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CONSUMER CAR CARE: KEEP IT RUNNING, ROLLING AND RIGHT

SHARE CONSUMER CAR CARE: KEEP IT RUNNING, ROLLING AND RIGHT

Cars used to be considered a "guy thing." But take a look at these statistics: - In 1992, women bought 50 percent of all new cars sold in the United States, compared with 25 percent two decades ago and 36 percent a decade ago.- Women spend more than $67 billion on new cars and trucks in 1992.

- Women are the primary drivers of half the cars on the road and 90 percent of all the minivans.

- Women have an impact on 80 percent of vehicle purchases.

So, says Pat Lazzaro, it's not surprising that women want to know more about taking care of their cars. Lazzaro, a race-car driver and mechanic, is traveling around the country conducting car-care clinics as part of Firestone's Women's Education Program and will hold three sessions in Utah (see sidebar for details).

Lazzaro has two primary pieces of advice for women - or men, for that matter - who want to take better care of their cars.

First, don't be afraid; don't be intimidated. "You don't have to be a mechanic in order to do a lot of the things that can keep your car in good condition."

And second, the owner's manual is your friend. "Every make of car is a little different. Manufacturers are making the owner's manuals more user friendly. They have comprehensive maintenance tables, and following this specific advice can add life to your car."

Beyond that, Lazzaro talks about the three Rs of car care: keeping it running, keeping it rolling, keeping it right.

- "Fluids are one of the most important parts of keeping your car running," she says. Whether you do it yourself or take your car to a shop, you need to be sure that your car's fluids are in good condition and at proper levels.

There are usually six fluids to worry about:

- Washer fluid - an important safety component that is easy to overlook until you can't see.

- Brake fluid - it breaks down with exposure to air and moisture and requires regular servicing.

- Oil - it lubricates and cools the engine. Oils come in a variety of weights or consistencies (the lower the number, the thinner the oil). Use the weight that is specified for your car - never use an oil that has numbers lower than those required by the manufacturer.

- Coolant (or antifreeze) is generally mixed with water, although some owner's manuals call for 100 percent. These fluids break down over time and should be changed about once a year and the system flushed to remove deposits.

- Transmission fluids, whether for manual or automatic transmissions, also require monitoring. Sluggish shifting can be symptomatic of low fluid levels.

- Power-steering fluids help you maneuver your multithousand-pound vehicle easily and needs to be checked periodically as well.

- When it comes to keeping your car rolling, tires are the main concern. The single greatest cause of tire damage is improper inflation, says Lazzaro. Your tires lose pressure over time and must be monitored to keep them at their best.

"Get to know your tires," she advises. "Look at them regularly when you are getting in and out of your car. Listen to them as you turn corners at normal speeds - squealing can be a sign you need more air."

As your tires age, tread wears away, creating a hazard. Use the old, reliable penny trick to check your tread: Put a penny upside down in one of the grooves. If you can see all of Abe's head, you need new tires.

- Keeping your car right involves using your common senses, says Lazzaro. "Remember that cars are built by people for people. You can deal with these complicated machines!"

LOOK for leaks, puddles under the car, smoke and steam, dash warnings. Check your lights periodically.

SNIFF for unusual odors. Many fluids have smells all their own. If you smell something hot or unusual, check it out.

LISTEN for unusual noises and describe them as accurately as possible.

"There seems to be an unwritten law that problems disappear as soon as you drive your car to the repair shop. You can help your mechanic find problems by fine-tuning some of your senses into concrete observations," advises Lazzaro.

"Describe the symptoms; don't try to make the diagnosis yourself."

Lazzaro says she kind of fell into auto mechanics. She was the youngest of three girls, and her father, who was a mechanic, wanted a boy. So I got to be his `boy.' " (This was back when cars were that guy thing, remember.)

She's a graduate of a racing mechanic's training program. Since then she's been involved with racing as pit steward, chief starter and tire technician, tracksidecommentator, auto columnist and a race car driver - the first woman to drive in the Dodge Shelby Pro Series.

But it doesn't take all of that to feel at home on the road. Successful car maintenance, she says, is mostly a combination of common sense and overcoming your "autophobia."