What Is a Car Tune-Up?

What Is a Car Tune-Up?

You’ve either heard it from someone else or said it yourself: “My car’s acting funny. Maybe it needs a tune-up.” “Tune-up” tends to be a term broadly used whenever a vehicle needs some attention, maintenance or remedial work, but that’s not exactly accurate. That begs the question: What is a tune-up, and what does it cost?

Looking at a used car? See if there’s anything in its history you’d want to know about beforehand with a VIN lookup – run 50 vehicle searches per month with a Bumper subscription!

What is a tune-up?

Generally speaking, a tune-up is performing routine preventative maintenance that keeps your vehicle from experiencing inefficiencies and failures. Over time, however, the exact definition has changed a bit.

If you look back to cars before the 1980s, tune-ups were frequent and crucial to keep an engine running. This was a time when carburetors needed their jets cleaned and adjusted, a points ignition system needed the distributor cap and rotor replaced and spark plug electrodes wore down in months, not years. Fuel had more contaminants, too. At that time, a tune-up could range from changing the oil to a complete engine rebuild to replace worn-out seals.

What is a car tune-up today? What it involves depends on the mileage and age of your vehicle as well as wear and tear. The most common understanding for a tune-up is still replacing spark plugs.

Think of it like a dental checkup. You sit in the hygienist’s chair twice a year to get a cleaning and polishing and checkup for cavities. Maybe once a year, you’ll have X-rays taken. The dentist will decide whether any emerging cavities need immediate attention or can be pushed to the next visit, preventing small problems from becoming bigger, more complex issues.

The same goes for a tune-up on a car. The maintenance schedule dictates things that will definitely need to be done routinely, such as changing the oil and filter, replacing the engine air filter, exchanging fluids and even replacing a timing belt. But the check-up might detect issues such as worn brakes or tires, a leak, loose or broken steering or suspension or an illuminated Check Engine light, and they’ll need to be addressed.

What’s included in a tune-up?

What is included in a car tune-up depends on the vehicle and who is doing the work. If you’re maintaining your car at the dealership where it was purchased, the service department will probably recommend maintenance based on the manufacturer’s maintenance schedule while checking the previous services performed. They have the specialized equipment and parts on hand. Dealers tend to perform maintenance items such as:

  • Oil and filter changes
  • Tire rotations
  • Brake cleaning and adjustments
  • Engine air filter and cabin air filter replacements
  • Fuel injection services
  • Transmission fluid flushes
  • Differential services (for trucks and SUVs)
  • Cooling system flushes
  • Spark plug replacements
  • Timing belt replacements
  • Multi-point inspections

If you take your car to an independent shop or quick-lube lane, the tune-up advice likely follows their own recommendations loosely based on the owner’s manual but without the benefit of knowing what’s already been done. They also may not have the equipment to do certain repairs, nor do they stock the parts necessary for every vehicle. They commonly suggest:

  • Synthetic oil and filter changes
  • Tire rotations
  • Engine air filter replacements
  • Transmission servicing
  • Driveline fluid changes
  • Cooling system flushes
  • Brake fluid exchanges

How long does a tune-up take?

The place where you take your car for service should give you a good idea of how long it will be tied up. Most maintenance repairs take relatively short amounts of time, so even having several services done in the same visit may only take a half-day or so. Here are a few approximations:

Time estimates for common services performed during a tune-up.

Keep in mind that your service visit takes more time than just the work performed. Time is also needed for dispatching a technician, plus coffee or lunch breaks, invoicing and the many other tasks service personnel deal with on a daily basis. That’s why you may need to leave your vehicle with a 40-minute time slot for a 15-minute tire rotation.

How much does a tune-up cost?

The price will heavily depend on what is included in a tune-up. So many factors go into the cost, including the types of services you need, your vehicle’s make and model, its engine size and if there are any additional recommendations once your car is being worked on. It’s also going to vary between franchised dealerships and independent repair shops.

Replacing the spark plugs on a four-cylinder Chevy Cruze will be a fraction of the cost of doing so on an eight-cylinder Dodge Ram 1500 Hemi-powered truck where there are two spark plugs per cylinder. European and exotic vehicles are notoriously more expensive to maintain, too.

That said, we’ve compiled a range of prices on common services from dealerships and repair providers in the United States, including parts and labor.

Cost estimates for common tune-up services.

How often should I get a tune-up?

A group of engineers designed the car you drive, and they established guidelines to take care of it. You’ll find those requirements and recommendations in either your owner’s manual or the maintenance guide that came with your car. If you lost them or didn’t get the books when you bought a used car, most manufacturers have the information available on their website under the “owners” section.

By and large, tune-up items are scheduled based on time and mileage. For example, transmission service might be required every 100,000 miles or five years, whichever comes first.

The exception for many cars today is the oil change. Most cars now have an oil life monitor that tracks how your car is used and recommends an oil change when it assumes the oil is getting dirty. Follow your oil life monitor if your vehicle is equipped with one, or have an oil change performed at least once per year.

Can I do my own tune-up?

Many car owners enjoy taking care of their own maintenance and saving money on things such as car tune-ups. If that describes you, doing your own tune-up might be on your radar soon. But is it something you can do fully and properly on your own?

There are plenty of things someone can tackle with basic skills, tools and YouTube videos. What is included in a tune-up that you can do yourself? You can likely change oil, rotate tires, change air filters and wiper blades, flush coolant and even change spark plugs.

Some tasks look possible at home—and technically they are—but oftentimes they are best left to the professionals. A transmission service can be done, but it’s much easier to do on a shop’s hoist and you might need a code reader to clear a Check Engine light afterward. A timing belt usually requires special tools only dealers have, plus it’s a job that can destroy an engine if done incorrectly.

When you take your car to a mechanic for a tune-up, they’re also on the lookout for additional concerns you might miss. They’re much more likely to notice these issues than most DIYers: worn suspension or brakes; signs of an alignment issue; little leaks that could become big problems; worn-out timing belt tensioners that could take out your new belt immediately; or faulty O2 sensors causing the Check Engine light.

Even if you decide to do your own tune-up, it’s a great idea to occasionally take your car to a mechanic for service, so they can look it over with a professional eye.

About Bumper

At Bumper, we are on a mission to bring vehicle history reports and ownership up to speed with modern times. A vehicle is one of the most expensive purchases you'll likely make, and you deserve to have access to the same tools and information the pros use to make the right decisions.

About Jason Unrau

Jason Unrau is an expert automotive writer with more than 21 years of auto industry experience, first in auto dealerships for 15 years and then as a writer. Having grown up around cars, the feel of a wrench became familiar for him and before graduating from high school, he had rebuilt engines and carburetors on personal vehicles. After school, Jason entered the workforce at a car dealership and worked his way through several positions in both sales and service. Jason has in-depth knowledge of the automotive industry at the dealership level along with repair information. Now, as a full-time writer, he writes engaging content in all different aspects of the automotive industry.

Disclaimer: The above is solely intended for informational purposes and in no way constitutes legal advice or specific recommendations.