Cars need regular use and upkeep to stay in shape, even if you are barely driving them. Make that: Especially if you’re barely driving them.
That said, there is some car maintenance you can delay and some you cannot. The “can” list is shorter, so let’s start with that.
Maintenance obligations can be loosely divided into two categories: those based on miles driven and those based on time since the last service. One of the chores based on miles is tire rotation, and a car that has barely been used can relax the routine that’s intended to even out the wear on all four tires. Usually, after about 5,000 miles you would move the positions of the tires, like putting the right front tire on the right rear, though the pattern to follow can differ from car to car.
Also, while tires deteriorate over time, the past year of diminished use won’t have much affect on that deterioration. You can also relax about the engine coolant and the air and cabin filters, which are all tied to usage. John Ibbotson, the shop supervisor for the auto fleet of Consumer Reports, said that some automakers don’t call for the system to be flushed and new coolant installed until 100,000 miles, or 10 years. He also said the filters should typically be “looked at every 15,000 miles and changed at 30,000.”
The general maintenance guidance he relies on is the owner’s manual, but he cautions that the patterns of life in the pandemic have complicated matters. With people driving only short local trips, the typical family car has shifted from normal service to what automakers regard as severe duty. In other words, making those quick hops to the Starbucks may be functionally the equivalent of towing a trailer or pounding down dusty farm roads, as far as your engine’s oil is concerned.
Short trips do not bring the engine up to operating temperature, which is necessary to rid the oil of moisture that accumulates in normal use. Nor does the engine coolant circulate and deliver anti-corrosion additives to vital spots. Longer drives also help make sure that vital components like gears and bearings maintain a coating of lubricant.
The most important task: changing the oil. If you are not taking longer drives, then you really don’t want to delay changing your oil. It’s the most familiar maintenance task and perhaps the one that is most important to your car’s good health. 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.