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Free time? Read your car manual

Read a good car manual this week? In recent months? In the last 10 years? Ever? If you're like most motorists, the answer is probably no, even if you've just taken delivery of a brand-new car. Maybe you did thumb through the pages so as to locate the fuse box or find out how to jack up the car. Motorists on the whole, however, don't bother much with the soft-cover book inside the glove box.

And that's a pity, automakers say. A car manual is ``important literature,'' in the sense that it describes the new car you've just bought and offers an array of tips on how to service and maintain it to keep up its value. The manual can tell you what to do when the engine doesn't sound quite right, how to get the car all set for winter (or spring), and how to perform some of the simple jobs and maybe avoid a trip to the service shop.

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When the fuel gauge of a spanking-new '85 Dodge Aries failed to function briefly on a drive from New Orleans to Boston (the needle remained at the top even as the tank continued to empty its fuel), I reached into the glove box, opened the car manual to the section on ``capacities,'' and found out that the car had a 14-gallon fuel tank.

Knowing that the car would give at least 25 miles to a gallon, I figured I'd need a fuel-tank fill-up at around 300 miles. I pulled up to a gas pump soon after I'd gone about that far -- and was right on the button. (After that, by the way, the fuel gauge worked fine.)

You don't have to ``break in'' a car these days in the old sense of the word. Yet the manual will tell you the best way to launch your new vehicle and get the most wear for the dollars spent to buy it.

The Aries manual, for instance, recommends that you ``limit your speed during the first 500 miles (800 kilometers) to a maximum of 55 m.p.h. (90 km/h); but do not drive for long periods at any one constant speed, either fast or slow. During this time, avoid full-throttle starts and, if possible, avoid hard stops, especially during the first 200 miles (320 km) of driving.

``Always drive at moderate speed until the engine has completely warmed up.''

Hardly great literature -- it could be less wordy -- but the information car manuals provide could save you money in the end.

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