It's the time of year when many Aussies load up the car for their annual summer holiday. But is your car up to the task? Here are eight essential DIY car safety checks from carsales.com.au's technical editor, Ken Gratton, to help you find out.
While these checks are useful, it's always a good idea to have your car checked by a professional mechanic before heading off on a long drive. This is especially relevant if your car is due for a service or if you're taking your car out of its comfort zone from everyday short trips to a long open-road journey.
1. Check dashboard warning lights
As soon as you note a warning light in the dash for one of the safety systems, get it checked immediately. In fact, any warning light in the dash warrants immediate checking by a professional.
When you turn on the ignition, watch that all the warning lights flash on momentarily. If a warning light doesn't flash on at all, it can be a sign that there is either an issue with the electrical systems, and that you may not get a warning that part of your car needs attention.
2. Battery life
Watch out for slow cranking when you start the car. This may indicate the battery is on its last legs. You can usually expect three years of life out of a battery – and some will go much longer than that – but always treat the battery as if it's an endangered species once it reaches that three-year threshold.
3. Engine's cooling system
Only when the engine is cold, check that the coolant level in the reservoir isn't below the minimum mark and that the colour is either clear green or orange. If the coolant level is low, or looks dirty, your engine is in danger of overheating. It's a good idea to have the whole cooling system flushed and replenished with new, rust-inhibiting coolant.
4. Tyres and wheel alignment
Conduct a visual inspection for tread wear - especially uneven wear (on one side of the tyre or in the middle). This usually indicates a front-end alignment problem, under or over inflation or something more serious like a wheel bearing on the way out.
Severely underinflated tyres can be easily spotted just by the fattened sidewall at the base, where the tyre meets the road. But it's a good idea to check the pressures with the gauge as well, since even moderate under inflation can affect road holding. You can check the tyre pressure with a gauge, freely available at many service stations.
5. Signs of worn brakes
Sure signs your brakes are in need of some TLC include shudder through the pedal and squealing (metal-on-metal) noises when the friction material of the pads have ground down to the metal. You should also check the braking system's hydraulic fluid reservoir and it should certainly be flushed at regular intervals as water can build up. The brake pedal will feel spongy or will travel too far in that case.
6. Steering and suspension
If you're hauling the driving wheel in one direction to keep the car tracking in a straight line, or the steering wheel vibrates more than usual, your steering geometry may be in need of alignment. It could also mean incorrect inflation or incorrect balance for one or more tyres. Note any knocking or unusual play in the wheel, which can be a sign of worn steering bushes or wheel bearings.
Place both hands on the car's bodywork above a wheel and about half a metre apart. Taking care to not slip and hurt yourself, lean your body weight onto the car, pause and then push away. If the car body bounces back quickly on the spring, instead of rising smoothly to it’s original position, it indicates the damper is worn and may need replacing. Worn dampers are a safety concern as they can lead to reduced road holding under brakes or while cornering.
7. Transmission, clutch and CV joints
Listen for knocking noises that could indicate worn joints in the drive shafts to the wheels, or a badly worn differential. Note automatic transmissions that are reluctant to shift from neutral into gear. A manual transmission is quite robust, but if the engine revs increase and the car's speed doesn't change at the same rate, that's a sign of a slipping clutch, which will eventually wear out altogether.
8. Interior comfort
Having to set the temperature lower and lower is a sign that the car's air conditioning system may be running out of the refrigerant gas that chills the air when compressed. It won't leave you stranded, but it will make for an uncomfortable trip to the Red Centre or across the Nullarbor at the height of summer.
Remember, if you're left stranded, it could be inconvenient, expensive and even dangerous.