” sounds, and which ones are more serious? Every vehicle has its own quirks, but certain signs should never be ignored. Can you tell one from the other?

So, which type of driver are you? Do you stick your head in the sand and have your trips rudely interrupted by flashing lights on the dash, grinding sounds from the wheels and steam rising under the hood? Or are you the kind of owner who’s not afraid to go into your favorite auto supply store, get your hands dirty and take pride in a finely tuned automobile that’s living its best life? This quiz will reveal all! Gather your tools, get your maintenance schedule synced and let's get this show — and your car — on the road!

What is one of the best sources of information about your vehicle and its needs?

Each make and model of car or truck has its own needs when it comes to maintenance, and the source of this knowledge is as close as your glove compartment. The owner's manual will give you a schedule of recommended maintenance, along with other valuable information.


What is an easy — and cheap — way to check the condition of the tread of your tires?

This tip will only cost you $.01 (actually, not even that, because you can keep the penny)! Take a penny and place it, Lincoln's head down, in the tread groove. If you can still see all of Abe's head, your tires have less than the legal 2/32" tread, and it's time to get them replaced.


It's a hot day and you noticed that a puddle of water forms under your car when stopped for a bit. Which of these is most likely true?

Water is a side effect of the cooling process used by your air conditioner, and it's normal for a car to leave a puddle if the AC is running while the vehicle is stopped (or for a time after you've turned it off). If the water is coming into the cabin, however, something is wrong, and you should get it checked out.


When deciding on what tires to get for your vehicle, which of these is the most important factor to consider?

The area/climate you drive in the most should be a major factor when deciding what tires to buy. If you live in the Pacific Northwest, for example, a wet-weather tire should jump to the top of your list. Driving in Toronto? Consider getting snow tires. All-weather tires are generally good options (and better in winter than "all-season" tires, just to add that bit of confusion to the mix).


Spark plugs are something owners can change themselves on most vehicles with a minimum of fuss. Which of these is a sign that your plugs need changing?

While some of these symptoms could have other causes — bad sensors, primarily — taken together, these are signs that the plugs need changing. Depending on what type of spark plug you use, these devices need to be changed between 30,000 and 100,000 miles. With a few simple tools, this can be a quick and satisfying DIY job.


Your key fob has stopped working. What should you do?

It's irritating when your key fob stops working, but it's most likely a quick fix. Most fobs can be unscrewed or pried open with a coin or a small Phillips head screwdriver. See which battery it uses (if you don't already know), put a fresh one in (make sure you don't put it in upside down), close it back up, and you should be back in business!


Time for new tires! Which of these is the most useful metric when comparing two different tire options?

The Uniform Tire Quality Grading, or UTQG, is a government rating that measures a tire's treadwear, traction and temperature resistance. Treadwear is measured by a number (the higher, the better); traction is a letter grade (AA, A, B or C), as is temperature resistance (A, B or C). This grade can be found on the tire's sidewall.


What's a simple step you can take to make sure your car starts when you turn the key?

Although it's a bit rarer in newer cars, mineral or corrosion build-up (that white substance) can form around your battery contacts, which might prevent the electric current from going where it needs to be. Battery contact cleaner (or white vinegar) and an inexpensive battery terminal brush will take that right off and keep the current flowing!


Which of these is a sign that it's time to get the oil changed in your car?

Oil is the lifeblood of your vehicle's engine, so make sure you change it as often as the owner's manual recommends. Low oil volume or dirty oil can cause damage to vital components because of increased friction and, as oil thins, the engine might make knocking or ticking sounds. Don't wait for that to happen — treat your engine right!


Which of these fluids is easiest to change?

It's simple to change, and it's cheap, but keeping your car's windshield washer fluid in good supply can be vital. Visibility can be drastically affected by mud, bugs or other debris that may come into contact with your windshield, and it also acts as a lubricant to help your wipers do their job more effectively.


You're changing your oil and the oil filter doesn't want to come off. Which of these tools do you need?

There's no substitute for the right tool, and when you've got a stubborn oil filter, the right tool in this case is an oil filter wrench. This specialty wrench has a band on a handle that loops around the filter and then cinches tight, giving you all the leverage you need to get that thing off without coating yourself in dirty oil.


How can you tell when your car's windshield wipers need changing?

When driving in rain or snow, one of your vehicle's most important systems is the windshield wipers. If they're not working, you're not going anywhere because you can't see the road ahead. They need to be changed out regularly, but they're simple to replace. After a five-minute operation, you can see the road better than ever!


Other than the owner's manual, where is the most common area you can find the recommended tire pressure for your vehicle?

