Owning a car is about more than topping off its fuel tank and starting the engine. Every car needs routine maintenance to keep it running in top form for years to come. One maintenance procedure as old as cars themselves is a tune-up.
Over the years, a car tune-up has changed a lot, but the basic idea has always remained the same: Ensure the ignition system delivers an effective spark to ignite the fuel in the engine. Below we look at what’s involved in today’s car tune-ups, what to expect, how much one may cost, and more.
The tune-up interval varies by vehicle and can range from as frequently as every 48,000 km to every 160,000 km. You can find your tune-up interval in the back of your vehicle’s owner’s manual under the maintenance schedule. Always use the severe maintenance schedule, as Canada’s hilly terrain and extreme temperatures fall under this category.
Today’s car tune-ups aren’t like they were years ago. In older cars, you not only replaced spark plugs and wires but also adjusted the ignition timing, fiddled with the carburetor, cleaned and adjusted the points, replaced the distributor cap and rotor, and more.
Today’s electronic ignition systems have replaced or eliminated many of these maintenance-heavy components, making today’s tune-ups simpler in many ways.
Here’s what you can expect to replace during the average tune-up service on today’s cars.
One ignition component has remained consistent in the internal combustion engine (ICE) for decades: the spark plug. While the technology behind them and their composition has changed over the years, every ICE requires spark plugs to ignite the air and fuel mixture that powers the vehicle.
Over time, the electrodes become dirty and wear out, widening the gap between the two electrodes, resulting in a weaker spark. This is when it’s time to replace those spark plugs, which is the main component of today’s tune-up.
The composition of the factory spark plugs directly impacts the tune-up interval, as platinum and iridium spark plugs can now last upward of 160,000 km before needing replacing. In years past, old copper-core spark plugs needed changing every 48,000 km, or so.
Most vehicles will have the same number of spark plugs as they have cylinders — a four-cylinder will have four plugs, six-cylinder engines have six, etc. However, some cars have multiple plugs per cylinder, so keep this in mind when getting price quotes.
In most cases, spark plug replacement is a straightforward job that should take an hour or less, but some engine compartments are so crowded that the plugs are beneath other components, complicating the job. This is when you can reach into the hundreds of dollars for a simple tune-up.
Ignition wires — also called spark plug wires — are another critical part of a tune-up. Though coil-on-plug setups with no ignition wires are slowly replacing them, spark plug wires remain a common component in today’s cars.
These wires transfer the electricity from the ignition coil or distributor to the spark plugs. Over time, the non-conductive coating wears out due to oil and heat, causing them to short out and weaken the spark. You never know when this could happen, so you should always replace them when replacing the spark plugs as a preventative measure.
The wires are generally easy to swap out like spark plugs, but sometimes interference from other engine components complicates the process. However, if you’re already replacing the spark plugs, you should only pay a few dollars extra in labor to install new ignition wires.
On the coil-on-plug setups mentioned above, the individual coil packs will have rubber boots that insulate the spark plug. These boots wear out just like ignition wires, leading to shorts that can weaken the spark and potentially cause engine misfires.
Like ignition wires, you should have these coil pack boots replaced at every tune-up interval as a preventative measure., This should only cost a few dollars more than the base tune-up because the shop will have to remove the coil packs regardless.
The PCV valve is another old-school automotive component that remains on all cars today.’ This valve allows the leftover combustion gasses in the crankcase — the lower part of the engine — to enter the combustion chamber for returning, thereby reducing emissions.
Over time, this valve can become stuck or leak, impacting your vehicle’s emissions and performance. Replacing the PCV valve is a quick, simple, and cheap process, so you should do it at least at the manufacturer’s recommended intervals. If the manufacturer doesn’t have a recommended maintenance schedule for it, replace it at each spark plug replacement interval as a preventative measure.
Some newer cars have serviceable PCV valves that you can remove, clean, and reinstall. In these cases, the shop can simply clean and reinstall it unless it’s broken.
While today’s car tune-up generally includes only spark plugs, ignition wires or coil pack boots, and cleaning or replacing the PCV valve, there are other services to consider during your tune-up.
Here are some of the other car maintenance services you may want to consider while getting a tune-up.
The engine air filter clears the air of dirt and debris before it enters the engine for combustion. Over time, this filter becomes clogged and restricts airflow, reducing fuel economy and engine performance. Replacing this air filter according to the manufacturer’s recommended intervals is critical in keeping your car’s engine and efficiency in great shape.
Even if it’s not quite time to swap out the air filter in your car, it may be a good idea to do it along with your engine tune-up so the new plugs are getting their full airflow allowance for ignition.
Your car’s fuel filter removes dirt, debris, rust, and more from the fuel as it heads through the fuel system toward the engine. Over time, this filter can get buildup inside it that reduces its flow. This can cause unnecessary stress on the fuel pump or starve the engine of fuel. It’s wise to swap this filter out during a regular tune-up to ensure the new spark plugs are getting all the fuel they need for ignition.
Fuel injection service, which includes running a chemical through your fuel that cleans each fuel injector, is a hot topic. Some people swear by them, while others call them complete rip-offs. Honestly, the truth lies in the middle.
Fuel injection services as preventative maintenance are not necessary. However, a fuel injection service is a good option if you are getting a tune-up because the vehicle’s engine has a rough idle or is stalling. This stalling and rough running could also be a sign of clogged injectors and running a fuel injection service may clear this out and restore the fuel’s path into the combustion chamber.
The cost of a tune-up will depend on how difficult it is to do on your vehicle, as this is a service shops will charge per-hour for based on the labour manual they use. Most auto repair shops in Canada charge $105-$175 per hour plus parts. So, if your basic tune-up — spark plug and ignition wires — has a book labour time of 1.5 hours, you’re looking at $157.50-$262.50 in labour costs.
As for parts, their cost will also vary by car. Generally, replacement spark plugs cost $5-$15 each, depending on the type your vehicle requires and your preferences. Depending on your vehicle, you’ll need at least 4-8 spark plugs, bringing that total to $15-$120. Spark plug wires generally run $20-$60, so add that to the spark plugs, and the parts will run you $35-$180.
With labour and parts combined, you’re looking at $192.50-$442.50 for a 1.5-hour tune-up.
Some shops will offer fixed pricing for more straightforward jobs that require no more than an hour’s labour. An example of this pricing strategy would be $75 for a four-cylinder, $100 for a V6, and $125 for a V8.
Another responsibility of the technician working on your tune-up is to check other parts of your vehicle to ensure there are no other overdue maintenance or repair items. If the technician finds any additional needs, they will notify you of their recommendations.
Some examples of recommendations include:
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