The best thing about your old car is that you’ve already paid for it. Most of us grow tired of our used cars long before they’re used-up cars. But money is tight for just about everyone, so why throw away a car that’s running well just because it’s feeling worn down, looking beat up and has lost some of its athleticism? Cars built in the last 10 or 15 years can go 200,000 or 300,000 miles if given the right care. And there are some simple ways to spice up your long-term automotive relationship without using up whatever is left on your home equity line of credit. What it takes first is the determination to re-commit.
1. Clean Everything
I’m not talking about just a quick, superficial job, but a hardcore scrubbing of everything you can reach. Shampoo the carpet and upholstery, excavate all the trash moldering in the trunk, remove the spare and get into every nook and cranny of the tire well, and remove the seat cushions and pick out all the petrified potato chips. If you have the technical aptitude, take out the front seats and vacuum under there. Clean all the grime from the engine bay and get under the car too.
This is a pretty obvious first step. But the cleaning pays off because all that time spent tidying up the car is also time spent inspecting it. This is your chance to uncover hidden problems.
2. Fix the Cockpit
“Focus on the area you’re actually going to touch,” Atlanta-area used car dealer Steven Lang says. “Start at the steering wheel and the dashboard. If the wheel is pitted or deteriorated, a simple $10 cover can make a big difference to how a car feels. A dashboard cover may be a good investment too.”
Also check dashboard illumination. There are drivers out there who can’t read their speedometers at night simply because the illumination knob has been dimmed for years through sheer inattention. If the knobs and switches are actually busted or worn-out, though, they can often be cheaply replaced with either new parts or recycled pieces found at a junkyard.
If the dashboard pad is faded, consider repainting or dyeing it. You’re going to spend a lot of time staring at it.
And don’t forget the fabric. One of Lang’s favorite tricks for reinvigorating a car is to swap out the front seats for a pair he finds at a junkyard with fewer miles on them. “Seat foam breaks up over time,” he says. “For $100 or $150, a set from a low-mileage vehicle can make a car seem new.”
Even if your car is only a couple of years old, it’s almost certainly got an outdated sound system. Trading an old radio head unit for one that integrates with an iPod, iPhone or satellite radio, and includes a Bluetooth connection for a cellphone, will shoot your car or truck into the present.
Head units with iPod integration start at under $80 on BestBuy.com. Throw in installation costs and you’ve still spent less than $200 to seriously upgrade your commute entertainment.
Electronic GPS navigation systems have also become affordable over the last few years. Good systems run about $150 and offer all the functionality of OEM systems that are often more than a $1000.
4. Let It Breathe
Aftermarket intake systems and air filters don’t work miracles, but they can open up an older engine’s inhalation system and kick up output a by few horsepower. Cold air intake systems from companies like K & N (KNFilters.com) are available for nearly every vehicle, and installation can usually be accomplished with little more than a screwdriver. Many are under $200.
An aftermarket exhaust system can do the same thing for your car on the exhalation side while adding a new voice. However, exhaust systems are more expensive to purchase and more difficult to install. So it may be best to wait until your vehicle actually needs a new muffler before making that upgrade.
5. Clear the Lenses
Vehicles built during the last couple of decades usually have plastic composite headlamps that weather and dull over time. You can pick up a headlight restoration often for under $30, and they’re easy to use. It only takes a few minutes to turn a dull, yellowed headlight clear—which makes your old car look nicer and instantly improves illumination.
6. Revitalize the A/C
Like your home air conditioner, your car’s AC can suffer buildups of mold, mildew and bacteria. To clean out the system, first make sure the air coming into the system isn’t first passing through leaves, dust or other accumulated grime in the air passageways. Then change or clean any filters in the system. Finally, use an air-conditioning deodorizer to finish things off. If nothing else, your nose should be happier.
Your car doors seal against rubber trim that is vulnerable to tears as it ages. These tears can lead to air gaps that howl in the wind while you drive, let heat escape when it’s cold outside, allow cold air to escape when its hot outside, and invite water in when it rains. Replacing these rubber strips takes patience, time and a talent for adhesives, but the strips themselves are usually inexpensive, and installing fresh ones can make your car quieter instantly. Don’t replace the seals if they’re still in good shape, but don’t hesitate if they’re brittle or ragged.
While you’re at it, don’t forget to replace your rubber windshield wiper blades. It’s a cheap way to survive the rainy season.
The use and abuse of touchup paint is a subject that could fill volumes. Generally speaking, it’s best to use it sparingly and carefully.
However, you can easily remove plastic trim pieces on your car’s exterior and repaint them with a spray can. It particularly makes a big difference on black parts that have weathered to a dull gray.
9. Braked and Suspended
“Shocks, springs, dampers, struts, brake rotors and pads may seem like normal service items,” says Matt Edmonds, marketing director for The Tire Rack. “But replacing them can make a huge difference in how a car drives.”
If you go nuts and buy everything—stabilizer bars, urethane bushings, racing shocks and more—it’s possible to make even a 1981 Cadillac Seville handle something like a race car and ride as stiffly as one too. But you don’t have to go to extremes to make your vehicle handle more precisely.
New shock absorbers make a big difference on their own, but while they’re off the car, you might consider rebuilding the suspension and steering system with new ball joints and tie rod ends. If you’re an enthusiast, new springs can lower your car for better handling and give a more aggressive look. Just stay within your budget and mechanical abilities.
The same goes for brakes. Worn discs and pads seriously degrade performance, so replace them.
10. Wheels and Tires
Getting better performance from your tires can be as simple as making sure they’re properly inflated. But when tires need to be replaced, that presents an opportunity to both improve the performance and appearance of your car.
Remember: Everything your car does, it does through the tires. And so good tires enable your car to do everything better. It used to be that moving up to wider tires or larger diameter wheels was difficult, because it was difficult to determine the correct wheel back spacing or how much rubber could fit under your car’s fenders. But today sites like The Tire Rack can provide dozens of wheel and tire combinations tailored to your vehicle.
New, bigger tires are the single most impressive way to change a car’s performance and appearance. Of course, a new set of wheels and tires won’t be inexpensive. But it’s still cheaper than getting a new car.
By John Pearley Huffman