Very often you’ll hear other car owners or mechanics talk about getting a tune-up. Depending on where you go and how intense your tune up is, you could be looking at a cost of $50 to $150 for a basic one. I’m more in-depth tune-up might cost you as much as $500 or $600.
If you’re new to car ownership you may not really know what a tune up even is, because the term is very vague and general and has changed over time. And in fact, a tune-up is not one specific kind of repair. Rather, it’s preventive maintenance that your car should undergo in order to make sure it’s operating as well as it can. Consider it like going to the doctor for a checkup.
Because there are a number of different things that can happen during a tune-up, it’s hard to nail down a specific price for the process. As with any repairs, the price can change free drastically from a garage on one side of town to a garage on the other side of town. The good thing about tune-ups is that many garages offer deals for tune-ups to entice you into the shop.
What Happens During a Tune Up?
There are varying degrees of maintenance that can occur during a tune-up. Some tune-ups will be as simple as replacing your air filter and taking a look at the spark plugs to make sure they’re still cleaning operational. A more in-depth and thorough tune up can involve quite a bit more.
Spark Plug Replacement: One of the most important parts of a tune-up is maintenance of your ignition system. That consists of your spark plugs, your spark plug wires, and the ignition coil. Your mechanic should give this whole system a thorough inspection to make sure that nothing is corroded or dirty. If the spark plugs are still in good condition they can be cleaned and polished to keep them at optimal levels. If it’s been a full 50,000 miles or more, it’s likely you’ll need to have the plugs replaced. Fortunately, new spark plugs often cost less than $10 so it’s a reasonable expense to ensure that your vehicle is working properly.
Malfunctioning spark plugs, as a result of carbon buildup, excessive heat damage or extensive oil leaks will not be able to spark properly. If your spark doesn’t occur at the right time, your air fuel mixture won’t be able to ignite at the proper time to allow for combustion, and you will suffer engine misfires, and engine overheating.
Air, Oil, and Fuel Filter Replacement: Your car consists of a number of filters that help it run smoothly. You need to keep everything as clean as possible in your vehicle because the more polluted it gets the more damage it causes and the less efficiently it runs. A regular tune-up is a good time to check the air filter, the oil filter, and the fuel filter and replace them if needed.
If you allow a counter to run with unclean filters for too long it will greatly diminish their performance. You’ll end up losing fuel efficiency, and parts will likely overheat.
The air filter in your engine does what it says it does and allows clean air to filter through your engine. In time, a lot of dust and particles will collect in the filter and clog it. This lack of air flow can lead to overheating and engine damage. A clogged air filter may cause a decrease in the miles per gallon you get by around 5%, and up to nearly 15% if it’s bad enough.
Your oil filter should be getting changed every time you replace your oil. When your oil filter is dirty, then you’ll have contaminated oil circulating through your engine. Oil that is full of particulate and dirt can wear down your engine and cause it to overheat. Engine repair costs can rise into the many thousands of dollars if they get bad enough.
The fuel filter keeps your fuel line clean. If this gets clogged over time, you’ll suffer from decreased fuel pressure which can lead to poor performance overall, and eventually your fuel pump could break down.
Fluids: There are a lot of fluids that keep your car running smoothly over the course of a year, and during a tune-up is a great time to have them checked. That means either having them replaced completely or topped up if necessary.
- Motor Oil : Most drivers are aware of the importance of motor oil and replacing it on a regular basis. When your motor oil gets burnt or contaminated, it’s not able to effectively cool and lubricate your engine any longer. Bad motor oil can wear down your engine, and lead to overheating. Your owner’s manual tells you how often this should be replaced, but if you’re having regular maintenance during a tune-up that will be a good time as well.
- Transmission Fluid : Your transmission fluid will wear down overtime with constant gear changes. Over time it gets contaminated and becomes unable to properly do its job. If it’s turned brown, you know it’s time to get the fluid change. If it’s actually gritty or thick, you need to have the system flushed.
- Power Steering Fluid : This is a good time to check your power steering fluid as well. If it’s below the minimum level, you need to have some added. If it’s become contaminated and turned a little bit muddy, it should be replaced as well.
- Coolant: Your coolant system needs a flush every two years or so. Coolant becomes contaminated and breaks down over time, making it ineffective at keeping your engine running at optimal temperatures.
- Brake Fluid : Brake fluid should be changed about every two years as well. Many brake fluids actually absorb moisture from the air, which causes it to become contaminated and break down over time.
