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Advice from an Expert: What to Check on a Car Before a Road Trip

August 23, 2012 at 3:33 PM | by | ()

Put gas in car. Put luggage in car. Put people in car. Google Map some directions and get out there on the road, right? WRONG. Not so fast—the most important step was skipped, and that's checking over a car before embarking on a road trip.

Popping the hood and kicking the tires may seem a bit outdated and it's true that modern technology in the auto industry means it's faster and easier than ever to plan, navigate, and set off (not to mention keep everyone entertained); however, you do want to keep that car running the whole way.

Right now we are going to talk a little about what you should do before even buckling the seatbelt. I myself am an ASE-certified mechanic and I've seen all sorts of anxious road trippers without a clue and without much of a car to drive. It's not a reassuring sight, as you can expect.

What to have the professionals check out:
If you have your driver’s license you should already be aware that certain parts of a vehicle can wear out and need to be replaced. Before any major road trip, we recommend taking the car to an automotive shop to have it inspected at least four business days in advance to ensure there's enough time for repairs. Many shops do free brake/tire inspections, so it need not break the bank. This is also a great opportunity to have an oil change performed if you'll be due for one while away. Four-wheel/all-wheel drive vehicles additionally need to request that the mechanics check the gearbox fluid level.

What to check on your own:
The day before your trip we recommend popping the hood and doing your own look-see. This is for a combination of safety, your own knowledge and familiarization and for peace of mind. You'll want to check:
· Transmission Fluid (Automatic and Manual transmissions have different procedures for checking the level. Refer to the owners manual for instructions)
· Oil level
· Clutch fluid (if a manual transmission)
· Brake fluid
· Coolant
· Windshield washer fluid

If any of the fluids are low, check the owners manual for information regarding which type of oil or coolant it uses. Keep in mind that different manufacturers usually use a specific type. Finally, make sure that all the caps and oil sticks are tight and secure before shutting the hood.

Kicking the tires:
Once everything under the hood is OK, you should now check the tires. If you have a 2008+ model year vehicle it will have a Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS). This makes it very easy by directly telling you the actual individual tire pressure on the dashboard display. Older systems will only have a little light near the gauges that will come on only if a tire is low. With these pre-2008 types, even if a tire is dangerously overinflated if will not notify the driver. That is why we always suggest physically checking the pressure with a tire gauge. Many car makers will put tire pressure recommendation stickers in the driver’s side door jam and usually in the owners manual. Having the correct tire pressure will guarantee safety and decent fuel mileage.

Whether you're renting a vehicle or you already own a few, it is always smart to choose one that will fit your needs. For example, twisty mountain roads with scenic turn-offs or a winter ski trip mean a rugged four-wheel-drive SUV. Naturally anything that has a built-in GPS is a major plus.

For our most recent road trip throughout SoCal, we got our hands on a 2013 Toyota Venza Limited. It had more than enough space for our luggage, good handling in the mountains, and Toyota’s new Entune multimedia system that allowed us to tap right into our Pandora stations on the drive. We were even surprised by how well it fit in with the other cars on the road in Beverly Hills. It is obviously a newer car, but we did the above checks just as we would with any other automobile.

Have other pre-roadtrip technical car questions? Drop 'em in the comments!

Disclosure: We briefly got our hands on a Venza thanks to Toyota, but all opinions presented here are completely our own.

[Photos: P. Maggetti and Steve D/Jaunted]

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