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Do Today's Cars Still Need Tuneups?

car being serviced
Late-model cars don't require the same maintenance as older-model cars. miodrag ignjatovic/Getty Images

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If you want to sound like you know what you're talking about the next time your car needs some work, don't tell your mechanic your car needs a "tuneup." That's because the term tuneup specifically refers to maintenance that modern cars generally don't require anymore.

Traditional tuneups on older cars help keep them in good shape, and enable maximum gas mileage. Getting your car tuned up means having necessary adjustments of certain engine components. At the same time regular parts that wear out over time — like spark plugs and condensers — are replaced.

But the engines in many newer-model cars don't even use these components any longer, and today's engine parts are designed to last much longer than those in years past. So what you might think is a tuneup on a new car probably isn't and that's because your car is much more advanced.

Consumerist says the cut-off year for whether or not your car needs a traditional tuneup is 1999, though there may be a little wiggle room on either side of that year depending on other factors. In general, though, if your car was built in the last 20 years, you should use the preferred phrasing "routine maintenance" or "scheduled maintenance," rather than tuneup. You should opt to have routine maintenance completed about every 30,000 miles or as recommended by your car's owner's manual.

Tuneup vs. Routine Maintenance

Tuneups actually involve "tuning," or physical checking and manipulating engine parts that regulate engine timing, idle and other functions for optimal performance. A tuneup requires a certain level of mechanical skill and an understanding of how an engine works.

Below are the parts and service work traditionally part of a tuneup on older cars. Remember, these generally don't apply to today's modern cars:

  • Cleaning the throttle body
  • Cleaning or replacing carburetor (obsolete thanks to electronic fuel injection)
  • Cap, rotor and spark plug wires (all replaced with ignition coil packs)
  • Fuel filter (obsolete thanks to return-less fuel systems)
  • Timing belt (replaced with more durable timing chain)
  • Inspecting oxygen sensors (modern sensors have longer lifespans)
  • Inspecting electronic control module components
  • Inspecting and adjusting engine timing and idle (both now controlled electronically)
  • Inspecting and adjusting (in manual transmission vehicles)

Modern cars don't need most of this manual labor. Instead, they require routine maintenance that generally consists of replacing fluids and simple parts. Note that the newest cars on the market or certain types of cars (like electric cars) might have eliminated some of these parts, such as certain belts and hoses:

  • Change engine oil (often changed on its own interval)
  • Change transmission fluid, brake fluid and power steering fluid
  • Replace coolant
  • Inspect belts and replace when necessary (number and type depend on the age and type of car you drive)
  • Inspect hoses and replace when necessary (number and type depend on the age and type of car you drive)
  • Replace cabin air filter

Pricing for Routine Maintenance

Consumer Reports cautions that "getting a tuneup" is a common upsell by mechanics, or a charge one might even tack on to your bill indiscriminately to make you pay more than necessary. In other words, if your mechanic or shop says your car needs a tuneup, be wary. Especially if it's a late-model car. That said, some mechanics or shops may still use that term (see "Now That's Interesting" sidebar).

Pricing for routine maintenance, on the other hand, totally varies based on several things. Those factors include everything from where you live and the type of car (some cars might use more expensive parts) to whether you're visiting a dealership, going to a chain or an independent shop, or performing the work yourself.

The recommended maintenance schedule for late-model cars takes a lot of the guesswork out of the equation. If you follow the schedule for your car, you should be in the clear, but there are always factors that can make a fluid go gunky or a part wear out earlier than expected.

In short, if you have a car built in the last 20 years or so, you don't need to worry about tuneups as they're traditionally defined. Just maintain your car according to the schedule laid out in your owner's manual and deal with problems as they arise.

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