Belts and Hoses: A tune-up is a good time to check the various belts and hoses in your vehicle as well. Your serpentine belt and timing belt can be checked for any cracks or wear and tear and replaced if needed. Hoses as well should be inspected for any breaks and cracks, especially your radiator hose. Rubber hoses aren’t able to operate in high heat environments for very long, so if your engine has been overheating, the hoses will suffer as a result and will start to degrade and break down.
Why Do You Need A Tune Up?
A lot of drivers avoid tune-ups because they don’t feel they’re necessary. If your car is running the way you want it to, then why bother spending any money at a mechanic, right? Problem is your car can’t continue to operate the way you want it too if various parts break down.
You might hear some people say cars don’t need tune-ups at all, and in a weird way that may be true. What we mean today when we say tune-up is actually much different than what a mechanic meant 50 years ago when they were giving a tune-up. Modern engines don’t function the same way older engines did. The fuel injection system in particular has made the concept of a tune-up, and how they used to be done, pretty much obsolete. Your car doesn’t have a carburetor that needs to be tuned up any longer, and your engine is a mostly enclosed system that is not subject to any of the wear and tear and faults that older engines were exposed to that necessitated tune-ups in the first place. But that doesn’t mean what we understand is a tune-up today isn’t important.
Tune-ups at, as we said, are like going to a doctor for a checkup. They’re an effort to head problems off before they start, so that you can spend $100 today and avoid $1,000 worth of repairs tomorrow.
If you don’t get a regular tune-up, the most likely issues that you’re going to face are the failure of your spark plugs and contaminated filters. Those are the two things that need to be replaced most often on a vehicle. It’s not anything you’re doing wrong that causes your fuel filter, air filter, and spark plugs to stop working as well as they could, it’s just a function of how they work that eventually they’re going to break down.
Since you can’t avoid spark plugs that break down over time, or oil filters that get clogged with debris, you need to be aware that they have to be maintained. That’s the point of a regular tune-up.
How Often Should You Get a Tune Up?
It’s often recommended that you get a tune up about once a year. Preventive maintenance is the kind of thing that obviously needs to be done regularly. A once a year trip to the mechanic to have your car looked over, get the spark plugs replaced, and so on is integral to ensuring that you don’t suffer more serious problems down the road.
It’s worth noting that you may not need a tune-up as often as some mechanics and websites recommend, however. Older vehicles, ones from the 50s, 60s, and even 70s required much more routine maintenance. Things like distributor caps and carburetors were prone to failing or becoming misaligned overtime and needed to be cleaned and maintained regularly. Modern vehicles are much more well made in terms of how they function and the limited maintenance that needs to be done to them.
For instance, older or lower quality spark plugs that were made of mostly copper. Those copper plugs only last 15 or 20 thousand miles sometimes. If you were to get an iridium tipped spark plug today, that can last 100,000 miles, sometimes even as much as 200,000 miles before it needs replacement. A word to the wise however, don’t let your spark plugs go for 200,000 miles before checking them. The odds on any, even iridium plugs, lasting that long are pretty slim. But it does illustrate that modern spark plugs made of higher quality materials can and do last much longer than old school ones.
That’s not to say that tune ups are not necessary at all. As we have seen, there are a lot of things that need to be done during a tune-up. But you may not need to get your car tuned up every 365 days. There’s a good chance that your car can work very well for much longer than a year before you leave to have any of this routine maintenance done.
Naturally if your vehicle goes through a lot of punishment, you take it off road a lot or you’re driving a lot of miles during the year, then you may want to schedule more regular tune-ups then if you only take the car to the store once a week.
Your car is a precision machine that has thousands of different parts, and dozens of different systems functioning together to make it work properly. This whole system can only go for so long before even routine wear and tear starts to break some things down. It just makes sense to ensure that it’s running as well as it could, and that’s why you need to maintain it as well as you can.
Getting a tune up for your vehicle is absolutely an inconvenience for most people. Of course, you don’t want to take the time out of your schedule to go to a mechanic so that they can look over your car to see if anything is wrong. But consider that your car is probably one of the most expensive things you’ll ever invest in. It’s important for the way you live your life, it can take you places in an emergency, it’s necessary for going out and having fun, getting groceries, all kinds of things. This is an important part of your life, and you need to take care of it. You need to take it seriously. That’s why routine maintenance makes sense, even if it does unfortunately inconvenience our schedule sometimes. Better to spend an hour or two now and a couple hundred dollars, than risk losing your car entirely, or spending thousands more down the road.