There’s nothing quite like getting the keys to a shiny new car – whether it’s straight off the showroom floor or comes via a previous owner. While it’s easy to get caught up in the fun and excitement of having a new vehicle, there’s a whole range of things that you need to know to make sure it runs as smoothly as possible for years to come.
Generally you’ll figure out most obvious things – such as dashboard configuration, mirror placement and adjustment features, auto and manual controls and the general “feel” of the car – when you take a car for a test drive, but what about everything else?
From the history of the car to registration details, servicing and car finance, here are 15 things every car owner should know about their vehicle.
1. Car history
If you buy a used car, it is important to know it’s history including how many previous owners there are, how frequently it has been serviced and what kind of mileage it has done. Getting car history details can also highlight any red flags, such as if there is money still owing on the car or if it has been in any accidents.
Used car dealerships generally provide car history as part of their service, and many private sellers should have access to records for things like maintenance and legal or financial documents, so make sure you look over them before you buy a used car.
2. Car registration
With registration now primarily electronic, there are no little stickers on our windscreens to remind us of when rego is due. That makes it more important to keep track of when you have paid for registration and when it expires.
Car dealerships can organise registration for both new and used vehicles, so if you go down this route you will get all the documents you need to keep track of it. If you buy a used car that still has some rego left on it, however, you will have to make sure you fill out the appropriate registration transfer forms and check how many months it is before you need to renew it.
3. The best fuel for the car
These days there are so many options at the fuel pump that it can be hard to figure out which one to use. Aside from the obvious differences between diesel, leaded and unleaded petrol, there are now options like regular, premium, ultra premium and E10 (a blend of unleaded petrol and ethanol).
Choosing between these options really comes down to what fuel works best in your car, with the composition of each one impacting on overall fuel consumption and vehicle performance. Car’s made before 1986, for example, should never use E10, while most European cars are made premium-unleaded petrol (PULP). Car dealerships, mechanics and previous owners should be able to give you advice on the best type of fuel, and it should be in the car’s manual too.
4. Fuel consumption rates
Fuel consumption varies from car to car, with some more fuel-efficient than others. Checking fuel consumption before you buy a car will help you figure out the overall cost of running it, and pretty much all cars for sale now have these details available.
Understanding your car’s fuel consumption will also help you figure out exactly when you need to get more petrol. While the standard recommendation is to fill up when you have a third of a tank, if you have car that churns through petrol you might want to get petrol sooner, and if you have a super fuel efficient car you might be able to leave it a day if you’re pressed for time (just try not to do the latter too often if you can help it).
5. Servicing requirements/recommendations
Do you know how often your car needs to be serviced? Most new cars make it a condition of the warranty to schedule servicing at specific intervals, either based on the number of kilometres driven or the amount of time that’s passed since the last service.
Most Toyota cars, for example, have a scheduled service interval of 6 months or 10,000 km (whichever comes first), while Hyundai recommends servicing every 12 months or 15,000 km for most of its vehicles.
If your car is out of its warranty period, on the other hand, it’s tempting to stretch out the service period as a way to save time and money. But not getting your car regularly serviced can actually lead to all kinds of other problems, so make sure you have a good idea of when this needs to happen (and if you are unsure with an older car, ask a trusted mechanic for their thoughts on servicing).
6. Locking systems
It might seem easy to lock and unlock a car, but newer models can make it harder to figure out – particularly with keyless cars. Recently there has been a wide range of incidents reported in the media where people have been locked in keyless cars without any way out.
Most of these cars have an override system in case of keyless car entry failure, so it is important to ask about this at the dealership, read the manual and keep instructions in the car so that you know what to do if you ever get stuck. With other cars, it’s also a good idea to check that all the locks work properly (including central locking) so that you know your car is safe.
7. How to check car oil
While car oil is checked and changed during servicing, it’s a good idea to keep track of it yourself as well – or at least know how to check and change car oil in case you ever need to do it on your own. RACQ (Queensland’s main roadside assistance service) recommends checking car oil once a week.
“Stop the engine and wait a few minutes for the oil to settle, remove the dipstick and wipe it clean. Push the dipstick all the way in, wait a second, and then withdraw it and check the level,” it says.
“The oil should be between the two marks and not above the top mark or below the lower mark. Remember to push the dipstick fully in when refitting.”
