What Is a Car Tune-Up?
The phrase “car tune-up” is often used as a catch-all for routine car maintenance. Which parts are changed and how often work needs to be done vary from car to car and from automaker to automaker.
The terminology has changed as cars themselves have evolved. The term “car tune-up” refers to several maintenance procedures that are now largely unnecessary, such as distributor adjustment, ignition point adjustment, and carburetor cleaning. If your car has a fuel-injected engine and electronic ignition, as most cars today do, you don’t need to worry about those parts, but that doesn’t mean you won’t need a tune-up.
What Does a Tune-Up Do for a Car?
Regular tune-ups keep a car running well by maintaining the engine and monitoring other parts. A tune-up should be done as often as recommended in your owner’s manual — typically every 10,000 miles for older cars or once a year for newer ones.
Take the next tune-up as an opportunity to get familiar with your car and spot minor problems before they become big problems.
How Often Does a Car Need a Tune-Up?
Some mechanics recommend that you have a tune-up when they are doing other maintenance or repairs on your car. If you know your vehicle’s routine preventative maintenance schedule, this won’t be an issue — you’ll already know whether it needs one.
- Find the top-rated service shops in your area with the Carfax Service Shop Directory
If you decide to take your car to a shop for a tune-up, make sure you know everything that term includes.
What Does a Tune-Up Consist Of?
When it’s time for a tune-up service, you’ll want your mechanic to pop the hood and go over everything that can wear out. Some specific areas of concern are:
- Ignition: You (or your mechanic) should inspect the spark plugs, spark plug wires, ignition coil, and distributor cap and coil, if applicable. If you’re replacing any of these parts, check your owner’s manual to find out what type, and use only original quality or better parts. This isn’t the place to cheap out on parts.
- Filters: Avoid problems and save money by changing the fuel, oil, engine air, and cabin air filters. A dirty or clogged fuel filter can cause low fuel pressure — a leading cause of hard starting or idling issues that may lead to costly repairs on your vehicle.
If you don’t change your engine’s oil filter regularly, the dirty oil will contaminate other components and cause premature wear. Replacing a dirty engine air filter can improve your car’s performance and fuel economy. If your vehicle has a cabin air filtration system, replacing the dust-filled filter will not affect how well the car runs — but breathing cleaner air certainly won’t hurt!
- Positive crankcase ventilation (PCV) valve: This valve can get clogged with carbon buildup, which will cause the engine to run rich (too much fuel in the air/fuel mixture).
- Serpentine and timing belts: Both belts should be inspected for cracks and fraying. The timing belt should be replaced no later than the time or mileage recommended by the manufacturer — serious engine damage could result from a damaged or broken belt.
- Belt tensioner: When worn or broken, the belt and possibly components driven by the belt, such as the water pump, will wear prematurely.
- Hoses: Inspect the network of hoses in the engine bay for wear, swelling, and cracks. When the engine is cool, feel the hoses to ensure they have uniform firmness with no soft or hard spots.
- Engine oil: Check your owner’s manual for the recommended change interval. This will need to be done more often than a regular tune-up and should be done at least twice a year.
- Engine coolant: Since coolant degrades over time and becomes less effective, it should be flushed and replaced regularly to ensure it’s appropriately regulating engine heat. Check your manual for intervals and the correct type of coolant.
- Brake fluid breaks down over time, preventing your car from stopping efficiently and safely. Brake fluid should be flushed and replaced every two years.
- Automatic transmission fluid: Transmission fluid lubricates the transmission’s gears and should be replaced regularly. Check your manual for intervals. Power steering fluid: Check your owner’s manual to locate the power steering fluid reservoir. Ensure the level is between the Min and Max marking
and that the liquid doesn’t look muddy.
Where Do I Get a Tune-Up?
If you’re handy, you can do a tune-up yourself with essential tools using a checklist similar to the one above. Of course, consult your owner’s manual for details before starting.
- The Carfax Car Care app can help you keep track of your car’s maintenance
Most people prefer to take their vehicles to a service shop. Any reputable mechanic will be well-equipped to handle a car tune-up.
How Much Does a Tune-Up Cost?
If you’re performing your tune-up, the cost will vary depending on what you’re replacing.
A basic tune-up at a repair shop can cost $40 to $150 or more. That includes the parts and about two to four hours of labor.
Some cars are easier to service than others, and a more complicated vehicle will likely have higher labor costs. The type of shop may also affect your price for a tune-up.
AAA notes that a few factors that go into shop pricing include location, type of vehicle, and type of shop. Pricing can vary significantly for the same job, even in the same area.
- The Carfax Service Shop Directory can help you find a top-rated mechanic
And, finally, since there’s no consistent or official definition of a tune-up, make sure you and your mechanic are on the same page over what’s covered and at what price. It can’t hurt to get quotes from a few different shops so you end up paying a fair rate.
If you have questions about this story, please contact us at Editors@carfax.com