Is Your Car Ready for a Summer Road Trip?
by Josh Sadlier
It's that time of year again. "Summertime," the song goes, "when the living's easy." But it can get tough in a hurry if you head out on a summer road trip without making sure your car is up to the challenge. A lot can go wrong when you're covering hundreds or even thousands of miles in a single trip, and you don't want to learn that lesson the hard way.
Here are five steps that all summer road-trippers should take before they leave town.
1. Get a Pre-Trip Mechanical Inspection
Is it overkill to have a technician give your car a pre-trip onceover? Not if it saves you from disaster on the road, and we'd rather be safe than sorry. Your mechanic should be able to identify any significant components that are on their last legs. Even if your car comes back with a clean bill of health, there's a lot of value in having that peace of mind.
2. Get an Oil Change
There are roughly two kinds of drivers in the world: you're either on top of your oil changes and have them done by the book, or you can't remember when your last oil change was -- "but my car's running fine!" Now, if you're in the first category, you were probably already thinking about the oil situation, but we'll say it anyway: unless you recently had an oil change, it's always a good idea to get a fresh one before a long trip. Have it done at the location you trust, as opposed to a random lube joint in the middle of nowhere.
If you're in the second category, well, here's a quick primer on motor oil: It's the first line of defense against premature component wear and malfunction, so you're not doing your car or your bank account any favors by letting this one slide. If you run out of the stuff, your engine is likely done for. The best policy is to get that pre-trip oil change, just to be safe, and then do your best to keep track of when it's time for the next one.
3. Pack a Tire Pressure Gauge
If you have that pre-trip inspection performed, your technician will likely check your tire pressures and add air if they're low. You should also ask him to assess the "tread life" of the tire, meaning the number of miles left before you need new rubber, and make sure that number easily exceeds what you're about to cover on the trip.
But what your mechanic can't tell you is whether your tires have any leaks, and that's a pretty big deal. At minimum, a leaky tire will hurt fuel economy, and significant pressure loss can destabilize the car, making it harder to control in emergency maneuvers. Leaky tires are also more vulnerable to blowouts, which can have catastrophic effects. That's why we recommend picking up a simple tire pressure gauge and stashing it in your glovebox before you depart. We think a responsible interval for checking your tires would be every 1,000 miles or so. If you notice pressure losses of more than a few psi between checks, please don't take this lightly.
4. Prepare to Rock Out
Okay, so this one's not quite as pressing as the first three, but come on -- what's a road trip without great music? If you've already got your mobile tunes all hooked up, you’re set, but chances are your sound system could use a nip here and a tuck there. Suppose you've got an older car, for example, and the factory radio is one of the conventional rectangular-shaped models. That means you can easily swap it out for another unit, and even a $100 stereo these days should come with a USB port for your mp3 player, and possibly Bluetooth for your phone.
It’s a lot harder to swap out the stereo in a late-model car if the controls are integrated into the dashboard flow. But if you're not satisfied with your sound quality, it's a cinch for any stereo shop to upgrade your front and rear speakers without touching the controls themselves. The improvement can be pretty astounding if you choose wisely.
5. Bring Chargers. Lots of Chargers.
Last but not least, don't leave home without mobile chargers for your devices. That includes mp3 players, tablets and so forth, but the most important one by far is your cell phone. Think about the worst-case scenario: you follow all of our advice, but something unforeseeable happens, and you're stranded on the side of the road. You're going to need that phone to call for help, but if you've been using it to play music, get directions, et cetera, it might not have enough juice left to be your lifeline.
Plan wisely and your summer road trip should be smooth sailing.