On an older car, following the owner’s manual mileage recommendation for severe conditions will help to keep the lubricant and its blend of protective additives fresh (if you no longer have the manual, they are often available online and from the automaker). The systems built into many new cars that remind you of required service, like oil changes, take into account the length of trips and will recommend changes based on actual driving.
Changing the oil is also the ideal time to look in on other maintenance tasks, including checks of all belts and hoses; while both suffer the effects of engine heat under the hood, they can also develop cracks while the car just sits.
Add car batteries to the time list. They have a limited life that’s not based on miles driven. They often start to decline after three years and give up altogether after five to seven.
Jill Trotta, a certified technician and vice president for marketing at RepairPal, a website that provides cost estimates and connects car owners with qualified mechanic shops, knows how to properly care for a car. Yet even she let a battery run down past the point where it could be revived with a charge, which is exactly what happened to her 2014 Hyundai Sonata Hybrid when it sat in the driveway for months without being driven during the pandemic.
The solution: a low-power battery maintainer, which keeps the charge topped up between drives. Basic ones start at about $25. Keep in mind, too, that while battery replacement is an entirely straightforward swap on most cars, some electronics-intensive models make it more painful. BMWs going back nearly two decades require a registration and programming process, which means added expense and a possible visit to a dealer. It’s worth preventing a dead battery in the first place.
Another maintenance task that should not be deferred is replacing the timing belt in engines that use them. The belt turns the camshafts that open the engine’s valves and can cause major engine damage if it fails. Typically good for 80,000 to 100,000 miles of service, the belt can degrade even while sitting, so stick to the automaker’s recommendation on years between renewal.
Don’t forget the brakes.
A telling sign of a car not being driven is a layer of rust on the brake discs. A light coating is no problem, though it may be noisy for a few blocks; it will be polished off by the first few presses of the brake pedal on a careful drive around the neighborhood.