So, what is a tune-up on a car? Should you even spend your time and money on tuning up your vehicle?
Car owners may think that regular maintenance is enough and their cars don’t need a tune-up. However, tuning your vehicle can be the one thing that saves you time and thousands of repair costs.
A tune-up helps improve your vehicle’s performance and can help remove years of damage from the vehicle’s components. A tune-up also involves preventive maintenance to ensure your car doesn’t easily fall prey to preventable issues.
Most modern vehicles will not require regular tune-ups due to computerized systems and routine maintenance. It usually just means changing oil, fluid, and filters. Sometimes, dirty components and clogged parts may require a quick tune-up.
The story is completely different in older cars. There is always a checklist for them when talking about a tune-up.
In this article, we will look at:
- What a Tune-up Involves;
- Benefits of a Tune-up;
- Tune-up Checklist;
- How often for a Tune-up;
- How Long a Tune-up takes;
- How Much a Tune-up costs?;
- Signs Your Car Needs a Tune-up.
Table of Contents
What Does a Tune-up Involve?
A tune-up is a term used to refer to simple routine maintenance checks that are performed on your vehicle to ensure it functions effectively. The tune-up procedure involves inspections and repair procedures (tune-up procedures).
There is a procedure that mechanics and professional technicians go through to perform a tune-up. Individual manufacturers provide their own checklist to showcase the components and systems that need inspecting during a tune-up.
The tune-up starts with a visual inspection of various parts such as the spark plugs, filters, transmission, batteries, belts & hoses, etc. The goal is to ensure their performance is according to the manufacturer’s standards and no dirty or clogged components. The inspection also looks at any damage that may have been caused to the fuel pump or fuel injector.
The procedures may include replacing certain parts, cleaning dirty components, unclogging filters, and many more such chores. All of these procedures will ensure your vehicle runs as smoothly as it can without any complications. The tune-up helps extend the vehicle’s life span and also prevents the car from getting preventable issues. 
Benefits of a Tune-up
The main advantage of a tune-up is that it aids in the long-term reliability of your vehicle. The inspections and procedures ensure you do not have to experience a surprising roadside breakdown.
Moreover, a tune-up will help increase the value of your car if you decide to sell it. Buyers are more willing to buy second-hand vehicles if the records of routine maintenance are well documented.
A tune-up also helps in emission reduction by reducing the number of pollutants it produces. Fuel efficiency is also increased with a tune-up since the process helps clean dirty filters and other clogged parts.
What Does a Tune-up Consist of? (Full Checklist)
A complete car tune-up consists of several inspections, repairs, and replacements that help in preventive maintenance. This checklist helps you fix other issues efficiently and may make regular services cheaper than before. You can perform a tune-up by yourself, but getting a professional to do it will ensure your vehicle gets the full tune-up experience.
The list below consists of the most common tune-up items that can help in maintaining the health of your vehicle:
1. Oil Change
An oil change is like a blood transfusion for your precious vehicle. Oil is a vital vehicle fluid since it helps to lubricate, clean, cool, and protect the engine parts. Some motor oils, like the high-mileage oils, can also help restore the performance of your engine.
Synthetic motor oils, which are the most used, are resilient to thermal breakdown and are great at handling high temperatures. However, most of them need to be replaced with new oil after 10,000 miles or a year since the last oil change. The oil change intervals will depend on your specific vehicle model and the environments you drive in.
Find more information in your user manual.
2. Fluid Change
Motor oil is not the only fluid that needs to be checked or replaced during a tune-up. You also have to look at the brake fluid, power steering fluid, engine coolant, and transmission fluid.
These fluids have a specific lifespan indicated on the purchase bottles and the vehicle’s manual. Some fluids cannot be used for more than a year, while others may last for years without needing any changes.
The tune-up will help identify which ones are in excellent condition and which fluids need to be replaced.
Your vehicle picks up dust, debris, and contaminants along the way. The contaminants may be solid particles or fluids from the environment. Filters like air filters and oil filters are essential at keeping away these inclusions from the insides of your engine. In so doing, the filters increase the engine efficiency and performance.
On the other hand, dirty filters will reduce performance since your vehicle has to work harder to utilize the fuel, air, and oil. Filters include oil, air, fuel, and cabin air filters. You should replace the fuel filter and oil filter with every oil change at the recommended cycles.
The PCV (Positive Crankcase Ventilation) valve is another part that can be clogged like the filters. The PCV valve helps ventilate the engine and can lead to pressure buildup if it’s clogged.
