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I've inherited my grandmother's car and started driving again after a five-year hiatus. I'm embarrassed to admit I don't know what a "tune-up" entails, and how often one is required. – Emma in Comox, B.C.

The modern "tune-up" is much less intensive than the days when car engines required frequent adjustment for everything from spark plugs to ignition timing and fuel-air mixture.

Since the 1990s, vehicles are heavily monitored and controlled by computers and sensors, and to a great extent "tune" themselves (until the dreaded "check engine" light comes on).

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These vehicles, however, still require regular maintenance. The manufacturer's recommended intervals can be found in the owner's manual. Each make, model and year is unique, and maintenance requirements will depend on what you drive, how often, and under what conditions.

What's now advertised as a "tune-up" at repair shops coast to coast is designed to keep your engine running smoothly and efficiently. This usually consists of changing the spark plugs, inspecting and replacing air and fuel filters as required, and in some cases extras such as fuel-injection service.

"A tune-up is one of the more major service intervals, whereas something like an oil change is done on a routine basis – two or three times a year depending of course on mileage," says Peter Block of Victoria Transmission and Auto Care.

"As for a tune-up, which includes changing the spark plugs, different vehicles have different servicing requirements. Some have really long life plugs, and some are shorter life. With a little Kia for example, the tune-up maintenance interval is 60,000 kms or less, whereas a lot of the premium vehicles can go up into the 100,000-km mark before a first major tune-up."

Maintenance items are often discovered on checks conducted during a good-quality oil change. When it comes time to replace the spark plugs, in many cases the air and fuel filter have already been looked after.

"It varies per driving conditions, but a fuel filter should be changed every 25,000-40,000 kms. On the average vehicle, you'll get between 15,000-20,000 kms from an air filter. But if you're driving a lot of gravel or dusty roads, you're going to change it a lot more often," says Mike Salkus of Speedy Auto Service in Victoria.

Here's hoping your granny's glove box (or attic) contains all the vehicle maintenance records. These should provide you and a reputable mechanic with a clear picture of the vehicle's history.

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"Just like going to a doctor for the first time, you can get an idea what's been done to the vehicle, and more importantly, what needs to be done," says Block. "There are things like timing belts on a lot of vehicles for example; it's not considered a tune-up item per se, but it is considered for replacement at around 100,000-120,000 kms."

In the absence of a maintenance paper trail, have a reputable shop check your vehicle to see if it is indeed time for a tune-up, or any other servicing. Odds are you'll be pleased with the findings. After all, there's good reason why "little-old-lady-driven" vehicles have a certain cachet.

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About the Author

Joanne Will is based in Toronto. She has been a regular contributor to The Globe and Mail since 2009. In 2014, she was a Knight-Wallace Journalism Fellow at the University of Michigan. More


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