Along with the owner's manual — where all sorts of good information can be found — most vehicles have the recommended tire pressure information printed on a sticker on the doorjamb. It may also have stickers in other places, but the door jamb is the first and easiest place to check first.


What is the purpose of having your tires rotated?

Because of different conditions and the role of tires in different positions (the back tires tend to wear evenly while the front tires wear the outside edges more quickly), it's a good idea to have the tires rotated (change positions on the car) to prolong their life, maintain balanced handling and keep the ride smooth.


You're checking out your vehicle when you notice a bit of the paint is chipped. What should you do?

Paint does more than make your ride look pretty — although a classy job will do that, as well. Paint protects the metal underneath from rust. Touching up a bit of chipped paint can be easy and inexpensive — kits are available — and it'll keep a small problem today from metastasizing into a much bigger one down the road.


Which of these are factors when it comes to replacing your car's headlight bulbs?

When it comes time to replace a headlight bulb, the modern consumer has a lot of choices. Some bulbs burn brighter with the same energy but must be replaced more often, while "long-life" bulbs only put out the factory-recommended amount but last longer. Some bulbs put out different color lights to varying ranges for better visibility. The choice is yours!


There's a grinding noise when you apply the brakes and grinding is never a good sound. What should you investigate to make this stop?

The brake pads, which make contact with the rotors and stop the car by creating friction, will wear out over time and with use and will let you know their time has come by emitting a grinding, squealing, or otherwise obnoxious noise. If they're not replaced, they could warp the rotors and cause more pain. The pads can be replaced by DIYers ready to take on the job.


You've changed your car's spark plugs (good for you!) but the engine is running very rough. What have you probably forgotten to do?

The gap between electrodes at the end of the spark plug must be exact, and that space is small — no more than .055." If the gap is set to the wrong length, the car will not run well, if at all, because the timing will be off, and the fuel/air mix won't combust properly. Fortunately, the tool for the job — a spark plug gapper — is inexpensive.


What is one of the best things you can do to keep your car running its best and out of the garage?

If you're hard on your car — jackrabbit starts, quick braking, riding the brakes or the clutch, and so on — your car will be hard on you when it comes time to pay the mechanic to replace its various parts. Driving smooth and not putting the vehicle through unnecessary stress will keep it in good shape.


This part is generally easily replaced and can make your ride more comfortable. What is it?

The cabin air filter, usually accessible either under the hood or behind the glove compartment, makes sure the air coming out of the vehicle's vents is clean, making the trip more comfortable for both you and your passengers. The location is usually mentioned in the owner's manual.


You might need a friend to help you out for this one, but which of these should you check regularly?

You should check the conditions of your car's lights regularly, but the brake lights can be tricky to check by yourself. The brake lights communicate your actions to the vehicles behind you on the road; a busted light sends the wrong signal by sending NO signal. It also might get you pulled over, so it's best to check them regularly with your buddy's help.


Which of these should a proactive car owner keep in the vehicle?

You never know when you might have to do a quick on-the-road repair, so it's best to be prepared. Fixing a leak now, for instance, rather than trying to "just get it home" might save a ton of money by keeping the damage to a minimum. In addition to these items, you should keep a tire pressure gauge, thick gloves, wire cutters, a knife and other universal tools with your vehicle.


These are responsible for a lot of things you don't think about in your car — until one of them fails. What are they?

Your car has a lot of electronic systems, and when one of them suddenly stops working, the first thing to check is your vehicle's fuse box. Check your manual to see where the offending fuse could be (there are generally fuse boxes under the hood and below the dashboard). It could be a very easy fix that you can brag about later!


The brake pedal feels soft — slightly "spongy" — when you stop. What's this a sign of?

The only thing that should be in the brake lines is brake fluid. When there's air in the line, the pedal will not have the tight feeling that it is supposed to have, and instead will feel soft and spongy. Worn brake pads are a common cause of this, or there might be a problem with the brake system. Get it checked out!


True or false? You can mix different color antifreeze fluids.

Although there are other colors, antifreeze generally comes in orange (Dex-Cool) and green (ethylene glycol) varieties. You should never mix the two because they are different chemicals, and when mixed, they react to form a gel instead of a liquid. When this happens, the antifreeze doesn't flow, and your engine will overheat.


True or false? You shouldn't touch bulbs in your car's lighting system with your bare hands.

Never handle bulbs — headlights, side markers or fog lights — with your bare hands. The oils on your skin can coat that part of the bulb and cause uneven heating on the surface, which stresses the thin glass and can cause a failure. Wear gloves when changing them out, and you won't have to change them out so quickly!