Replacing these parts is an easy process that will take a few minutes to complete.
4. Spark Plugs
Spark plugs become inefficient over time due to the electrodes (the metal tips), which get worn out due to electricity and heat. You will typically need to tune up the spark plugs if you are experiencing misfires and the air/fuel mixture fails to ignite.
It is vital to replace old spark plugs with the recommended ones from the manufacturers. These will include the OEM recommended spark plugs shown in the owner’s manual or other recommended documents.
5. Ignition Timing
Ignition timing is when a spark is created in the combustion chamber to ignite the air/fuel mixture. Several factors affect ignition timing, such as timing of the intake valves, the fuel injectors, type of ignition system, condition of spark plugs, fuel condition, air/fuel mixture, and all the ignition system components.
Significant repairs in the ignition system will require an adjustment in the ignition timing setting of the engine. Setting the timing right is crucial since it will affect how sooner or later the sparks are created for ignition.
Modern vehicles use the ECU to control the timing in real-time, while older vehicles use distributors. A tune-up will take a look at the standard ignition timing and compare it to the current timing. Any changes in the ignition timing will have to be rectified for better performance.
6. Belts and Hoses
The timing belts in the ignition timing system are essential at precisely matching the opening and closing of the engine’s valves. The timing belt connects the crankshaft to the camshaft, thereby controlling the motion of valves and pistons in your car. This motion affects the fuel and air mixture in your vehicle.
Timing belts will typically last about 100,000 miles in modern vehicles; anything more than that will need a replacement.
Other belts are used to control systems like the water pump system, alternator, air-conditioning system. These belts usually last for 50,000 to 100,000 miles but can also be replaced earlier if they make strange noises.
Hoses are used to distribute fluids like coolants and oil into the respective parts. Any hose with a swell, bulge, or leak needs to be replaced during a tune-up since they indicate an imminent failure.
Most car batteries are completely unreliable after a period of four to five years. Professionals and vehicle manufacturers recommend you replace the battery after three years of use.
Unreliable batteries are safety hazards, and you need to replace them as soon as possible.
Brakes have to be checked during a tune-up. Vibration when decelerating, squealing, and spongy-like brake pedals are a sign of a malfunctioning brake system. A tune-up will help identify the brake fluid condition, brake pads, calipers, drums, and rotors.
If any of these parts have exceeded their standard functioning time, they will be replaced with new ones.
Signs of a tire malfunction may include vibration, strange noises, wobbling, and lack of traction. A tune-up will ensure your tire is checked in terms of wear, balancing, and rotation.
The mechanic may notice a chopped thread pointing to a lack of rotation or a thumping sound showing a flat tire spot.
Replacing the tire may solve tire issues, while other complications may require tuning other components to make the tiring work efficiently.
10. Wheel Alignment
Wheel alignment plays a role in fuel efficiency, tire performance, vehicle handling, and how your vehicle maneuvers. The alignment refers to how the wheels are aligned in comparison to one another and the vehicle’s body.
Wheels can misalign for various reasons, such as wearing and tearing the suspension system and driving on uneven road surfaces.
A mechanic will often adjust the wheel alignment by changing the vehicle’s suspension to fix the issue.
It is a good practice to change your windshield wiper when you change your oil. The wiper gets worn out more when exposed to extreme environmental conditions such as cold and heat.
A tune-up will help in maintaining the state of the windshield for more months to come.
Transmission failure warning signs may include a burning smell from the car, slipping gears, leaking fluid, refusal to switch gears, grinding and shaking, and humming sounds.
A transmission tune-up will involve a thorough inspection of the causes of these symptoms and help catch transmission issues before they become severe.
How Often for a Tune-up?
A tune-up schedule is not as important as a regular maintenance schedule. Regular maintenance will ensure that worn parts are inspected, and any malfunctioning item is replaced. A modern vehicle rarely needs tune-ups due to the extreme durability of engine components and the use of onboard diagnostics.
The moving parts in modern cars are well lubed and sealed, which helps to reduce regular checks. Manufacturers have gotten so great at building durable machines that they offer more years of warranty protection. For example, Volkswagen has a standard 6-year, 72,000 miles warranty, and Hyundai offers a 5-year, 60,000 miles warranty.
The tune-up interval will depend on the make and model of your car. You can find the information on how often you should tune your vehicle on the owner’s manual guide. You may discover specifications for an annual tune-up, seasonal tune-up, or regular tune-up.
