Finally, winter is over! The resurgent Jersey shore beckons, the Pocono Mountain resorts await and your far flung relatives need a visit. Let's get your vehicle ready for what is the traditional driving season.
Have an expert inspect your wheels and tires - The brutal winter we just had laid waste to the roads. Pot holes are more like craters. Hitting a pot hole at highway speeds can do any number of bad things to your vehicle. First, you could get an instant flat, leaving you stuck on the side of the road. However, even if an encounter with a pot hole did not leave you with a flat, it could have caused sidewall damage and / or rim damage - both very dangerous. Sidewall damage is identified as a bulge or bubble in the rubber. If you have one of these, you could hit another bump and have a catastrophic deflation, losing all air pressure and possibly control of your vehicle. The damage may not be on the outside of the tire - it could be on the inner sidewall. Have your car inspected on a lift by an experienced tire expert. He or she will also inspect your rims for dents and cracks - more common with low profile tires and alloy wheels. If you see a sidewall bubble or feel vibration through your steering wheel, proceed cautiously to you nearest tire store for service.
Change your motor oil and filter - In the winter, we often idle our cars to warm them up prior to driving off. While this isn't good for the environment or your gas mileage, given our past winter's single digit temperatures, it's understandable why we do this. But idling in cold weather causes unburnt gasoline and condensation to accumulate in your engine's crankcase, causing a build up of bad chemicals like acid, in your engine oil. So, while winter weather is tough on your engine, summer's heat is even worse so starting the season with a fresh oil change is highly recommended. Of course, you will want a new, quality oil filter installed at the same time.
A word of caution here. Quality oils are essential for your engine. There are off brand oils and no name filters out there and they not only can damage your engine, they can void your new car warranty. Name brands like Mobil, Valvoline, Castrol, Pennzoil and Quaker State make oils that meet or usually exceed your manufacturer's technical requirements. Using a cheap oil and filter is false economy. If you change your own oil, you should read the owner's manual for the viscosity (i.e., that number that read something like 5-W30) your engine demands. These specifications are the result of extensive engineering testing and should be heeded to get maximum life economy from your vehicle.
Have your wheel alignment checked - Those rough potholed roads not only do damage to your wheels and tires, the also can cause your vehicle's wheel alignment to go off spec. Simply put, the wheels and tires on your car have to be pointed in the same direction and even a few degrees off will result in uneven tire wear. If your suspension components are off by more than just a few degrees, the handling and safety will be affected. Alignment is not something the average backyard mechanic can do so a visit to an expert is required. Many sporty cars with independent rear suspensions (like BMWs) will need a 4 wheel alignment, not just a front wheel alignment. Again, that's the job for a trained, certified specialist who will also check for worn or damaged components.
Look in your trunk - If you are like many drivers in the north east, you have been carrying around a shovel, a bag of kitty litter or sand and possibly even some rock salt in your trunk. These items, great safety items for the snowy months, take up valuable trunk space and add gas mileage robbing weight to your vehicle. Take them all out and save them for next November when old man winter returns. While in the trunk, if your car has a spare tire, check its air pressure. Those small "donut" tires need up to 60 PSI to be safe. Also, experts recommend carrying either flares or a few bright orange safety triangles in case you have to stop along the road. If your car doesn't have a spare tire, you have run flat tires. Make sure your electronic tire monitors are calibrated properly so that you are warned when there is a leaking tire.
Wash your vehicles undercarriage - It's not uncommon for well maintained modern cars to go well over 150,000 miles without mechanical engine or transmission trouble. However, rust never sleeps and body and fender rust can shorten the life of your car just like the old days. Also, because this past winter saw the increased use of liquid salt spray prior to predicted snow storms, the undersides of our vehicles have been given a 5 month salt bath that, over time, will rust out even the best maintained vehicle. Get out the garden hose on the first warm day and, using string jet of water, spray the wheel wells and as far under the chassis as you can. If you don't have access to a hose, there are car wash places that offer that service. Rust is more expensive to repair than many mechanical problems and, if ignored, will cause the car to become unsafe.
Final thoughts - The windshield washer in your vehicle probably got a workout over the winter, clearing off the snow and muck that got blasted up from other cars and the wind. Make sure that your fluid reservoir is filled and consider a fluid that has an additive that helps wash off splattered bugs. Prestone makes one and it's surprisingly effective. While under the hood, look at the anti-freeze level in your radiator overflow tank and make sure it's up to spec. Anti-freeze not only protects against freezing, it also protects against boil over and cooling system corrosion.
Drive safely and enjoy your summer!