If you've got your head under the hood, you'll want to make sure which part is in good working order?

Some hoods are hinged so that they stay up once lifted, but if your vehicle uses pneumatic hood lifts/struts, you're going to want them to be in good shape. Fortunately, if yours aren't doing the job anymore, they're a fairly easy component to change out. Your head will thank you!


Unless you notice a problem, how often should you check the air pressure of your tires?

Unless one of your vehicle's tires is visibly low or the "tire pressure" light comes on in your car, you're OK with checking the pressure on each tire once a month. Use the same pressure gauge (keep it in the glove box) and check it in the morning before first driving the vehicle. You'll be all set!


How often should you change the oil filter on your car?

If you change the oil in your vehicle and not the filter, you're keeping about a quart of dirty, used oil in the system, and that's no good. Professional oil change facilities will include this in their price, but if you're changing it yourself, be sure to take care of this part, as well.


Drat! The "Check Engine" light just came on. What's the first thing you should do?

There are a lot of things that can trigger a "check engine" light — anything from a bad sensor to a catalytic converter failure. The first thing to check, however, is to make sure your gas cap is locked down. If it's loose or has a crack, that can trigger the warning, and it's the easiest thing to rule out.


Do you really need to flush your radiator?

Flushing the radiator — changing out all the fluid and replacing it with fresh coolant — gets all the dirt, rust and other potentially harmful debris out of the cooling system and keeps it in top operating order. The rule of thumb is to change it out every five years or every 100,000, whichever comes first. Consult the manual and keep your particular driving habits in mind, however, when setting your own schedule.


Your engine is overheating, but it's erratic. What's the likely cause?

The thermostat in a car is a valve that keeps the coolant from flowing until the engine gets warmed up. At that point, the valve opens and puts the cooling system into operation. When the thermostat breaks or gets stuck, the cooling system can work erratically, if at all. Fortunately, it's a simple repair and can be done in your own garage rather than your mechanic's.


How often should you change your engine's air filter?

The air provided to the engine for the combustion process is scrubbed through the air filter first, keeping it pure from dirt and debris and burning better. Keeping the filter clean can also prolong your engine's life. If you drive in dusty conditions, you might have to change the filter more often, but for the majority of vehicles, it's an easy DIY job.


What is a simple action that can help you find issues before they grow into MAJOR issues?

It's a good idea to give your vehicle the once over regularly and give it an informal inspection. Are there any issues with the body you haven't noticed? Are there any fluids collecting under it after it's been parked for a while? Are the tires properly inflated? Do all the lights work? It's simple, it won't take much time, and you could catch a problem before it really gets started.


Your car WANTS to tell you what's going on with it. What device do you need to speak its language?

Since the early 1980s, cars have come with on-board diagnostic (OBD) systems; OBD-II systems are a later improvement of the system. With an OBD-II scanner, an owner or mechanic can plug into the OBD port, usually located under the dashboard near the steering wheel, and read the diagnostic codes to get a better feel for what's going on with the vehicle.


How often should you have the automatic transmission fluid changed in your vehicle?

This is a job for your owner's manual! Older cars required more frequent changing of this vital fluid for a long and healthy life of the transmission, but manufacturers of modern automobiles have pushed it back to 100,000 miles or longer. Consult your manual or a trusted mechanic for your particular automotive situation.


One of your power door locks suddenly stops working. What's the most likely culprit?

The door's lock is powered by a device called an actuator, which is a small electric motor. When it stops working, so does the lock. Depending on the make and model of your car and how handy you're feeling, you can replace this component yourself and save a trip to the garage — or you can just live with having to open the door with a key as our ancestors did.


Which of these is a sign of a warped brake rotor?

The brake rotor, which slows the car when put into contact with the brake pad, can become warped over time, especially if you've had to do sudden braking or are otherwise hard on your brakes or haven't changed the pads often enough. This can cause a pulsing that can be felt when the pedal is depressed. Depending on how badly the rotor is warped, it can sometimes be smoothed back into proper working order.


You check your oil and notice it seems dirty, even though you just had it changed recently. What does this most likely mean?

Some oil will remain in an engine after an oil and filter change, so this might just be the ghost of oil past. You might want to get the oil changed again in a shorter interval if you're worried and see if that makes a difference. If you see metallic bits or foam, however, it's time to get to the garage because something is going wrong under your hood.


About how often should you have your serpentine belt checked?

The serpentine belt weaves its way along the engine (thus the name) and runs a lot of engine systems. Most manufacturers recommend having the belt inspected at 60,000 miles and replaced if it's showing signs of wear. If the belt breaks, it could damage engine components and add up to a much more expensive repair bill.


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