A seasonal tune-up will ensure your vehicle is prepared for a change in weather from warmer seasons to colder seasons and vice versa.
An annual tune-up is recommended for cars from the 1970s or earlier due to the systems they use.
Most newer vehicles can use a rule of thumb for their tune-up, about 30,000 miles to 50,000 miles. However, you can even go up to 100,000 miles as your tune-up cycle.
How Long Does a Tune-up Take?
You can typically expect a tune-up job to take two to four hours if it is done by a professional in a reputable shop. The time will also depend on your vehicle’s make and model. Some cars have more systems than others which implies they will take longer to tune-up.
The tune-up procedures may be many, but they take a short time to complete in modern vehicles. This is because modern cars use computerized systems and onboard diagnostics to narrow down the inspection and repair processes. Older cars that are solely made of mechanical systems will take longer to fix.
How Much is a Car Tune-up?
The cost of a car tune-up depends on the number of services your vehicles need. Different car shops may also charge different prices depending on your location, vehicle make and model, and the repair fees.
On average, you can expect to spend about $40 to $150 for minor tune-ups that deal with ignition system issues such as faulty spark plugs and ignition wires.
You can expect to spend around $200 to $1,000 for a complete tune-up and other specialized services on the higher end.
Typical Signs Your Car Needs a Tune-up
1. Dashboard Lights Come on Again and Again
Dashboard lights, especially the “Check Engine” light (CEL) or “Check Transmission” light (CTL), will turn on for various reasons. Some of the reasons include engine problems, transmissions issues, emissions-related element problems, sensor issues, air/fuel delivery issues, and ignition system problems. Some issues are more complicated to identify than others, so a tune-up is vital if your CEL or CTL comes on. This is more so if the CEL or CTL persists after regular maintenance.
The vehicle is relatively safe to drive with the CEL or CTL on if you do not hear any weird sounds and there is no easily noticeable fault. However, the lit CEL or CTL still indicates an issue that needs to be addressed.
The dashboard lights come on, again and again, is a sign to take your vehicle for a tune-up to put it at optimal performance.
2. Stalling While Accelerating
A car will stall while accelerating for various reasons which are not so easy to identify. A tune-up will help check all the necessary components and systems to find the culprit. Some of the reasons why your engine may stall while accelerating include issues in the: fuel system components, exhaust and emissions components, and electrical components.
3. Fuel Economy Issues
Various failures in your vehicle can result in fuel economy issues. Causes might be poor tire pressure, bad air filters, bad oxygen sensors, faulty spark plugs, malfunctioning fuel system, a problem in the exhaust system, motor oil issues, driving habits, etc.
A tune-up will ensure all these systems and components are checked and cross-examined to indicate where fuel economy issues arise accurately. In severe cases, you may find that multiple components are the causes of poor fuel economy, and a tune-up will be able to identify them.
4. Brake Problems
Brake problems are never small matters when it comes to vehicle safety. The causes may include excessive clearance between linings and drums, contaminated brake fluid, low pressure in the hydraulic system, or a faulty residual line pressure valve.
The mechanic will perform a tune-up to inspect the various parts and make corrections like bleeding brake systems, replacing brake fluid, or adjusting the brake parts.
5. Rough Transmission Shifting
Shifting gears should be a smooth process in a normally functioning vehicle. If you are experiencing rough shifting from your car’s automatic transmission system, it is time for a tune-up.
Transmission issues might become severe and cause accidents in the most unlikely times. One of the signs of transmission issues is lurching when you shift the gears. Pay attention to this sign and seek a tune-up as soon as possible.
6. Shaking or Vibrating
It is not ordinary nor simple a problem when you have your vehicle shaking or vibrating.
Vibrations can be caused by faulty tires, misaligned wheels, bent wheels, or even worn-out U-Joints. There are many reasons for your vehicle to shake and vibrate that can only be identified by a proper tune-up.
The performance of your vehicle will get worse with age. However, age is not the only thing that will affect the efficiency and performance of your car. Your driving habits, maintenance schedules, and how quickly you repair malfunctions also affect the life span of your vehicle.
Car tune-ups ensure you keep your vehicle’s health at optimal levels as much as you can. This will help you reduce the number of repairs you perform on your car. It will also reduce the cost of those repairs since they won’t be severe.
You will also get to enjoy the full features of your car for longer.