What Is a Car Tune-Up?

Sweat the little things before they become big problems.

A mechanic tuning a car.
Depositphotos

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Ever heard the saying “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure?” We’re here today to pound that phrase into your head. Taking care of your vehicle means taking care of problems before they become problems, which takes a little effort on your part. The best way to do this is by performing regular tune-ups. Fortunately, we’re not talking about complicated procedures that require an ASE certification, but you will need a basic understanding of how your vehicle works in order to keep it running smoothly. 

Tuning up your own vehicle at home can save you hundreds of dollars, and will help you become intimately familiar with what’s going on under your hood. Even if you don’t have the time to do a tune-up at home, spending the cash for a professional tune can potentially save you thousands in serious repairs down the road.

So, what’s involved with tuning up a vehicle? What will you need to pull the job off? Let The Drive’s crack editors get into the details with you and talk about the tools, supplies, and effort you’ll need to get a tune-up done right. And, hey, you might even have fun in the process!

You won't need pro-level tools to do a proper tune-up.
Depositphotos

You won't need pro-level tools to do a proper tune-up.

What Exactly Does a Tune-Up Entail? 

Tune-ups, unlike the extended warranties we all get calls about, are actually a necessary part of owning a vehicle. They are intended to replace what are known as “wear and tear” parts, such as filters, fluids, gaskets, spark plugs, and other parts of the vehicle that regularly wear out. 

What exactly a tune-up means for you will depend on what you drive. If you have a diesel pickup truck, for instance, you’re looking at a whole different list of wear items than if you were driving a small hatchback with a turbocharged gasoline engine.

Why Do Tune-Up Requirements Change As My Car Ages?

Tune-up recommendations change over time because the types of things that wear on cars change as they age. For example, Toyota recommends getting an oil change at 10,000 miles, but only suggests a fluid check at 15,000 miles. Other automakers will suggest a filter change at certain intervals because that is typically around the time that those types of parts wear out.

Is It Better To Do The Tune-Up Myself?

If you’re comfortable wrenching yourself, by all means, go ahead. We’re not talking about open-heart surgery here, but you will need to have at least an entry-level understanding of the various parts of a car and how they play together to make things work. Ideally, you’d have a flat, safe, well-lit place to work and the basic tools necessary to do the job - we’ll get into that below.

Fluids are important, but they're not the only thing you'll need to check.
Depositphotos

Fluids are important, but they're not the only thing you'll need to check.

Tune-Up Terms You Need to Know 

Tune-Up

A tune-up involves inspecting and replacing common wear items on your vehicle, changing the oil, and giving the vehicle a solid going-over to look for areas of weakness that are headed toward failure.

Fluids

This is more than just engine oil. Your vehicle’s fluids include everything from the oil to transmission fluid to brake fluid, to the blue stuff you buy at the gas station to clean the windshield. 

Wear Items

The term “wear items” refers to a group of vehicle components that wear out by design, as part of normal operation. This includes things like tires, spark plugs, air filters, and brake pads.

Service Interval

Your vehicle’s service interval is the amount of time that should be taken in between maintenance visits. You’re probably familiar with tracking the time in between your oil changes, but most vehicles rely on other schedules for routine maintenance. Your car’s manufacturer likely defined mileage benchmarks for both in-depth and routine maintenance procedures.

OBD-II

OBD-II, or on-board diagnostics, is the system that newer vehicles use to monitor various systems and report issues that arise. Every vehicle made after 1996 uses this system.

Car Tune-Up Basics

Estimated Time Needed: Two to four hours, depending on how handy you are.

Skill Level: Beginner, but you’ll need to have an idea of what you’re doing.

Vehicle System: Engine, electrical, interior

Spend some time familiarizing yourself with your car's engine bay.
Depositphotos

Spend some time familiarizing yourself with your car's engine bay.

Car Tune-Up Safety 

Before you start wrenching, take a minute to make sure you’re aware of the right way to do things so you don’t get hurt.

  1. Wear safety glasses. You won’t look cool, but you’ll look a lot less cool going to the doctor with motor oil in your eyes.
  2. Handle fluids with care. We’re not going to call the EPA on you here, but be smart about where you’re disposing of the things you remove from your car, especially fluids.
  3. Work in a safe environment. We get it. Not everyone has a garage or off-street parking, but you can still try to find a safe place to work. Hills, busy streets, and busy parking lots are not ideal for this sort of thing.

Everything You’ll Need To Tune-Up Your Car

Tool List

Parts List

Organizing your tools and gear so everything is easily reachable will save precious minutes waiting for your handy-dandy child or four-legged helper to bring you the sandpaper or blowtorch. (You won't need a blowtorch for this job. Please don’t have your kid hand you a blowtorch—Ed.)

You’ll also need a flat workspace, such as a garage floor, driveway, or street parking. Please make sure you’re also working in a well-ventilated space. Check your local laws to make sure you’re not violating any codes when using the street because we aren’t getting your ride out of the clink.

Here’s How To Tune-Up Your Car At Home

Taking your vehicle to a dealer or shop is just one way to get a tune-up done. The cheater’s way. We’re kidding, but the reality is that doing your own tune-up at home is quite easy. You may not get the “full” dealer experience, but you’ll be able to save money and get the job done on your own time. Just make sure there aren’t any sneaky clauses in your warranty that require a professional.

