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New-Age Tune-upNotes From the Road

New-Age Tune-Up
By Debbie Murphy/

Once upon a time, people actually popped the hoods of their vehicles and tuned up their engines. They developed a fine ear for that distinctive purr, once described as a thousand little sewing machines humming away, and with delicate hands, adjusted the carburetors until the proper note was struck. These venerable ancients checked the ignition timing, re-gapped their spark plugs and performed many other tasks to achieve a perfectly running automobile.

100,000 Miles?
Today, we're riding around in new cars with 100,000-mile drivetrain warranties and vast service intervals. The changes were basically driven by the need to produce cleaner and more fuel-efficient vehicles. The solution was to relinquish mechanical functions to electronic controls. All the parts and pieces our forefathers once fiddled with have disappeared, replaced by impenetrable little black boxes with more computer power than Apollo 13. These new cars are idiot-proof; we never have to touch their innards, right?

Not quite. Even though modern technology has reduced the concept of "tune up" to the archives, the computer-controlled vehicles of the 21st century still require regular TLC. And while it may be difficult to comprehend with today's no-muss-no-fuss vehicles, there are still components that need your attention.

If you need a little motivation, consider this: in the olden days, you could usually limp a vehicle into the repair shop even if the trip was punctuated with deadly backfires, or the clutch cable was reduced to a thread. When computer-controlled systems die, it’s tow-truck time—there's no limping without legs.

There are a couple of things you need to know before starting your "tune up" routine. First, modern vehicles have built-in diagnostics. Some aftermarket computer upgrades or modules allow you to run your own diagnostic check, a significant advantage when you take the vehicle in for service. For those without aftermarket toys, it's reassuring to know problems can be quickly and accurately determined without your mechanic having to dive into the engine compartment. Second, check your owner's manual for components that are tamper-proof. For instance, some batteries are sealed and you'll drive yourself crazy trying to figure out how to check the water level. While you've got the manual open, take note of where all fluid levels are to be checked and the location of fuel and oil filters. With any luck, you don't have to be a contortionist to get to them. Now, armed with a fairly comprehensive map of your vehicle's terrain, you can begin what amounts to a modern-day tune-up and continue this ritual every 3,000 to 6,000 miles (depending on your driving conditions).

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