Do You Really Need a Tune Up?

Mechanics - Hands in Car

Modern cars—and that includes pretty much everything since 1996—simply don’t need a traditional tune up. It’s an obsolete term. Having said that, your vehicle still needs regular maintenance just as badly, and almost as regularly, as your parents’ cars did. It’s just that a “tune up” isn’t what’s needed.

Well, you may well ask, what is needed? Simple: there’s a detailed list of what needs to be done, and how often, in the back of your owner’s manual. [Don’t have time for that? Look up your vehicle’s recommended maintenance schedule here.] Following it rigorously will ensure that your car will provide you with the best performance, most reliability and lowest cost-per-mile operation over the long haul.

While most vehicles today have scheduled maintenance intervals around of 7500-10,000 miles, that’s a minimum. Cars driven in urban, short-trip driving with multiple cold start-ups actually fall into the “Severe Service” category. At the very least, drivers of those cars should double up on oil and filter changes on that short-trip grocery-getter. Every vehicle should see a mechanic’s bay at least once a year, preferably twice, so a trained technician can assess it.

So what’s actually involved in that old-fashioned tune up? And why shouldn’t you be asking for one?

  • 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 simply wore out every 15-20,000 miles. Modern plugs use precious-metal electrodes that don’t wear, and should last at least 100,000 miles. The plugs’ ignition points, an electrical switch that controls the spark and opens and closes hundreds of times ever mile, would wear out. Points needed regular adjustment or replacement, which in turn necessitated resetting the ignition timing. This involved manually moving the distributor (where the points live) with a strobe light and a wrench.
  • Today, the ignition timing is preset at the factory and it can’t be adjusted, and the points have been replaced by handful of extremely reliable electronic components. 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. Same for idle speed.
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You could legitimately consider a modern car to be self-tuning. Asking your service advisor for a tune up could give the impression that you don’t really know what you’re asking for when you book an appointment.

Here’s how to tell the service manager what you need done: you want scheduled maintenance. If they find anything that needs to be attended to, such as worn-out brakes, fraying belts or leaks, they’ll let you know.

Looking for a great repair shop to set up your scheduled maintenance service with? Check out Openbay to instantly compare quotes and book service with top shops in your area online. 

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Mike Allen
Mike is a guest writer for the Openbay blog. He’s an ASE-certified mechanic, longtime former editor of Popular Mechanics, and world-record-holding race-car driver. For more on Mike, check out his bio here, and find him on his own site, Saturday Mechanic.