car-owner illustration

Do you religiously follow your car’s service manual? Here’s some good news: sometimes you don’t have to.

When you buy a new car, you’ll typically get two different service manuals, one from the dealer and one from the manufacturer. “The dealers make money on frequent visits, so their manual tries to get you to do as much maintenance as possible,” says Kirk Robinson of Robinson Automotive. That’s why he suggests that you stick to the maintenance schedule in the manufacturer’s guide instead.

Even then, thanks to new lower-maintenance car parts and self-diagnosing technology, you can do some maintenance less frequently than recommended. Other maintenance you should do by the book, or risk expensive repairs.

How do you know which is which? We turned to Robinson and Philip Reed of, to find out.

Check/replace the engine oil and filters every 4,800 km
Can you put it off? Yes
We’ve been trained to change our car’s oil every 3,000 miles (4,800 km), but we have to break this habit says, Reed. It wastes perfectly good oil, and the cost of frequent changes adds up. Each car model varies, but Reed says you should plan on changing the oil and filter in newer cars about once a year, or every 16,000 km. If you use synthetic oil, you can probably make it every 24,000 km.

Check or flush the transmission fluid every 80,000 km
Can you put it off? Yes
Dealerships promote frequent fluid top-ups and regular transmission flushes, but Reed suggests just keeping an eye on the fluid and pushing the limits of the manufacturer’s schedule. He says you could probably flush the system every 100,000 km if the manual suggests 80,000 km under severe conditions.

Rotate your tires every 10,000 km
Can you put it off? No
Many Canadian drivers switch to winter tires once a year anyway, so they can ignore the scheduled rotation recommendations. However, if you don’t use winter tires, then you should fork out $30 for an annual rotation.

Balance your tires and align your wheels every 10,000 km
Can you put it off? Yes
While many of us don’t rotate our tires enough, we tend to be overly concerned about alignment, says Reed. He suggests ignoring the manual’s schedule, and only going in to have your alignment adjusted if you feel a consistent pulling, or a noticeable vibration through the steering wheel.

Inspect or replace your spark plugs every 40,000 km
Can you put it off? No
When it comes to spark plugs, you should follow the manual. Otherwise you could end up paying $1,000 or more for a new catalytic converter. The maximum suggested mileage between inspections ranges from 40,000 km to 100,000 km, depending on the car.

Replace your battery every 40,000 km
Can you put it off? No
Here again, you should follow the manual. “You don’t win by leaving a battery in your car for longer than four to five years, because your alternator has to work harder,” says Robinson. A new battery typically costs $50 to $100. A new alternator, on the other hand, will cost you $300 to $1,000.

Inspect or replace the timing belt every 160,000 km
Can you put it off? No
Follow the manual here too. Canada’s fluctuating temperatures add a great deal of stress to belts, causing them to snap or break more easily. Always replace the belts (and adjacent components) according to the manufacturer’s schedule. But here’s some good news, says Reed: newer models have eliminated the belt completely.

Check and flush the engine coolant (antifreeze) every five years
Can you put it off? No
In this case, you should consider changing the fluids even more often than the manual says. Because of Canada’s frigid winters, Robinson suggests replacing long-life antifreeze once every three years, and regular antifreeze once every two years.

Flush your power steering fluid every two years
Can you put it off? Yes
You can neglect this one a little without putting your car at risk, says Reed. “Just fill it up every time you feel resistance in the steering column.”

Inspect/replace your brake pads (and fluids) every 20,000 km
Can you put it off? Yes
When it comes to brakes, Reed says the manual’s schedule will have you spending more than you have to. Your brakes have an automatic mechanism that causes them to screech when they need changing. He suggests waiting until you actually hear the screech before getting them changed.

Originally published in MoneySense Magazine in November 2010

Romana King

Romana King is an award-winning personal finance columnist and real estate expert. She specializes in creating editorial content that uses data to help home buyers, sellers and investors make smarter real estate decisions.