DIY Everything: The Myth of the Tune-Up for Modern Cars

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DIY Everything: The Myth of the Tune-Up and it means for modern cars

Pro-tip: If a shop is trying to sell you on their “tune-up special” on your vaguely modern car, you might want to avoid that shop. You still hear the term thrown around all the time, but tune-ups just aren’t a thing on modern cars. I hear all the time from friends who brought their cars into the shop for a tune-up and I just can’t help but cringe just a little bit.

Back in the day, cars absolutely did need tune-ups to stay running well and to get the kind of gas mileage they should — especially back in the days before fuel injection. Unlike modern systems, carburetors were purely mechanical devices and required manual adjustment to things like the caburetor tune upfuel/air ratio and idle speed. Over time components would wear or fall out of adjustment, and would need to be fixed or re-tuned every so often.

Cars in the 90s and early often relied on distributors to deliver spark to each cylinder that would wear out, meaning you had to replace the points or the distributor altogether. Speaking of spark, those spark plugs didn’t last all that long back in the day. Part of that can be attributed to better designs and materials used today, and part of that goes to how efficient modern cars are, where spark plugs do not get fouled nearly as easily.

Why Modern Cars Don’t Need a Tune-Up:

Carburetors were phased out in the late 80s in favor of electronic fuel injection, which uses an array of sensors to determine the engine’s air/fuel ratio and automatically adjusts how much fuel to give the engine at any given time. That means the only thing left to adjust is in the software, but that isn’t exactly a maintenance item.

Distributors with moving parts that wore out over time gave way to coil-on-plug ignition systems that are also (you guessed it) computer controlled, solid state devices. That means they’re either working or they aren’t — there isn’t anything to adjust.

So What is the Modern Equivalent?

These days we go by manufacturer recommended service intervals for wear items, and then replace parts as they wear out otherwise. Of course manufacturers had recommended services intervals back then, but the amount of them and time between intervals has changed dramatically. Take something as ubiquitous as an oil change — that went from a religious every 3,000 mile service to now many manufacturers are recommending more in the range of 9-12,000 miles. This is partially due to advances in oil formulas, Change your own spark plugsbut mostly this has to do with how tight and clean running engine tolerances have become.

Of course spark plugs do still need to be changed, but modern spark plug service intervals are usually 100,000 miles or more. You’re not exactly doing yourself any big favors by replacing them ahead of time unless there is a real issue either. They are pretty much hands off items for a daily driver (your mileage may vary for a race car or anything that is pushed hard).

So that just leaves filters. This is still a classic up-sell at lube shops, and the prices get me every time. Not only is in the case that your car just so happens to need its intake and cabin air filters replaced every time you go in for an oil change, but of course the parts from these shops cost about twice what they would cost you online, but you’re also paying labor for it to be installed — a task that might take a novice a maximum of 10-15 minutes on their own. Worth it? Doesn’t seem like it to me.

What Else Can I do Myself?

Probably more than you might think, actually! Here’s a list of guides we’ve done on the topic with common maintenance items as well as upgrades that you can do yourself at home with mostly common hand tools, some safety equipment, and a little bit of elbow grease:

A Quick Note on Safety and Best Practices:

If you’re new to wrenching on your own car, there are a few basic safety best practices and tools that should always be kept in mind — especially if you’re jacking it up to do the job.

Always use jack stands: Never rely solely on a jack to hold your vehicle up, especially if you are going to be climbing under it. Also, if you’re taking your tires off, you can put them on their sides under the car in case anything does happen. This shouldn’t be done in place of jack stands, just another layer of protection.

Always jack the car from recommended lift points: Your owners manual will have a section on where to jack your car from, if you don’t have that available, do yourself a favor and Google around for the answer for your specific vehicle. Every car will have a designated jacking point, and many have screw-in jacking pads that are included in your car’s tool kit.

Always go back and re-tighten bolts and wheel lugs after a few miles: It may seem like you snugged everything up correctly, but things can work their way back loose after some driving. This is especially important on lug nuts and any suspension components.

Get yourself some penetrating oil: This isn’t as much a safety item as it is a general tip to make your life easier. It’s always a good idea to spray the bolts you’re going to be tackling at least an hour before, if not the previous night. I like PB Blaster, but there are a million different options on the market. WD40 is OK if you have nothing else. You’ll thank me later.

Wear gloves: A set of mechanic’s gloves or a box of nitrile gloves to make clean up much easier, and allow you to be able to quickly remove them to pick something up that you don’t want to get dirty. Plus, nitrile or latex gloves will still work with your smart phone or tablet, giving you easy access to the instructions you’re working from

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Garrett Davis
Garrett has something of a sickness when it comes to cars, working on everything from Jeeps, to sports cars, to over-engineered German nightmares. Currently he is embroiled in an Audi Allroad offroad project, and is slowly losing his grasp on sanity.

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