Last updated: August 2022

Car Care Q&A: What's a Tune-Up?

Q: What is a tune-up?

A: A tune-up is a type of preventative maintenance that helps a vehicle continue to run its best.

However, there is a lot of confusion surrounding what a tune-up consists of because a lot can fit under the "preventative maintenance" umbrella, and as automotive technology has evolved, so has the meaning of the "tune-up."

Nowadays, you might hear the word "tune-up" used to (incorrectly) describe any kind of routine car maintenance. You can perform a lot of maintenance on a car, but a tune-up is a specific service — or at least a combination of services — related to your engine.

April is Car Care Month and the perfect time to make sure your vehicle is tuned up and ready to go, whether you're embarking on a road trip or another season of safe driving. Keep reading to learn what a tune-up consists of, how much a tune-up costs, and a brief history of this essential part of automotive maintenance.

Tune-ups: Then & now

A traditional tune-up consists of an engine inspection and adjustments to mechanical parts like the carburetor, distributor, and timing belt. The carburetor is "tuned" for optimal performance, hence the name. Years ago, frequent tune-ups were necessary for a car to run its best — as often as every 5,000 miles! This type of tune-up still applies to vehicles model years 1994 and prior with these parts.

So, what is a tune-up for today's vehicles? Most engine parts in modern vehicles have been computer-controlled since the 1990s, so there's little to manually adjust besides spark plugs. As such, engines don't require frequent tune-ups, and the term has come to include services outside the traditional definition.

What does a tune-up consist of?

During a tune-up, vehicle parts prone to wear and tear that affect engine performance are cleaned, repaired, or replaced. A mechanic might:

  • Replace air filters
  • Replace the fuel filter
  • Clean the fuel system
  • Clean, repair, or replace spark plugs or spark plug wires
  • Repair or replace any worn-out parts, sensors, etc.
  • Check the ignition timing (the timing chain in newer vehicles, or the timing belt in older vehicles)
  • Check the battery
  • Visually inspect the engine
  • Perform diagnostic testing

A tune-up can consist of a lot of things, but tell a mechanic you want an engine tune-up, and you'll almost always get new spark plugs and filters.

  • Air filters, fuel filters, oil filters, and PCV valves that ventilate the engine all help keep the engine clean. They get dirty over time and can develop clogs as air, dust, and dirty fluids collect. If unaddressed, dirty filters can cause fuel pump failure and higher oil pressure, which can damage your engine.
  • Spark plugs supply the spark that starts your engine. They get weaker over time since they're always under high pressure and temperatures. Spark plug replacement varies. Some last up to 120,000 miles, while others need to be replaced every 60,000 miles.

How often do you need a tune-up?

It's a good idea to have your car inspected by a professional at least once a year to keep up with vehicle maintenance. Depending on the car you drive, you may not need a tune-up every year. Some vehicles can go up to 100,000 miles before needing a tune-up, while others require more frequent maintenance.

Check your owner's manual for the manufacturer recommendations regarding your vehicle's maintenance schedule. Regular tune-ups will keep your car running its best and could even extend its life!

How much does a car tune-up cost?

A basic tune-up that includes new spark plugs generally costs between $50 and $150. However, a more comprehensive tune-up that consists of an oil change, new filters, and other services can cost between $200 and $800, according to Auto Zone.

Cost depends on mechanics' hourly rates in your area, plus the price of parts that need to be replaced. A tune-up at a local repair shop usually costs less than a dealership.

Older vehicles and classic cars usually cost more to tune up because they contain more mechanical parts. High mileage can also lead to more expensive tune-ups: a car with more than 120,000 miles can cost up to $1,200 to tune up depending on the services involved.

A tune-up is an opportunity to do a complete check of your vehicle's systems, so be prepared to make repairs to your car not typically included in a standard tune-up. For instance, you might discover you need new brakes, tires, an oil change, or an A/C recharge that could run up your bill.

DIY car care is a great way to save money on car repairs, and many of these fixes are less complicated than you might realize! Check out our other car care articles to learn how to replace your own filters, change your brake pads, do an oil change, or replace your spark plugs!

How long does a tune-up take?

A tune-up takes around two to four hours, depending on the vehicle and tune-up services needed. More modern, computerized vehicles usually take less time than older cars with more mechanical parts to adjust.

Signs your car needs a tune-up

Is it time for a tune-up? Keep an eye (and ear!) out for these signs:

  • Strange noises
  • Unusual odors
  • Exhaust smoke
  • Warning lights
  • Starting problems
  • Poor gas mileage
  • Issues accelerating

Now that you know your car needs an annual tune-up, what about your car insurance policy? Get a review of your current coverage and a free, no-obligation quote by calling 1-877-GO-DIRECT (1-877-463-4732) or stopping by a Direct Auto store near you!

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