Get your car ready for summer, too

Even if gasoline goes up 15 to 25 cents a gallon by Memorial Day, as AAA suspects it will, the price is still a powerful incentive to drive to where the fun is.

Which raises a question: Is the family transit up to the rigors of the road? Sustained, high-speed driving in summer heat puts additional stress on your vehicle. The marginal components that functioned in short, around-town hops on cooler days could play you false after several hours at 70 on I-95.

Presumably, you will want to minimize the chance that extra strain on your vehicle will transform into safety problems or vacation-diminishing breakdowns. So here are some things for you or your mechanic to check on before you saddle up for that summer ride:

Cooling system. This is a biggie. “The greatest cause of summer breakdowns is overheating,” according to the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence (ASE). Check the water level in the radiator, but open the cap only after the engine has cooled. The radiator core should be checked for leaks. The heater and radiator hoses should be examined for leaks and signs of weakness, like bulges and flabbiness.

The battery. Interstate Batteries’ technical services unit strongly advises that you have your battery and the rest of the electrical system professionally tested before heading out on a road trip. If that battery is original equipment nearing its fourth birthday, I would consider replacing it even if it passes the test. Squeezing the last ounce of service out of that senior citizen just isn’t worth the potential aggravation.

Tires. A careful perusal of your tires is a crucial preparation for your vacation trip since the abnormal loads, summer temperatures, and highway velocities increase the heat buildup in them. You’ll want to check tire pressure and condition.

Pressure is particularly important because of the role it plays in tire safety, performance, and longevity. Underinflation increases heat and stress, diminishes fuel economy, and engenders excessive wear on the outside edge of the tread. Overinflation causes undue wear at the tread’s center and makes the vehicle ride harder.

If you check the pressure yourself, use a quality pressure gauge (about $10 to $15) and follow the automaker’s recommendations. If you plan to load your car heavily, you might add two or three pounds to the recommended pressure.

Tire sidewalls should be examined for the cuts, cracks, and bulges that could lead to failure. Treads should be checked for similar damage and for excessive or uneven wear. You can gauge wear by comparing tread depth with the adjacent wear bars, which are at right angles to the tread direction. The tire should be replaced if the tread has worn down even with the wear bar.

Engine belts. Check them for cracks and cuts. If your engine isn’t fitted with a belt-tensioner, ask a pro to check the tension.

Brakes. Ask your mechanic to check the system if the brake action isn’t normal. Also ask the technician to look for a possible system leak if the brake fluid level is significantly low.

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