What is a tune-up?
The term "tune-up" is now technically obsolete, and asking for one may even give your mechanic the impression that you don’t really know what you’re asking for when you book an appointment. However, customers still frequently request "tune-ups," so here's the background on what a tune-up used to entail.
Before modern, computer-controlled engines (which were mandated by emissions regulations and became universal by the 1996 model year) there were a number of things that did need to be adjusted and/or replaced regularly.
For starters, spark plugs used to have electrodes made of ordinary steel, and they simply wore out every 15-20,000 miles. Modern spark plugs use precious-metal electrodes that don’t wear, and should last at least 100,000 miles. In addition, carburetors wore out, gummed up with varnish and airborne dirt and often required tweaking to restore proper idle speed and fuel/air ratio.
Today, a sensor in the exhaust system checks constantly for proper fuel ratio and adjusts it on the fly, a dozen times every second. Ditto for idle speed, which is trimmed constantly to remain the same, regardless of engine load from accessories like air conditioning.
What you should be requesting, instead of a tune-up:
Because modern cars can almost considered to be self-tuning, you should avoid requesting a tune-up. What you likely need is "scheduled maintenance," as dictated by your vehicle manufacturer. Vehicles vary widely as to exactly what needs to be serviced when: follow your manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule.
How important is it to get a tune-up?
Following the manufacturer’s recommended maintenance schedule (remember: don't call it a tune-up) is important for a few reasons. In the first few years of your vehicle's life, your warranty will depend on you following the service schedule. Beyond the warranty, bad things can happen if you ignore your vehicle's maintenance schedule—neglecting replacing the timing belt can, on some vehicles, result in a destroyed engine if it breaks. Neglecting the coolant change can sludge up or corrode your radiator.
In addition, a mechanic should have an opportunity to look over your vehicle at least annually, even if the mileage you’ve accrued since your last visit doesn’t warrant it. A technician will be on the lookout for impending problems before they become real problems.
*Worth noting: Vehicles used for short-trip grocery-getting deserve at least an oil change before the “normal” recommended mileage intervals. Technically, short-trip driving cycles fall into the manufacturer’s “severe service” classification, because the engine rarely sees enough time to completely warm up and boil condensation and fuel residues in the oil. More frequent oil changes will prolong the life of your engine under these circumstances.
The cost of a regular scheduled maintenance is highly variable. Some intervals require only an oil change, and should cost only $20-40. Later in the vehicle's life cycle (closer to that 100,000-mile mark) you may spend a few hundred dollars. Changing the timing belt (not all vehicles use a timing belt) could put the bottom line closer to $1,000. Ouch.
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