A key part of car ownership is maintenance. Without proper car maintenance, your vehicle will eventually suffer excessive wear and break down prematurely. Plus, if you have a new car with a warranty or purchase a pre-owned vehicle with an extended warranty, damages caused by improper or insufficient maintenance may not be covered.

Your car's manufacturer sets most of the maintenance intervals for your vehicle and lists them in the "maintenance" section of the owner's manual. These intervals will vary slightly, as some vehicles have higher tolerances that allow oils and other fluids to last longer. 

That said, below is a list of the common vehicle maintenance items you'll need to complete along with their recommended kilometer and time intervals. You'll also discover some top car maintenance tips for avoiding overspending. But first, let’s review the main options you have when it comes to car maintenance. 

Dealership vs. Repair Shop

Other than DIY maintenance, there are two choices for getting professional car maintenance. You can go to a car dealership that sells your type of vehicle or head to a repair shop. Both are solid options with pros and cons to each. 

Dealership Pros

There are many great reasons to consider a dealership, including: 

  • They use only original equipment manufacturer (OEM) parts
  • Technicians are trained specifically on that brand, though they can work on any brand vehicle
  • Some provide shuttle service
  • They have the most experience with your type of vehicle
  • They can search for incomplete recalls and technical service bulletins and fix them for free while you're there
  • They usually have your parts in stock or can get them quickly
  • They generally have top-notch customer lounges with free snacks and drinks
  • They’re often cleaner than small repair shops with a better overall ambiance
  • They usually have free Wi-Fi and tables where you can surf the internet or work

Dealership Cons

There are loads of upsides to dealerships, but they have a few negatives, including: 

  • Hourly labor rates are often $15-$20 higher than a local repair shop
  • Their parts costs can also be high since they're OEM
  • They often get backed up, leading to long waits
  • There’s usually only one dealership for each brand in a city
  • You rarely deal with the same mechanic or service advisor, so there's no personal relationship

Repair Shop Pros

Dealerships aren’t the only game in town to get car maintenance. Small repair shops and national repair franchises offer a variety of upsides. Some of the benefits of using these facilities are:

  • Labor prices are often $15-$20 cheaper per hour than a dealership
  • They can use aftermarket parts, which are usually cheaper than OEM
  • More personalized service, especially after developing a personal bond with the staff
  • Usually aren’t as busy as a dealership, so you can often pop in for a quick oil change and be out in 30 minutes
  • They’re usually conveniently located, and there are plenty of local options

Repair Shop Cons

There are some cons to maintaining your vehicle at a repair shop, including: 

  • Their aftermarket parts could void your warranty, though you can request OEM parts, and the shop must legally oblige
  • They may not have your parts in stock, especially if you order OEM parts
  • Mechanics aren't specialists in your make of car, though many repair shop mechanics are former dealership mechanics and very well-trained
  • They don't have a large automaker backing their skill and workmanship
  • Shops are often small and not overly inviting
  • Waiting areas are often outdated and lack things like Wi-Fi, snacks, and coffee

15 Common Car Maintenance Items

Now that you have a better idea of where to get your car fixed, it’s time to review what needs repair. Let's dive into regular maintenance items and how often they require attention to keep your vehicle in good shape. With a little know-how, you can perform some of these on your own while others require a professional. 

1. Tire Pressure

Tire pressure is an oft-forgotten car care item, but it can seriously impact your fuel economy and vehicle performance. Improper tire pressure can also cause early and excessive tire wear. Fortunately, many of today's cars have tire pressure monitoring systems (TPMS) that'll alert you when a tire is low on air. 

If your vehicle doesn’t have TPMS, you should check your tire pressure at least once per week. Compare this pressure to the pressure recommendations on the tire placard inside the driver's side door frame or in the owner's manual. Do not adjust the tire pressure to the maximum setting listed on the tire's sidewall. The maximum usually far exceeds the auto manufacturer's recommended pressure, which can cause an uncomfortable ride, poor fuel economy, or excessive and uneven tire wear.

2. Fluid Levels

Checking your car's fluid levels is a key maintenance item as it lets you spot an issue before it becomes a serious problem. You'll want to check your motor oil levels, transmission fluid, power steering fluid, brake fluid, and coolant at least once per week. It's a good rule of thumb to check these every time you get fuel. 

Most cars will have a dipstick for the motor oil, transmission fluid, and power steering fluid. You can check the coolant level via the coolant overflow reservoir — do not loosen or remove the radiator cap to check the coolant level. The brake fluid level is visible through the translucent tank atop the brake master cylinder. 

Every vehicle has slightly different fluid level check methods and fluid level specifications. Check your owner's manual for specifics. 

3. Oil Change

An oil change is likely the one maintenance item that’s familiar to most vehicle owners. During this process, oil is drained from the oil pan, the old oil filter is removed, a new one is installed, and fresh oil is added. 

Your engine oil keeps all the moving parts inside the engine lubricated, and it acts as a cleaner, sweeping away metal shavings and other contaminants. 

