When it says “check engine,” believe it.

thWant to spend a lot of money? Ignore your car’s “check engine” light and cheap out on simple maintenance.

If money is tight, some people will stretch out the times between maintenance periods. Or they’ll ignore the manufacturer’s suggested timeline with an idea they’re being frugal.

Bad idea.

According to the 2014 CarMD Vehicle Health Index, the most common “check engine” issue is a faulty oxygen sensor. This may be caused by something as minor as a dirty air filter – a simple and inexpensive repair. If replacing the sensor is necessary, you’re looking at a $260 average fix.

Not fixing it could lead to lousy gas mileage (up to $900 per year in additional fuel costs), vehicle misfiring and, ultimately, a catalytic converter replacement ($1,154 on average).

This “domino effect” on needed repairs demonstrates the importance of paying attention to your car’s needs, according to Doug Sobieski of CarMD.

The Vehicle Health Index analyzed more than 145,000 repairs done by Automotive Service Excellence-certified technicians during 2013. Among other things, the study noted that colder-than-usual weather had an impact on the past year’s auto issues.

For example, battery- and thermostat-related repairs were up in the Northeast and Midwest regions. In addition, fuel doesn’t vaporize as well in the cold and that can lead to droplets that foul spark plugs — an issue that, unlike a dead or nearly dead battery, doesn’t require instant attention.

Pay now or pay a lot more later

In other words, the Polar Vortex tried to kill your car. Extreme summer weather will want a crack at it, too. Your auto takes quite a beating from the elements, so don’t ignore vehicular cries for help.

Here are the others in the top five check-engine repair list:

2. Tighten or replace fuel cap. The good news: Most just need to be tightened. Not tightening/replacing could cause decreased fuel economy to the tune of as much as $100 per year.

3. Replace catalytic converter. As noted above, this is gonna cost you. But generally the converter won’t fail “unless a related part like a bad spark plug or O2 sensor is ignored for too long,” the survey notes. The moral of the story: When the check-engine light comes on, heed it.

4. Replace spark plug(s) and wire(s). This isn’t exactly cheap, either: $361 is the average. But it’s another example of how cheaping out can cost you. Spark-plug issues could result in ignition coil and catalytic converter issues, whose total costs average more than $1,500.

5. Replace mass air flow sensor. Never heard of it? Me either. This part measures incoming air and determines how much fuel to inject. If it goes wrong, fuel economy drops by as much as 25 percent. Well worth the $423 average cost to fix.

What have we learned? Pay now or overpay later.

Old Faithful is worth it

April is Car Care Awareness Month. If you’re not the kind of car owner who just naturally follows the manufacturer’s scheduled maintenance program, let this be the month you start to take things seriously.

Yes, scheduled maintenance costs money. So does fixing a problem you could have prevented. That $361 tab beats a repair that runs upwards of $1,500.

Put another way: My friend Linda B. pilots an 18-year-old Acura that’s been maintained faithfully. We’re driving it up to Fairbanks at the end of the month, a round-trip of more than 700 miles. I’m OK with that because I know the vehicle has had all its shots.

Readers: What’s the oldest car you ever drove? Do/did you follow scheduled maintenance?

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  1. Holly S

    Thanks for the reminder. Since I drive <200 mi/month I tend to put off oil changes & general auto check ups. Need to do this month, its been 6 months.

  2. I need to get an oil change. I also need to figure out where the brake fluid leak is coming from since it is getting worse…

  3. Kandace

    Just sold my 1997 Camry (was new to me when it was five years old and I maintained it) to my step-son. Had 198K on it. Was a great car, but time to replace it. Instead, now have a new-to-me 2010 Jetta with 40K on it that was also maintained by its previous owner.

    I believe in car maintenance, but sometimes wonder whether dealer services has my best interest at heart, or keeping their service bays full.

    • Donna Freedman

      I guess once the car is no longer under warranty you can take it to a mechanic who’s been recommended as trustworthy. But as my friend’s still-perking-along Acura shows, having the routine maintenance done faithfully can really extend a vehicle’s life.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  4. I work for CarMD. In past surveys we’ve found two of the top reasons car owners put off repairs or maintenance is because they’re afraid of the cost or don’t have a repair professional they trust. The network of techs at CarMD generally recommend following the scheduled maintenance without most of the upsells and, of course, fixing problems when they happen. A good way to make sure you’re not being overcharged is to empower yourself with information. For instance, if a repair item has a recall or technical service bulletin associated with it, it’s usually a good idea to take it back to the dealership for repairs because they will likely be free. If it’s a more general maintenance item you should go with the technician you trust the most, and make sure you know the going rate in your area for both parts and labor.

  5. Ro in San Diego

    We recently helped replace my son’s totaled car (my “old” 2006)with an extremely well-maintained 2001. My son loves his “new” car! He has found a mechanic he trusts and has learned to take his car in periodically to keep it in good shape.

