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How to Do a Basic Engine Tune-Up for Your Car - A Definitive Guide

Technical  ·  June 22, 2020

How to Do a Basic Engine Tune-Up for Your Car - A Definitive Guide

Car tuning can cost a hefty amount of money, and you cannot avoid it if you want to keep your car running smoothly. However, you can do the basic car engine tune-up yourself. 

You don't need to be a mechanic or an expert to do it. All you need is to have the rudimentary know-how, which we are going to give you, and some basic tools, which you may already have in your garage. 

So, plan your weekend ahead because this step-by-step guide on performing a basic engine tune-up is going to keep you busy. The good thing is that it’s also going to save you a few bucks.

How to Tune Up Your Car

We have divided this guide into three parts:

  1. Fluid Inspection and Replacement
  2. Hardware Inspection and Replacement
  3. Electronics Inspection 

All these three parts contain a series of steps which are explained below one by one. Let’s see our basic car tune-up checklist.

Fluid Inspection and Replacement

A car engine has three types of fluids

  1. Lubricant oil
  2. Radiator Fluid
  3. Transmission Fluid

Lubricant Oil Inspection and Replacement

Open the hood of your car and pull out the dipstick from the oil tank. It is easy to spot by its cap, which is usually labelled as ‘oil’ and will be close to the front of the engine. Wipe the dipstick with a clean rag and put it back into the oil tank. 

Pull it out and see the point where it is wet with oil. There will be a safe mark on the dipstick, and you need to make sure that the oil in the tank is up to that amount. 

Check the owner’s manual to see which type of oil is recommended for your engine and top it up if it is lower than the safe level.

If the oil on the dipstick is black, then it is time for an oil change. For a regular vehicle, the best practice is to change the oil after every 3,000 miles (4,800 km). You may want to read our article on how to change the oil in your car.

Tools needed:

Oil pan, funnel, filter wrench, ratchet, jack stand

Radiator Fluid Inspection and Replacement

Observing precautions is critical when inspecting the radiator. You need to completely cool down the engine before opening the radiator cap. Otherwise, the surging, boiling coolant can cause severe burns. 

Remove the radiator cap under the hood, place a container under the radiator and loosen the drain plug to drain the coolant.

Move the container under the engine and remove the engine’s drain bolt to drain all the coolant in the engine. Tighten the bolts and move towards the coolant reservoir.

Drain that too and clean it. Fill the reservoir with 50/50 antifreeze and then add coolant to the radiator. Refer to your car’s manual and make sure that you use the recommended amount. 

Once done, start the engine and let it idle for a while to expel all the air. Tighten the radiator cap, and you are good to go.

You should change your coolant once your car has travelled for 45,000 miles (72,000 km).

Tools needed:

Oil pan, funnel, ratchet, jack stand

Transmission Fluid Inspection and Replacement

Get under your car, look on the rear and search for the transmission pan. Drain out all the liquid by loosening the bolts. If the fluid is black or smells burnt, it’s telling you something – it’s time for a fluid change.

Once you have opened all the bolts, check if the filter needs replacing too. When changing the filter, make sure to use the type mentioned in your car's manual or the same as the old one you removed.

Clean the transmission pan before installing a new gasket on it.

You may then reinstall the transmission pan. Tighten all the bolts.

Add the transmission fluid from under the hood by removing the dipstick and make sure you add the right amount. To figure out the right amount, you can measure the fluid that you just took out, or you can refer to the car's manual.

The process seems like oil change as detailed above, except that we use a different fluid. Always refer to the owner's handbook or manual for the correct type of fluid to use on your car. You may read more about changing the transmission fluid here.

Hardware Inspection and Replacement

Now that we’ve checked the fluids, we now move to the hardware, which involves the following auto parts:

  1. Air filter
  2. Fuel filter
  3. Spark plugs and wires
  4. Engine belts

Air Filter

A car’s air filter prevents debris from entering the engine. You typically need to change the air filter once a year or after 12,000 miles (19,000 km). You may refer to our previous article to learn about the signs of a bad air filter.

Open the hood and locate the air filter, which is usually inside a black box. That box is connected to a long tube which goes into the throttle body and engine.

Open the black box and remove the filter from it. Replace it with a new one, which should be the same as the one you’re throwing away or as recommended in the owner's manual.

Before you replace it, make sure that you have cleaned the black box of any dirt. 

Fuel Filter

The fuel filter prevents any debris from entering the engine, and it needs to be replaced at least once a year.

Before anything else, remove the pressure from the fuel line by removing the fuel pump fuse/relay, which is located under the hood.

Next, start the engine and allow it to stop on its own. Once the engine stalls, crank the engine for at least 5 seconds to release the pressure inside the fuel line.

Now locate the old filter, detach it and replace with a new one. Make sure that you point the arrow showing the fuel flow on the fuel filter towards the front of the vehicle and your fuel filter is changed.

Reattach the fuel pump fuse/relay, get into your vehicle, and turn the ignition towards the 'on' position for a few seconds but don't start. Then turn towards the off position and then back to 'on' again to bring the pressure back into the fuel system. 

Spark plugs and wires

You need to replace spark plugs and wires after every 30,000 to 120,000 miles (48,000-193,000 km) depending upon the type of vehicle.

First of all, disconnect the battery and replace the plug wires one after another so that you can save yourself from messing up the plug wire scheme.

Remove all the spark plugs with a ratchet and replace it with the new one but make sure that you have gapped your spark plugs as per the owner's manual.

Connect the battery and start the engine.

Engine Belts

Engine belts or drive belts make a squealing noise when they are worn out. You need to check your engine belts after every 30,000 to 40,000 miles (48,000-65,000 km). Scrutinise and look for cracks. If they are worn out around the edges, then it's about time to replace them.

First, release the tension on the belt then remove the old belts but make sure that you have the routing diagram with you so that you can replace the belts precisely the way the old belt was positioned. If you don't find any routing diagram, the practical thing to do would be to take a picture.

Once the belt is out, run the new belt properly as per the routing diagram or the picture you took. Tighten the belt with the right amount of tension and start the engine. If it runs smoothly without any kind of noise, then you did it the right way.

Electronics Inspection 

Get an OBD code scanner and scan all the sensor connections of your engine to check if there is any fault. If the scanner shows any failure, go down towards that sensor and replace it. This is a critical part, and you can get help from an expert if you’re not confident about doing it yourself.

This is it; hopefully, this engine tune-up procedure was helpful to you, and if you follow this guide, we are sure that you will learn a lot of things about your car and save a few bucks along the way, too.

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