There’s a lot of misinformation about oil changes, as many repair shops advertise getting your oil changed every three months or every 5,000 km, whichever comes first. However, every model of vehicle has a specific oil change interval, and these can range from every three months or 5,000 km to as long as every 12 months or 24,000 km. 

Many of today's cars take the guesswork out of oil changes by tracking the oil's life and alerting you when an oil change is due via a warning light (such as “change oil") or message on the dashboard. 

Pro tip: Switching to synthetic oil will not extend your oil change intervals. The vehicle determines the oil change intervals, not the motor oil type.

4. Tire Rotation

Your car's tires don't sit perfectly perpendicular to the road. Instead, they sit at an angle, placing more pressure on a small part of the tire. This can cause uneven tire wear over time, but a tire rotation can help prevent this issue. 

During a tire rotation, you move the wheels and tires on the front to the rear and from the rear to the front. This allows each tire to sit at a slightly different angle, leveling their wear. You should perform a tire rotation every six months or 12,000 km. 

5. Engine Air Filter

Your car needs air to run, and the engine air filter clears dust and debris from the air before it enters the engine. Over time, the first particles clog the filter, restricting its flow and reducing the vehicle's performance and fuel economy. 

It's not always easy to know when an air filter needs replacing, which is why many automakers list specific air filter replacement intervals. Most automakers recommend changing the engine air filter every 12 months or 20,000-24,000 km. 

6. Wiper Blades

Wiper blades are generally not listed on a manufacturer’s recommended maintenance cycle since many variables can impact them. It's best to change the windshield wiper blades once they begin streaking, chattering, or squeaking when you use them. 

As a rule of thumb, change your wiper blades at least every six months.

7. Automatic Transmission Fluid

Your car's automatic transmission fluid has three key functions. First, it acts as a hydraulic fluid that delivers the pressure the transmission needs to shift. Second, it acts as a lubricant and coolant for the moving parts. Finally, it's a detergent that cleans away any metal shavings and friction materials. 

Over time, this fluid breaks down and needs replacing. Most automakers recommend flushing the transmission or performing a filter and fluid change every 96,000-160,000 km. 

8. Manual Transmission Fluid

Manual transmission fluid has an easier job than automatic transmission fluid, as it acts only as a lubricant and a detergent. However, it's also a simpler oil that breaks down faster. Most manufacturers recommend changing the manual transmission fluid every 48,000-96,000 km. 

9. Engine Coolant

Your engine coolant — also referred to as antifreeze — has a few purposes. Its key function is to keep the engine's temperature within the manufacturer's specifications. It also contains chemicals to prevent the liquid from freezing in those cold Canadian winters. The coolant also cleans the cooling system, ensuring debris doesn't stick to the cooling veins in the engine or radiator and restricts flow. 

Over time, the coolant will become contaminated and needs replacing. Most manufacturers recommend changing the coolant every 24-36 months or 38,000-58,000 km. 

Keep in mind that there are different coolant types for different vehicles. Use only the correct coolant for your vehicle and dilute it with the proper amount of clean water. You can find the coolant type and water-to-coolant ratio in your owner's manual. 

10. Brake Fluid

Brake fluid is a forgotten fluid that rarely gets replaced as often as it should. Your car's brake fluid absorbs moisture from the air, and this water in the system can cause rusting inside the brake lines, potentially leading to leaks. 

The absorbed water also reduces the fluid's boiling point, and boiling brake fluid can damage the seals and introduce air into the hydraulic system. 

Most manufacturers recommend performing a brake fluid flush every two years or 48,000 miles. 

11. Brake Pads

Brake pads generally aren't included in a manufacturer's recommended maintenance schedule since your driving style can significantly impact how quickly they wear out. In general, you can expect to change your brake pads every 40,000-105,000 km, depending on the type of vehicle, type of brake pad, and your driving style. 

12. Spark Plugs

Spark plugs have the important role of igniting the air-and-fuel mixture that makes your vehicle run. Over time, these plugs accumulate a buildup of soot and other debris, and their electrodes wear down. This weakens the spark, thereby reducing the spark plug's effectiveness. 

Fortunately, this wear is very slow, and most manufacturers recommended changing spark plugs, which is commonly referred to as a tune-up, only every 48,000-145,000 km. 

Most modern cars have coil packs instead of spark plug wires. However, if your vehicle also has spark plug wires, it's wise to replace these when replacing the spark plugs. 

13. Serpentine Belt

The serpentine belt transfers the engine's rotational power to the vehicle's accessories — air conditioning, alternator, power steering, water pump — so they operate as expected. Over time, heat and stress cause this belt to weaken, crack, or even break. 

If the latter occurs, it can leave you broken down on the side of the road. Most manufacturers will recommend changing the serpentine belt every 96,000-160,000 km. But you should inspect it for cracks, splits, or fraying at every oil change and replace it if these flaws exist. 

