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To tune, or not to tune

September 13, 2011 - Larry DeHays

By Larry DeHays

Many shops advertise a service they call a "tune-up", but their prices range from dozens of dollars to hundreds of dollars. They don't agree on what a tune-up should include. Do we still need tune-ups? Lets review the facts.

Webster's defines the tune-up as "An adjusting, as of a motor, to the proper or required condition." I can confirm that in the "old days" a tune-up involved a lot of adjusting. We had to install and adjust the points, set the timing, adjust the carburetor mixture and engine idling speed, calibrate the choke, and adjust and replace the spark plugs, and this was recommended every twelve thousand miles. All of those adjustments are now done automatically by the computers in the car, and most spark plugs now last one hundred thousand miles, so the short answer is no, there is no need for a traditional tune-up on today's cars. However, (you knew there would be a "however", didn't you?) there are things that need to be done before the spark plugs are worn out, and I don't just mean oil changes.

Although the adjustments are being kept in tune by the computers while you drive, your fuel filter, air filter, cabin air filter, transmission fluid filter are all becoming contaminated as you drive. Belts are wearing out, hoses are deteriorating with age, anti-freeze solutions are weakening, brake linings are wearing down, and shocks and struts are getting weaker. Owner manuals list recommended intervals to inspect or change these items and more. Neglecting them causes most of today's breakdowns. So let's change the name from "tune-up" to "check-up", and using your manufacturers schedule, have these things done to avoid breakdowns. Adding them to your regular oil change stops might eliminate extra trips to the shop.

It might be a mistake to order a tune-up for your car if it is running poorly. Since all adjustments are now automatic, poor running means some part of the engine has failed. A shop might consider a tune-up to be simply changing the spark plugs, and that might not be your problem. It's best to simply relate your symptoms to your technician, and let them do the diagnosis. That usually is the quickest way to identify the problem, and get it fixed right the first time.

Larry DeHays is the owner of DeHays Automotive, Inc. of Ft. Myers Beach, an ASE certified Technician and an arbitrator for the Florida Lemon Law program.


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