How Does Driving Short Distances Affect Car Servicing?

How often should you get your car serviced if you just don’t drive it very much?

Lots of people just don’t drive much - you might be one of them. You might be lucky enough to live so close you can walk to work, or you might work from home. Or you might have retired and given the rat race the flick. Half your luck - having a latte while everyone else is stuck in gridlock. But how should you service your car to keep it reliable and ensure its longevity, without ripping yourself off, paying for service you don’t need? Let’s find out.

(Come to think of it, I’m one of those people. The mighty Cadoges’ RenaultSport Clio generally languishes in the driveway while I drive other test cars for evaluation. And I hear from a lot of people who just don’t drive much.)


Just last week, Meg wrote in. She’s done under 10,000 kilometres in four years in her Audi A3, and the Audi dealer’s hitting her up right now for a major service - which is more your 60,000km proposition, typically.

Dear John,

Happy New Year! I'm a listener on Radio 2UE. I enjoy and appreciate your show. I have a four-year-old Audi A3 sportback, with only 9600 kilometres on the clock. It’s had two regular service with Audi. It was nearly a year since the last service and this time the Audi dealer insisted I have a major service on it.

As the car hasn't been driven all that much, can I leave the major service to next year, and still have a normal service this year? Or do I need to have a major service now (with 9600km) as the Audi dealer said? Should a major service be based on the distance driven or the age of the car? Would you please advise me?

Thank you.

And Fred e-mailed me via the website last week as well. He’s an 88-year-old pensioner, and people walk further than he drives every week - but that driving is probably pretty important to Fred. Two years down the track he’s done about one-twentieth the average amount of driving - but the services keep piling up because they are time- and distance-based. Every 12 months or 15,000km - whichever comes first:

Dear John,

As an 88-year-old pensioner on a restricted licence I drive very little. My concern is the service interval required as per book against the actual distance I have driven. The second service was due at 15,000km and the actual distance driven was 868km. Third service due at 30,000km and the actual distance is going to be more like 1400km.

I’d appreciate your advice as to the necessity of these future services for low kilometre cars like mine. There must be plenty of other people with the same question - are we being ripped off by these car dealers? In my opinion it’s another racket.

I thank you John for your attention.

OK - so let’s get to the bottom of this. How do you service a car when you can measure the average daily driving with a tape measure?


First up: if your car is under warranty, you’re kind of stuck with the servicing schedule. You’ll void the warranty if you don’t get the car serviced according to the manufacturer’s instructions - the ACCC is pretty clear on that. It might be a good idea to choose a car with annual servicing intervals as opposed to six-monthly if you know you’re not going to be a big-distance driver.


Out of warranty, you can make your own servicing arrangements by tweaking the servicing schedule to suit the kind of driving you do. First up, I’d forget about using the dealership for service. Use a trusted independent mechanic who knows the kind of car you own. Dealership service is generally a rip-off, for two reasons: First up, and most obviously, it’s over-priced. Secondly, it’s often not very good, from a quality point of view. Going independent will save you hundreds of dollars per service, and the independent bloke will probably also do a better job (since it’s his core business). Dealerships are notorious rip-off merchants on service, and also not very good at it.

If I didn’t drive much I’d get the car serviced every six months. Every second service can be just a quick once-over and an engine oil change (plus the oil filter). This ‘intermediate’ service should cost very little but it’s quite important because short trips and low-kilometre running is hell on earth for engine oil.


Here’s the short explanation: Engines are made of metal. Metal expands with temperature. Engine parts - like crankshafts, pistons, rings, valves, con-rods, cams - they’re machined to very precise tolerances and clearances - we’re talking thousandths of an inch; sometimes microns. And when those parts are cold, the clearances just aren’t right. A cold engine is like a man wearing a bad, off-the-rack suit. A warm engine is Daniel Craig playing James Bond at Casino Royale. So, in a cold engine, the oil is in hell because a) it’s not really warm enough to do an outstanding job, and b) none of the parts are the right size yet. Combustion byproducts blow past the rings and enter the oil, which never really gets hot enough to evaporate them off, if only short distances are driven. So the oil loses its magical ability to lubricate - which means maintaining a slippery, thin, but very tough film to separate the metal parts under stress. That’s bad.

Bottom line: engine oil wears out quicker the less you drive. But you can fix the problem simply by changing the oil twice a year. At the same time, a six-monthly mechanical once-over is also worthwhile as a general health check - if the mechanic picks up some uneven tyre wear he can get the wheels aligned and save you the cost of two replacement tyres. If your brakes are losing fluid, that’s good to know - before they fail. And dozens of other similar scenarios. It’s good to know early. Basic safety checks at six months are a good idea.


The manufacturer’s prescribed servicing schedule assume a broad range of average driving and therefore wear. If you don’t drive much, you’re well outside that, in a good way, so you will throttle back on some aspects of servicing cost. Parts that wear in direct relation to the distance you drive (like tyres and brakes, dampers, bushes - things like that) will last, subjectively, for ever, if you just don’t drive that much.

But parts that wear out wholly or partly in relation to time are still things you definitely need to worry about - even if you drive very little. Of these the most significant is the timing belt in the engine - these wear partly in relation to time. If they fail, it’s catastrophic. (At 3000rpm the engine is doing 50 revs per second. If the timing belt fails the pistons hit the valves at that speed. There’s a loud noise, and then they get their solicitor to write to you claiming damages. The bill will be un-jump-over-able. If that’s a word. I’m pretty sure it is.) Changing a timing belt is quite an expensive job, in the context of servicing generally, but it’s cheap in comparison to the replacement of an engine, which is exactly the risk you’re taking if you don’t change the belt.


You can extend sensibly the time of the major service - in consultation with a good mechanic who knows you, who understands your driving and is familiar with your specific make and model. This is where a good mechanic really is worth his weight in gold. Don’t just base it on the distance, however, because some things (like timing belts) have a lifespan that’s in part related to the time they’ve been in service. And you’re playing Russian roulette with far too many chambers loaded if you just let it slide. If you drive 2500km a year and your car’s service interval is 15,000km, don’t decide the next service is due in six years. That’s really why they wrote the looney tunes cartoon theme.

So, work out a plan with a good independent mechanic, who’ll keep your servicing costs as low as possible without courting disaster.