Skip to content
Drive happy

A beginner’s guide to car maintenance

Top tips to keep your engine running

Basic car maintenance

Car repair and maintenance is fun for some. They like tinkering away on a sunny Saturday afternoon. Others? Well, the last thing they want to do is pop the bonnet open and check the dipstick. We get it. 

There's so many things to consider: How often do you need to maintain it? How often should you service your car? Don’t break down. We’ve got you. Keep your motor running with our guide to basic car repair and maintenance.

How often should you service your car

Your car manufacturer will recommend your car is serviced every 12,000 miles or every 12 months. Whatever comes first. Modern cars include a self-diagnostic system and will tell you when you start up the car if it’s time for a service. 

Don’t ignore these messages, even if they advise you before the 12,000 miles or 12-month period. Get it checked. Regular services not only keep your car running smoothly and efficiently, but can also save you money in the long run. Plus, a full-service history will increase the value of your car.

What service does your car need?

It varies but as a general rule you should service your car as follows:

  • Regular maintenance: Oil and filter replacement and other basic checks (more information below). This should be monthly as a minimum.
  • Interim service: Every 6 months or 6,000 miles
  • Full service: Every 12 months or 12,000 miles
  • Manufacturer schedule: This will give a recommended service frequency, and what is required for your specific make and model and you’ll find this in your manual.

Is it better to service your car at the dealer?

There are pros and cons to it. Dealerships sometimes charge more, but they may be better equipped to look after your car. Dealerships have direct associations with the manufacturer and can include software updates or non-essential recall work while servicing your car, usually for free. And, by using a dealer, you could add value to your car when you come to sell if your service history comes with a dealership stamp.

If your car is nearly new, it needs to be serviced according to the manufacturer guidelines to keep the warranty valid. Missing services or having it serviced incorrectly could void its warranty.

However, a local garage, will deliver the same work and your car will still have a full-service history. And more importantly, will be safe and reliable to drive.

How long does a car service take?

Depending on the type of service you’re getting done, it can be anything from 1.5 to 3 hours. You can ask the dealership or the garage when you’re booking your service.

Some dealerships will offer a service where you can drop your car off and they’ll drive you to work or home. If it’s a short service, you can sit back and have a coffee and wait for the work to be done.

What do they do in a car service?

It depends on the level of the service but generally it’ll include the following checks:

  • Engine oil and filter change
  • Check and top up of all fluids
  • Full break check
  • Timing belt
  • Radiator
  • Replace air filters
  • Clutch operation
  • Gearbox operation
  • Steering and suspensions checks
  • Exterior lights
  • Tyre condition, pressure and balance 

Car maintenance checklist

Beyond servicing, you should also carry out regular maintenance on your car. Here are a few things you, or a mechanic, can do to keep your car in tip-top condition.

  1. Check your motor oil regularly – and always before a long journey. If your oil level is too high or too low, it can cause trouble for your engine. Modern cars have an onboard computer that tell you the oil level. Keep an eye on it. 
  2. Air filter – it’s important this is kept clear so air can flow freely into your engine. Keep it clear of debris and check how to do this in your car manual.
  3. Keep tabs on your tyre pressure and tread. It’s essential you have well maintained tyres. They keep you safe and properly inflated tyres make your car much more fuel efficient. The law says your tyre tread should be at least 1.6mm deep and you can check this with the penny test.
  4. Rotate your tires – yes, it does help and no, don’t call out the AA. Rotating your tyres can help increase their lifespan and save you money. 
  5. Brakes, signals and parking lights. Ask a friend to help you check your brake, indicator and fog lights all work, and won't dazzle other drivers. Walk around your car once a month to make sure all lights are working properly. Ask a mechanic if you need help adjusting any.
  6. Deal with a chipped windscreen straightaway. A small chip can quickly turn into a big crack. If there's a chip larger than 10mm in your eye-line you could fail your MOT. You'll fail straightaway if it's bigger than 40mm.
  7. Lots of car insurance policies cover a damaged windscreen, and sometimes sunroofs and windows, too. It often won't affect your no claims discount. Check your policy to make sure.
  8. Coolant or antifreeze stops your car overheating when it's hot and freezing in cold weather. You mix it with water – check your handbook for the right mix for your car. If you're in a hard water area, you might want to dilute your coolant with de-ionised or distilled water. 
  9. Keep your car clean inside and out. Clean the bodywork regularly and deal with small bumps, scrapes and rust spots sooner rather than later. Keep your lights, indicators, reflectors and number plates spick and span and make sure nothing obstructs the view through your windscreen.

