What is a Tune Up?
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What is a Tune Up?

By Josh Noel | September 9, 2021

What is a Tune Up?

For most modern vehicles, a tune-up may include as little as checking and cleaning, or replacing, the spark plugs and spark plug wires.

It can also include checking and changing critical fluids. Aside from engine oil, this includes coolant, brake fluid, power steering fluid, transmission fluid, and the gear oil in your differentials and transfer case if your car is equipped with AWD or 4WD.

Why Do a Tune-Up?

Regular maintenance will extend the life of your vehicle, staving off drops in performance, and keeping fuel economy up. Every car requires different services at different times. It is important to stick to the maintenance schedule for your vehicle as prescribed in the owner's manual. If your car is older, then it's probably a good idea to perform a tune-up once a year. Even electric vehicles, though they do have much lower maintenance requirements, do require some occasional attention.

Tune-ups sometimes feel hard to pay for, because it's not something your car needs immediately to keep running. However, planning and budgeting for your cars required regular maintenance will help you avoid those large, surprise breakdown bills. Neglecting your vehicle is always more expensive in the long run. Whether you are a do-it-yourselfer or you take your car to a trusted mechanic, tune-ups are a necessity to keep you safely on the road many thousands of miles into the future.

Understanding proper automotive maintenance and committing to a schedule for doing it, can significantly lengthen the life of your vehicle. This can also decrease costs from unexpected breakdowns and repairs. A tune-up is a generic term for preventative maintenance for a vehicle, but it means different services for different vehicles, kind of like a check-up at the doctor. A tune-up generally goes beyond an oil change, but changing fluids can definitely be a part of the job.

Most vehicles have a maintenance schedule in the owner's manual, which will explain what services need to be done at a given time or mileage interval. Usually, when an oil and oil filter change is done, the brake pads, engine air filter, and cabin air filter should be checked and changed as needed. The fuel filter is more difficult to check but should be checked and replaced if needed during a tune-up service. This happens a couple of times per year for most drivers. Certain belts, fluids, and parts will also be listed on the schedule for inspection and replacement at different times. This is all dependent on the vehicle, and the car maintenance schedule should be closely followed to keep your car in tip-top shape.

Tune-Ups for Modern Vehicles

Modern vehicles with computer-controlled fuel injection and electronic ignition may not need adjustment as often. Newer vehicles may let you know when something needs to be replaced by showing a check engine light on the dash, this means a component of the engine is not working correctly. The light can mean emissions components like the PCV valve or oxygen sensor will need to be replaced. An auto repair shop or car parts store should be able to help you diagnose the problem simply by plugging a code reader into your vehicle.

Suspension and steering components should also be inspected as part of a thorough tune-up. This includes ball joints, which can be particularly hazardous should they fail while on the road. Tire pressure should be checked and tires replaced or rotated as required. It's also a good time to check the little things. Make sure to change wipers blades if needed and check that all lights are working.

Tune-Ups for Older Vehicles

For older vehicles, you will likely need all of the above and more, depending on the type of fuel and ignition systems your car is equipped with. For older vehicles, a tune-up may mean an intensive once-a-year service, where ignition components are checked, adjusted, or repaired.

For vehicles with a carburetor or a distributor, these regular tune-ups are critically important. Small adjustments to the ignition timing, carburetor, and distributor cap can have a big impact on the engine performance and fuel economy. The air to fuel mixture requires a fine balance, and routine maintenance can keep the car running smoothly before there is a problem. Similarly, the ignition timing being even slightly off can mean that fuel may not be completely igniting, causing the car to run rough, as well as wasting gas.

Symptoms that adjustment is needed include: not starting, stalling, rough idling, or poor gas mileage. More complex tasks may also be needed for certain vehicles. Some cars need a regular valve adjustment or other internal engine work. This type of vehicle maintenance should probably be left to an expert or a very experienced home mechanic.

Non-Gasoline Tune-Ups

Maintaining the fuel system, ignition system, and making sure that free-flowing air is available are critical parts of an engine tune-up for a gasoline-powered vehicle. Other types of cars need different regular maintenance also.

Diesel vehicles require tune-ups as well. Just like gas cars, the owner's manual will have recommendations for the timing of different services. Though many parts of a diesel tune-up are the same, diesel engines use a totally different system for combustion, so there will be no spark plugs to check. Oil and oil filter changes are critical, as well as checking and changing fuel filters when dealing with diesel engines. Diesel-powered vehicles may also have water separators that need to be drained. Some have high-pressure fuel systems, which need to be bled. If you are not sure what those terms mean, take your diesel car or truck to a trusted diesel-specific mechanic.

Electric cars have no fuel system, no engine oil, and do not require air for combustion, but they do need regular maintenance and inspection just like any vehicle. Electric cars are very different from one another, so it's important to check the owner's manual for service intervals. There are a few simple items that will need to be inspected. The Chevrolet Bolt's manual recommends inspecting your tires and checking their pressure monthly, rotating the tires every 7500 miles (that's a good time to inspect the brake pads as well), and changing the cabin air filter every 22,500 miles or two years. The only major service listed on the maintenance schedule is draining and refilling the coolant circuits at 150,000 miles. Electric vehicles definitely require less maintenance than gas and diesel cars, but it is just as important to do these tune-ups.

Hybrid vehicles have both gas and electric propulsion, and will likely require maintenance of both. The gasoline engine will still need oil changes and all of the other regular maintenance required for gasoline-powered vehicles, plus any additional items for the electric powertrain. Most hybrids have transmissions as well, which will need to be maintained. Again, it is important to check the recommended maintenance schedule in our owner's manual or consult with your mechanic to be sure you are up to date on your car tune-ups. There are many stories of hybrid owners unknowingly destroying their gas engines because they thought hybrids don't need oil changes.

Where to Get a Tune-Up?

When it is time to get a tune-up, you have three choices; take your car to the dealership, take it to an independent mechanic, or do it yourself. The cheapest option is to do it yourself, but that should only be undertaken by an experienced home mechanic, with the proper tools and equipment at their disposal.

The dealership will likely be the most expensive option, but they are experts in servicing cars from the automakers they represent. Dealership mechanics will often get specialized training from the manufacturer and should have the most up-to-date information about service bulletins, and other repairs that may be needed. If your car is newer it may be best to go to the dealership. The dealership's service department should also be able to handle any warranty work needed while your coverage is still active.

If you need to save a little money or don't have a dealership near you, an independent mechanic can be a good option. If possible, search for a mechanic who specializes in cars from the brand you own. Ask around for mechanics your friends or family have had satisfactory experiences with in the past. Once you find a good mechanic, keeping your car tuned up should be no problem.