  6. lostAnnfound

    The one we’re driving right now, a 1997 Plymouth Voyager minivan with over 200,000 miles on it. It gets my husband back & forth to work and also gets us to Boston a few times a year to pick up the older daughter when she’s coming home from college (about 3 hours round trip). We got this vehicle a couple years ago when there were three of fighting over one vehicle and figured that for $400.00 this will be a great around town/get back and forth to work second car…so far, so good!

    BTW, the other vehicle is a 2002 Ford F250 truck with 140,000 miles on it that we’ve had since 2003. Just had the tie-rods done on it because it failed the safety inspection. Guy who does our work (someone I have known for many, many years) says it could have went any day and we’re lucky it didn’t go on us when we were on the highway…that could have been really bad! So next time I hear something rattling (like I heard for a while with this problem), I’m bringing it in right away!!

    • Donna Freedman

      My niece is driving a Voyager that I think is at least 11 years old. May it live a long, long time. And I agree: $400 is a heck of a deal for a second car that’s doing yeoman’s duty. Long may it live, too.
      Thanks for reading, and for leaving a comment.

  7. I am currently driving a 2002 Toyota Rav4 with 211,000 miles on it. I bought it used in 2004 when I was downsized & had to return a company vehicle. My husband drove it for 4 years while I had another company vehicle. Now I am back to driving it for my current sales position. I’m not sure if this is long term but for now it’s working fine. I maintain it well and have spent maybe $2000 (other than oil/tires etc) on it in the ten years I have had it.

    I do miss the lovely 2013 Ford Escape I was driving (company car) but I love not having a car payment!

  8. Mary Ann

    The anti freeze light came on and after a week it went off but before that I added a small amount of anti freeze………plus put newspaper down in garage to see if it would show any leaks and nothing is leaking. Taking it in tomorrow for oil change as friend said for them to check for water or anti freeze in the oil. The car is a 2000 Oldsmobile Intrigue…..any idea why the light would come on and then go off after that time? My mechanic said it could be a sensor also….Thanks for any input…….

  9. Interesting blog post!

    I’m 27 and in the past, my father and ex took care of vehicle care. Now that I’m living alone and have grown up, I’d taken on more of the responsibility. In summer 2013 I had to take out an auto loan for the first time. Working in the insurance industry (particularly in coverage and claims), I’m pretty up to speed when it comes to proper coverage, so I’m good there. But in terms of maintenance, I was pretty lost.. despite coming from a family of car men, lol. I did a lot of research and came up with a plan of attack to care for my “new” vehicle.

    I used to use Groupons for oil changes, but have since established a relationship with a local dealership whom I trust & treats their customers fair. *This dealership is staffed with a large number of workers, offers coupons to regular customers, free shuttle service while my car is being serviced during the work week, free car washes after being serviced, and in general are pretty willing to work with you, i.e. I asked the parts department if they’d honor the manufacturer’s suggested retail price ($10 less than theirs), and they agreed. Pays to ask! I reviewed my vehicle’s manual and came up with a maintenance schedule including regular oil changes, tire rotations, balance, and alignment. All of those services come with a multi-point inspection as well, i.e. top off fluids, air tires, etc. I try to do other little things too, to enhance my vehicle’s performance, such as using Lucas fuel treatments. I was a bit sticker shocked at the cost of maintenance at first, but with careful timing throughout the year (to save the money), I think this is an excellent investment!

    EXAMPLE: Back in March, I spent $297 on an oil change, tire balance, rotation, alignment, inspection, new brake light, front and rear windshield wipers, and an air filter. Actually, the total was $327, but I had a $30 off coupon for being a “preferred” customer, and I submitted a rebate request for $10. So really, $287. And that included a car wash and shuttle ride to and from work. Caring for my car won’t always be this expensive, just the beginning of the year round-up.

    In terms of the check engine light, mine came on recently too. I had two (free) diagnostics run at parts stores, and both came back related to the gas cap area. My car’s model is equipped with the new easy-fuel system, which means no gas cap. After perusing various forums, I found this to be a recurring problem. So I bought a locked gas cap from the dealership (see comment above), and voila.. no more check engine light! But, if it comes on again, I will have it checked out. My dealership charges $116 for the diagnostic, which is waived if you repair your vehicle there.

    The thought of pricey car repairs frightens me, so I’m doing my best to avoid, or limit, any major problems.

  10. 1999 Windstar van. 140.000 miles. Sensors are randomly dying R/T corrosion and age. Engine light was on because after 15 years of wear the gas cap -although tight- was not tight enough and the sensor set off the engine light. Love the ride/comfort. Did a cross country ride with it last summer. Old age stuff – ball joint and increased leak had to be repaired after banging through a bunch of road construction making them worse. It’s been long paid for so maintenance is essential and cheaper than a payment at this point. Wish Ford would come out with a true mini van again. I’m going to have to go elsewhere when I need to replace it as I insist on a minivan with people and cargo room.

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