With that out of the way, let’s do this! 

  1. Before you do anything, take a look around the vehicle to be sure there aren’t any unknown issues. Is there fluid pouring out into your parking spot? Do bugs and dust fly out of your air vents every time you turn on the air conditioning? It’s time for a tune-up.
  2. Change your oil. We’d advise you to check the oil, but we’re talking about a tune-up here, not a check-up. Change the damn oil, already. If you’re particularly awful at remembering the last time you changed it, head to Amazon and grab some oil change stickers for your windshield. 
  3. Check and refill other vehicle fluids. Think engine oil is the only fluid under the hood? Think again. You’ve got brake fluid, transmission fluid, wiper/washer fluid, and plenty of other fluids to check in the process. Just make sure they’re all topped off and clean. If you’re thinking we’re going to tell you exactly how to check and fill every fluid, think again. We’re going to direct you to your vehicle’s service manual for these things. There’s no way we could possibly cover every make and model here.
  4. Check common wear items
    • Measure your tire tread levels and give them a thorough visual inspection. Tread depth is just one measure of tire health. If you’re seeing abnormal wear in one spot or another, or if you notice physical damage, it’s time for a new pair of shoes for your vehicle.
    • Check the battery. Even if your car cranks every time without problem and all of the electronics are functioning properly, your battery could be corroded or dirty. Take a look to be sure that there’s nothing funky going on with the battery.
    • Inspect your vehicle’s filters to make sure that they’re clean and functioning properly. This doesn’t just mean the air filter, though they’re important. This means the cabin air filter, oil filter, and any other filters your vehicle might have. Yeah, we’re going deep here. If you really want to claim to your buddies that you tuned up your own car at home, you’re going to have to put in the work. We’ll rat you out if you don’t.
    • Check all of the vehicle’s lights and lighting systems. This means inspecting interior lighting, headlights, tail lights, bed lighting (for pickup trucks), and anything else that emits light on your vehicle. 
    • Check your wiper blades. Even if you think they’re doing a decent job, you should inspect them for damage, and make sure they’re still installed securely.
    • Check belts and hoses. If you hear a soul-sucking squeal every time you press the gas pedal, it’s a good indicator that it’s time to replace one or more belts under your car’s hood. Even if you’re not embarrassing yourself and everyone else around you, you should give all belts and hoses a once over when tuning up the vehicle.
    • Check and replace spark plugs. Yes, your vehicle still has spark plugs - you know, those things that your middle school auto tech teacher always yelled at you about. 
  5. Give it a good test drive. Ever heard of the “Italian tune-up?” You might not own a mid-1980s Alfa, but a good thrashing will tell you what is and isn’t right about your ride. In all seriousness, though, get out and drive. Hard. If you have any doubts about what’s going on under the hood, take the car out for a spin and don’t be shy about burying your foot in the throttle. A decent shake shakedown will tell you what’s going on.
Clean filters let your car - and you - breathe easier.
Depositphotos

Clean filters let your car - and you - breathe easier.

Get Help With Tune-Ups From a Mechanic On JustAnswer 

Although The Drive’s detailed how-to guides are easy to follow, a rusty bolt, an engine component not in the correct position, or a messy oil leak can derail a project. That’s why we’ve partnered with JustAnswer, which connects you to certified mechanics around the globe, to get you through even the toughest jobs. 

So if you have a question or are stuck, click here and talk to a mechanic near you. 

FAQs About Tune-Ups

You’ve got questions, The Drive has answers!

Q. My Car Isn’t Broken. Why Do I Need to “Tune It Up?”

A. Do you want bears? This is how we get bears. We’re kidding. Bears won’t come if you don’t tune up your car, though you may find yourself broken down in bear country if you don’t do preventative maintenance. The whole point here is that keeping up with the maintenance schedule before things go wrong will ultimately reduce the number of issues you have, and should reduce the severity of problems that do crop up.

Q. Yeah, But Car Maintenance Stresses Me Out. Why Should I Try To Do a Tune-up At Home?

A. Car maintenance stresses almost everyone out. You’re not a weirdo. We can’t work through all of your deep-rooted problems here, but we can tell you that ignoring maintenance will result in a far more stressful problem than if you’d just bitten the bullet and done the work ahead of time.

Q. My Dealer Quoted Me a Huge Dollar Amount To Do a Tune-up. Do I Need to Pay It?

A. Absolutely not. Just like any other maintenance job, you should be checking with as many shops and service stations as you can possibly manage. Even if you’re not completely comfortable with doing a tune-up at home, you should look at any quote you get with a skeptical eye. You know what’s involved in a tune-up, so go find someone to do it for you at a reasonable price or do it yourself.

Let’s Talk, Comment Below To Talk With The Drive’s Editors!

We’re here to be expert guides in everything How-To related. Use us, compliment us, yell at us. Comment below and let’s talk! You can also shout at us on Twitter or Instagram, here are our profiles.

Jonathon Klein: Twitter (@jonathon.klein), Instagram (@jonathon_klein)

Tony Markovich: Twitter (@T_Marko), Instagram (@t_marko)

Chris Teague: Twitter (@TeagueDrives), Instagram (@TeagueDrives)