14. Timing Belt

The timing belt is inside the front portion of the engine and connects the mechanical components in the top portion of the engine to the lower portion, ensuring they’re properly synchronized. If this belt breaks, the car will no longer run in a best-case scenario. In a worst-case scenario, if this belt breaks, the valves on the top end will suddenly be out of time, allowing the piston to strike them and cause costly damage. 

This potential damage is why manufacturers recommend replacing the timing belt every 96,000-160,000 km. 

15. Fuel Filter

The fuel filter helps remove debris from the fuel before it reaches the engine. This debris can include rust, dirt, and other contaminants that can severely damage the engine and fuel system components. 

Over time, the fuel filter can become clogged with all this debris, reducing its effectiveness. Changing it will ensure your vehicle gets the fuel it needs to run at peak performance.

The fuel filter change interval can range from every two years or 48,000 km to every four years or 96,000 km, depending on the vehicle.

Beware of Maintenance Upsells at Repair Shops

Most repair facilities are upfront, honest, and want to earn your money legitimately. However, some are upselling operations that want to increase your bill with unnecessary procedures and products. Here’s what to look out for when it comes to car maintenance.

The Cheap Oil Change

You can usually expect to pay anywhere from $30 to $75 for a normal oil change, depending on the type of car and the oil it uses. Some specialty cars can even reach the $125 range. 

As such, when you get that coupon for a $19.99 oil and filter change, you think it's a great deal. While it can be an amazing offer (if it's legitimate), this is what's called a "loss leader." The shop is willing to barely profit or even lose money on a common maintenance item, like an oil change, so it can inspect your car for more profitable repairs and maintenance. 

There's nothing inherently wrong with this tactic, but be on the lookout for extra maintenance and repair recommendations. You can further secure your hard-earned cash by having your car's recommended maintenance schedule with you to double-check against the shop's recommendations. 

The Synthetic Swap

There are three main engine oil types: conventional, synthetic blend, and full-synthetic. These oils are mostly there to meet manufacturer requirements. For example, most cars require only conventional oil, but some premium cars require synthetic oil due to their mechanics and other factors.

Unfortunately, some shops misrepresent synthetic oil, making it seem more beneficial than it is. While synthetic oil certainly has its benefits compared to conventional — it breaks down slower, flows more smoothly, and has more cleaning agents — many shops claim it’s a longer-lasting oil, meaning you can do oil changes less often.

This is a fallacy. While synthetic oil breaks down more slowly than conventional, it won't last any longer in a 2010 Honda Civic than conventional oil will. This is because automakers base their oil change intervals on the engine and the contaminants it creates. 

When an engine runs, small amounts of fuel and other debris will make it into the crankcase, contaminating the oil. The engine’s contamination rate is what drives the oil change interval. Since synthetic oil will become contaminated just as quickly as conventional oil, you must maintain the same oil change intervals whether you use synthetic or conventional oil. 

If a shop upsells you on synthetic oil for other reasons, such as well-lubricated cold starts, quicker cold-start oil flow, better overall lubrication, and more cleaning agents, these are all valid reasons to upgrade to synthetic.

How to Verify a Car Was Properly Maintained

When buying a pre-owned car, you put a lot of trust in what the seller tells you, including how well it was maintained. But you don’t have to just take their word for it. Use these tips to verify it had up-to-date maintenance. 

Check the Records

The most surefire way to verify car maintenance is to ask the owner for their maintenance records. If the owner has these, always verify that the vehicle identification number (VIN) on the work orders matches the car's VIN. 

If the numbers match and the records appear complete, you can rest assured you're dealing with a well-maintained car. 

That said, don't negatively judge a vehicle if it lacks records. There are other (albeit less surefire) ways to check for missed maintenance. 

Check the Fluids

Checking the vehicle's transmission fluid and engine oil will help identify if maintenance is current. For oil, it's OK for it to be dark, but check for a heavy gasoline smell — this is a telltale sign it's overdue for an oil change. Also check for clumping and other solid debris on the dipstick. 

For transmission fluid, it should always be bright to medium red. If the fluid is black or has debris in it, there's a good chance it hasn't been changed in a while. Also, if the fluid is sticky or has a horrific smell, it's likely burned, which indicates transmission damage. 

When checking these fluids, you can also get a more long-term look by checking out the dipstick. Are there burned-on stains on the dipstick? This likely means the oil or transmission fluid is frequently left unchanged, allowing the debris in the oil or fluid to stick to the dipstick. 

Get a Fully Maintained Pre-Owned Vehicle at Clutch

You can skip the maintenance guessing game by searching for your next pre-owned car at Clutch, Canada's first 100% online car-buying experience. We put all our vehicles through a 210-point inspection and reconditioning process, which includes verifying its maintenance schedule and completing any service that's due. 

With this thorough reconditioning process, you can feel secure about getting a well-maintained vehicle with no immediate out-of-pocket expenses. 

All our vehicles purchased online come with a 90-day or 6,000-km limited warranty, plus a 10-day risk-free test own period. If you don't love the vehicle in the first 10 days, you can return it for a full refund or exchange it for a different vehicle. 

Check out the Clutch pre-owned inventory today.