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Signs Your Car Needs A Tune Up


As a car is driven, its engine needs maintenance. A tune up is when a car undergoes preventative engine maintenance which includes spark plug replacement, spark plug wires, filters, distributor cap, rotor, PVC valve, air filter and an oil change. For older cars this may also include adjusting the ignition timing.

In some cases, your car may tell you that it is having issues, sometimes it won’t show any change at all. Because of this, a car should be taken in for a tune up at least once every year or every 12,000 miles regardless of how it is driving. If your car is giving you these symptoms, take it in for a check up at the mechanic ASAP.

  • Difficulty starting the car
  • Loss of power/ slow acceleration
  • Occasional stalling
  • Engine Misfires
  • The car is running rough
  • Your car isn’t as fuel efficient
  • Unusual noises
  • Your check engine or other warning lights are on
  • The car pulls to one side
  • Brakes are making noise
  • You are past manufacturer recommendations

Difficulty Starting The Car

If your car won’t start, you could have a number of issues with the vehicle from the battery, the alternator, the starter, the fuel pump or even the air and fuel filters. It is likely a battery issue, but it could point to the ignition system in the vehicle and a tune up will correct this. Regardless, if your car won’t start it obviously needs to go to the mechanic. Don’t ignore the issue.

Loss Of Power

If your car doesn’t have the same acceleration that you are used to you may have issues with your fuel filter or your spark plugs. Typically a car that is slow to accelerate has been neglected in terms of maintenance for instance it has a clogged fuel filter.

Whatever the cause, a loss of power is a safety concern in a vehicle that should be addressed immediately. It can likely be fixed with a simple tune up and prevent you from finding yourself in a bad situation merging on the interstate, driving up a hill or trying to keep yourself out of a car accident.

Occasional stalling

If you’re learning to drive a car with a manual transmission, stalls are going to happen. If you’re an experienced driver or have an automatic car and are still experiencing stalls, this is a sign that you could have a bigger problem. Reasons your car may stall include

  • A dead battery
  • A faulty fuel pump
  • Ignition issues
  • Improper release of the clutch on transmission vehicles.

Engine Misfires

Engine health is the whole reason we take cars in for tune ups. If your engine is misfiring you have an issue with how the fuel is being burned within one or multiple cylinders and you will see a lack of power. Signs of an engine misfire include loss of power and shaking.

The more issues with cylinders the less power you will have. One cylinder and you may be able to get home, but issues with multiple cylinders will likely have you calling a tow truck.

An engine misfire requires the experience of a mechanic quickly. Some causes of an engine misfire include:

  • Ignition issues
  • Fuel system problems
  • Engine issues

The Vehicle Is Running Rough

If your car is running rough while idling or in drive this can be a sign that your car needs a tune up. If your car is driving like it is on a rough road, vibrating and bumping along even when the road is smooth, your car is what we consider to be running rough.

Usually the issue is internal and coming from your engine specifically. Sometimes you will only feel the vehicle running rough at certain speeds. Other times the entire vehicle will shake even at a speed of 15 miles per hour. If you notice your vehicle is running rough it should be taken into a mechanic in a timely fashion. If the issue is not treated, it could escalate and break other parts of the car.

Your Car Is Burning More Fuel

Fuel efficiency is a huge selling point when buying a vehicle, but somehow people seem to forget or just plain don’t know that you have control over how much gas your car burns. Keeping a car properly maintained and driving moderately are the best ways to conserve gasoline.

Most car owners know how far they can go on a tank of fuel with their driving style. They also know when their car isn’t getting the same MPG that it used to. If you notice that your car is burning more fuel than it used to, it’s likely the car is due for maintenance. Cars do tend to burn more fuel as they age, so this will be a severe difference in a period of less than a year.

To have a good idea of what kind of fuel efficiency your car has, keep track of the mileage count whenever you fill up and the level your gas tank was at. Numbers always beat what you think is going on. Give yourself the proof and keep track of the mileage.

Strange Noises

If your car is making noises that it doesn’t normally make this is a sure sign that the vehicle needs to see a mechanic. As a vehicle owner you know what is normal for your car. The first sign of something unusual like the car making a strange new sound should have you investigating for mechanical issues.

Most of us are not trained mechanics able to diagnose the issue ourselves, so take the car into a trusted mechanic to see what the problem is and get it fixed.

Your Car Is Displaying Warning Lights

If your check engine or other warning lights on your dash are lit or blinking then it is time to take the car to a mechanic for diagnosing. Many car owners like to brush off these signals that your car is having issues thinking it likely isn’t all that serious. Your car uses sensors to tell it when there is a problem. If your vehicle is telling you there is a problem there is a chance that it is minor, but even with a minor problem the issue can quickly escalate.

The warning lights are there to indicate that there is something wrong with your engine so don’t take them lightly and get the car to the mechanic in case your issue is more serious.