You can add or change car oil through the oil filler cap on the top of the engine, pouring a little at a time and checking the level with the dipstick to make sure you don’t overfill it.
8. How to check the coolant level
Coolant, as the name suggests, helps keep the car cool when it is running so that the engine doesn’t overheat and leave you stranded. But if the coolant level gets too low, you could face all kinds of problems on and off the road.
Generally the coolant level should be close to full, or above the minimum mark if your car has an expansion tank (a plastic coolant reservoir). You can also refill the coolant system using a mix of water and the recommended coolant, but if it continues to be a problem then it’s best to get to a mechanic as soon as you can.
9. Tyre pressure
The wrong tyre pressure leads to higher fuel consumption, uneven wear, difficult steering and, in some cases, even blown tyres. Ideally, you should check your tyre pressure when the car is cool, using an air gauge (which you can buy or use at most service stations). The recommended tyre pressure is listed in car manual’s, so you can compare the reading against that to figure out if you need to made adjustments.
The NRMA recommends checking tyre pressure once every 2-3 times you fill your car’s fuel tank, noting: “It’s a quick check that will really save you in the long run.”
10. How to change a tyre
If you end up with a tyre that needs changing, knowing how to do it yourself could save you money and time waiting for a mechanic or roadside assistance service to show up.
Make sure your car is in a safe place, away from moving traffic, with your hazard lights on. Loosen the nuts on the tyre that needs changing, jack it up, take off the old tyre and replace it with a spare or new tyre. There are all kinds of guides that go into detail about changing tyres, such as this one from Supercheap Auto, and your car’s manual will also have instructions, so you will have the option of doing it yourself if you ever need to change your car’s tyre.
11. How to change car light bulbs
It’s dangerous to drive without working bulbs in all of your car’s lights, and there are times when getting it to a mechanic won’t be an option. Your car’s manual will have the bulb requirements and proper instructions.
If you don’t have a manual or instruction booklet for your car, try searching online for the instructions based on your car model and year. Otherwise, general instructions on how to change a car light bulb could help you remove the old bulbs, find the correct replacements and fit them in.
12. What the check engine light means
The check engine light is on your dashboard, usually around the same area as the car door light and other car alert symbols. The check engine light can come on for a wide range of reasons – according to Supercheap Auto it is “simply a way of the engines’ computer telling you that there is a fault with one or more of the control systems in the vehicle.”
The reason the check engine light comes on could be as simple as a loose or fault fuel cap, or as complex as failing spark plugs or other faulty connections. If you are familiar with your car, you can do a quick visual check to see if that solves the problem, otherwise get a mechanic to look at it straight away.
13. How to turn off the car alarm
Whether your car alarm goes off for the right reasons (ie a threat of theft) or is set off accidentally, knowing how to turn it off will save you a lot of noise and hassle. The easiest way to turn off a car alarm is to use the remote to turn of the alarm (there’s usually a button for this or instructions in your car’s manual).
If you don’t have your remote, using a car key (master or spare), to unlock the doors should disable the alarm. If the alarm has gone off when you open a car door, you can try putting the key in the ignition and turning it on, or locking then unlocking the car. In most cases these options will turn off the alarm, but if it’s still going, call your manufacturer or mechanic for troubleshooting help.
14. What your car insurance does and doesn’t cover
When you get a car, you have to get third-party insurance, and comprehensive insurance (which covers you, your vehicle and others) is also recommended. But the specific coverage of insurance policies varies, so it is important to be aware of what is and isn’t covered when you take out a policy.
Some comprehensive insurance providers, for example, will offer you a temporary car if yours needs repairs, while others will charge extra for this service or leave it up to you to find your own transport. The same goes for things like theft, damage from natural disasters and so on, so make sure you know what you are insured for and budget for other expenses accordingly.
15. How long it will take to pay off your car loan
If you have a fixed rate loan, you will usually also have a set amount of years to pay it off, with the same repayment amount each month. A variable rate loan, on the other hand, could give you more flexibility with repayments and loan duration.
Either way, it’s a good idea to keep track of how much longer you have to pay off your loan so that you can track and budget for car costs accordingly.
There’s all kinds of things we need to learn about cars when we start driving, and even more when you get a new car. Whether you are just about to buy your first car or have had one for years, getting familiar with the 15 things on this list could save you a lot of time and money – and make for a much smoother ride.