Want more tips on car maintenance? Follow this helpful information from Bridgestone tyres.

What do my warning lights mean?

Warning lights vary from car to car, and you'll be able to find out more in your handbook. To save you spending an afternoon reading through all of your manual, here’s a few important ones:

Battery charge

If this comes on, it means you could have a problem with your battery charging system. You should get off the road as soon as you can, switch off your engine and call a garage for help.

Oil pressure

This comes on when you need to top up your oil. If it lights up and your oil level's fine, take it to a garage to get it check out. You can check your oil levels on your on-board computer on modern cars.

Brake system

If this stays on after you release the handbrake, there might be a problem with the system or electrics. Get a garage to check.


If this light stays on after you've started the car, or comes on when the engine is running, there's a problem with your engine management system. Get help as soon as possible.

Anti-lock braking system

If this comes on, it could mean there's something wrong with your brakes. Come to a gradual stop and call for help.

Tyre pressure

If this comes on or stays on, you might need to top up the air. You might also want to check for punctures. Once you get your tyres to the right pressure, you can reset it on the onboard computer to turn the warning light off.


Get your airbag looked at as soon as possible if this light comes on. It could go off unexpectedly, or not go off when you really need it.

What basic items should I keep in my car?

Keep the following in your boot, so you won’t be caught short if the worst happens:

  • Jack
  • Puncture repair kit
  • Tyre wrench
  • Oil and other engine fluids
  • Jump leads
  • Reflective triangle and high-vis jacket
  • Wheel lock opener
  • Multi-tool kit
  • Screen wash
  • Water
  • Sunglasses
  • Torch – wind-up ones are the most reliable
  • Hands-free kit for your phone
  • Multi-use car charger
  • Up-to-date maps / GPS kit
  • Manufacturer's handbook
  • First aid kit
  • Small fire extinguisher
  • Thermal blanket
  • Gloves
  • Foldable snow shovel
  • Emergency snacks and drinks
  • Cardboard and de-icing salt
  • Snow chain or winter tyres

If you do break down, put your warning triangle at least 45 metres (147 feet) behind your car, on the same side of the road.

Electric car maintenance

Like their petrol, diesel or hybrid counterparts, electric vehicles also require regular maintenance and love.

Electric cars require maintenance to their electrical systems which include the battery, electrical motor, and other associated electronics.  

Full electric vehicles require less maintenance than conventional cars because there’s usually fewer fluids to change (like oil and transmission fluid) and fewer moving parts. However, because plug-in hybrid cars have gas engines, they require similar levels to petrol and diesel cars.

Electric car battery maintenance is vital. Like all batteries, your electric car battery will decrease in performance over time. But you can prolong it as much as possible by looking after it:

  • Don’t overcharge your battery – although newer models take this into account and don’t let you overcharge them
  • Don’t let it run out of charge. Lithium batteries perform best when they are between 50 and 80% of capacity 
  • The temperature can also impact the range of your car battery but there’s not much you can do about that.

More useful guides  

We’ve got a host of handy guides on topics related to cars, covering everything from driving Europe to what to do if you have an accident


Explore our car insurance  

Shopping for car insurance? Have a look at our policy options and customise your cover with a range of optional extras.  

Sainsbury’s Bank Car Insurance is arranged and administered by Sainsbury’s Bank and is underwritten by a carefully selected range of insurers. When you get a quote we will tell you who the insurer is before you buy the policy. Cover limits, exclusions and excesses apply.


Any questions?

 Have a browse of our FAQ section or get in touch with our team, who will be more than happy to help.