If you have any questions on what the lights on your car mean you can use your owner’s manual to identify them.

The Car Is Pulling

While not typically engine related, a car that pulls to one side or the other while driving is a car that needs maintenance. The car may have alignment or other tire issues that need to be attended to.

Your Brakes Are Making Noise

Your brakes shouldn’t make noise and they shouldn’t be difficult to use. If you are experiencing squeaking, squealing, or grinding noises when you press the brake pedal of your car it means that something isn’t working properly and your brakes need to be serviced.

You Are Past Manufacturer Recommendations

Your vehicle will come with recommendations on how frequently it should be serviced curtesy of the engineers who built and tested the vehicle. You can find all of these suggested maintenance items in the owner’s manual of your car or by doing a simple search online. Follow the manufacturer maintenance schedule to a T to keep your car on the road for longer.

What Is A Vehicle Tune Up Exactly

Cars used to require a TON of maintenance, however thanks to modern technology, the maintenance process has been simplified a lot. There are still a few items in the modern car that need regular inspection and these are what is included in a tune up

Tune ups usually include an inspection and the actual mechanical work to the car or truck. The inspection will tell the mechanic what the mechanical health of the vehicle is and what needs improvement. They will do a check of the car’s fuel system and ignition system.

Parts of the inspection will include spark plug replacement, spark plug wires, filters, distributor cap, rotor, fuel injectors, PVC valve, air filter and an oil change. For older cars this may also include adjusting the ignition timing. fuel injector is also clean. 

A mechanic may also include a four point inspection and may check and top off fluid levels in the vehicle. The parts of the car that are actually “tuned” will depend on what the mechanic finds during the inspection and the price will increase or decrease depending on the parts that need work.

How Often Does Your Car Need A Tune Up

The general rule of thumb is about 1x per year or every 12,000 miles whichever comes first. However, different cars have different needs.

The make and model of the car will drastically impact how frequently a car needs to be serviced. The engineers who designed, built, and tested the car will have put out a recommended maintenance schedule that should be followed. This maintenance schedule can be found online or in the owner’s manual of your car.

Other things that may impact the frequency of which the car needs maintenance includes how you drive and where you live. If you speed and accelerate quickly or brake hard, your car will need to be serviced more frequently to help with the added stress and pressure on the car. The same will hold true for cars who drive in heavy snow or sand.

With that in mind, the table below will list the maintenance intervals assuming you are driving in regular conditions. Regular conditions mean driving no faster than 55mph on the highway and driving in an area with little to no extreme weather, dust, or salt.

The intervals we have listed should serve as a guide, to point you in the right direction. Your car may require more frequent or less frequent service depending on your make, model, mileage, and driving conditions.

Type Of ServicePurposeHow Often?
Oil Change (Regular)Keep your engine lubricated, reduce heat, and clear debris.5,000 – 7,000 miles / Every 6 months
Oil Change (Synthetic)Keep your engine lubricated, reduce heat, and clear debris.7,000 – 12,500 miles / Every 6 months
Change Oil FilterHelp keep your engine clear of debris.10,000 – 25,000 miles / Every 2nd oil change
Change CoolantHelps maintain engine temperature30,000 – 50,000 miles / Every 2-3 years
Change Brake PadsAllows for proper stopping distance40,000 – 60,000 miles / Every 2-3 years
Change Brake FluidAllows for proper stopping distance, and aids long term brake health.20,000-45,000 miles / Every 2-3 years
Change Cabin Air FilterKeep cabin air free of mold, pollution, pollen and other dirt. Change it more frequently if you live in a dry and dusty environment.15,000-30,000 miles / Every 1-2 years.
Change Engine Air FilterKeep engine air free of sand, dirt, and other debris. Change it more frequently if you live in a sandy/dusty environment.12,000-15,000 miles / Every Year
Rotate TiresAllows tires to wear evenly, which extends tire life and helps to prevent early blowouts.6,000 – 8,000 miles / Every 6 months
Change TiresKeeps your car on the road. Yeah, they are pretty damn important.30,000 – 50,000 miles / Every 3-5 years
Wash CarCleans debris from your car and improves highway fuel efficiency by up to 10%. Wash your car more frequently in dry, dusty environments, or if you encounter road debris, bugs, or bird poop. Opt for a hand wash over an automatic car wash.Every 2-3 weeks.
Wax CarProtects your paint from debris, grime, and corrosion.Every 2-3 months.
Change Car BatteryProvides the energy to start your car.50,000-70,000 miles / Every 5-7 years
Change Windshield WipersKeeps your windshield clear of rain/snow/other debris.Every year

Other Factors That Can Impact This Timeframe

Again, some conditions call for a car needing more frequent maintenance.

If You Have The Need For Speed

Slow and steady wins the race is definitely true in the longevity of cars. If you brake quickly and accelerate quickly, guess what? Your car will deteriorate quickly. Maintenance is needed to help cars recover from the daily abuse that they take. If you really abuse your car you really need to consider maintaining your car more frequently.

The “sweet spot” for driving your car efficiently is anywhere between 40-55 miles per hour (MPH). Depending on the car you drive, Slow, gradual acceleration burns less fuel and subjects your engine to less wear and tear.

This means:

  • More frequent oil changes. Your car burns more oil at higher RPMs.
  • More frequent oil filter changes. If your car is using more oil, you’re going to have to change this bad body more frequently.
  • More frequent brake changes. Stopping at high speeds leads to more wear and tear on your brakes.
  • More frequent tire rotations because your tires are spinning faster.
  • More frequent tire changes because the high speeds break down the rubber in your tires due to the increased heat of higher speeds.

The increased RPMs of high speed and the pressure of fast braking cause additional wear and tear on your car which leads to it consuming more oil and burning through your tires faster. You may also need to change your brakes more frequently due to additional pressure required to stop your car.

If You Live Somewhere Dry And Dusty

This includes some of the Midwest states, and includes western states like Arizona, New Mexico, parts of California, and other similar climates. If you frequently drive in these areas you need to increase the frequency of your

For example, you’ll want to:

  • Change your oil more frequently. Oil helps clean dirt and dust from your engine.
  • Change your oil filter more frequently. In a sandy climate, this can accumulate quickly.
  • Wash and wax your car more often. Without rain, grime builds up faster which can damage your paint and reduce fuel economy.
  • Change your cabin and engine air filters more frequently. These will both foul up with dirt and dust which can lead to them clogging.

If You Live Somewhere Cold With Sleet And Snow

Cold weather puts stress on your car. Snow and sleet can cause premature corrosion in your car’s undercarriage, but the salt is even worse. Salt creates chemical reactions that can damage your car. The exposed metal is especially vulnerable. Unless you take precautions, your brakes and fuel lines can suffer.

If you do live in a cold climate, at least during the winter you can expect to:

  • Wash your car more frequently to remove road grime and corrosive salt
  • Wax it to seal out said corrosive grime and salt
  • Replace your wiper blades more often
  • Replace your battery more often
  • Change your oil more frequently. Motor oil thickens when cold.

What Happens If You Don’t Get A Tune Up

The following can happen to each component of your car if they are not maintained according to manufacturer recommendations.

Tires: Under-inflation will lead to at least three failures: excess uneven tread wear, sidewall flexing/heating, and increase the likelihood of damage when hitting sharp road defects. Also, it can result in poorer handling, braking, and fuel economy. You don’t want to mess around with your tires.

Oil: Simply topping up the oil and never changing the filter will result in the accumulation of sludge, which will block oil passages, hamper the functioning of the valve train, generally increase internal friction and disrupt the crankcase ventilation, etc. This can eventually lead to complete engine failure if left unchecked for long enough. You can usually tell when you’ve neglected your oil when it begins leaking through to the ground.

Brakes: Depending on driving style and weather exposure, the disc brake calipers pistons can seize unevenly, resulting in diminished pad pressure, poorer braking, and premature disc wear. Your braking performance during an unexpected stop can suffer, even though that’s when you’ll need it most. If your brakes are bad, don’t risk i

Alignment: This would include steering linkage and suspension joint wear. It may be difficult to keep the car on a straight course, and steering response on turns will be less than optimum. Over time this can progress to you having to fight to keep your car traveling in a straight line, which is incredibly dangerous.

Cooling: Most garages will check the radiator and heater hoses, however, overlook the heater control valve and electric block heater insert, probably because they are less visible. Failure of either will result in rapid coolant loss, and unless noticed right away, engine destruction.

Timing belt or chain: Replace at a specified interval. At best, failure will just stop the engine, if it is of the “non-interference” valve setup. If not, then a piston will collide with an open valve, requiring extensive engine work. The timing belt going out is more common than a failing timing chain.

Exposed electrical/ground connections: As the car ages, these can come loose, corroded, or fatigued. The car may just stop dead without any warning, or worse, some electrical circuit becomes overloaded causing burnout of sensitive electronic parts. This is most commonly seen with expensive electrical components including your GPS and radio.

Broken exhaust & body/cabin holes: In commonly occurring conditions, exhaust leaks could emanate to the passenger space and intoxicate/asphyxiate occupants. Most leaks quickly develop into noisy ticket-able offenses, however, prevention is always a good option.

How Much Will A Tune Up Cost

A tune up will start around $40 for a minor tune up but can cost up to $150. A minor tune up will include replacing the spark plugs and looking over the spark plug system including the wires. A more complex tune up will run anywhere from $150 to $800 which will include all of the above maintenance as well as the distributor cap, rotor, PVC valve, air filter and an oil change.

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