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I am planning on taking my mid-life vehicle (~100,000 miles) on a long distance drive (~1,200 miles) over the course of a couple of days.

I don't have much experience with car mechanics or long-distance driving. I rarely get on the highway or take my car above 70 mph.

What kind of stresses would such a drive press on a vehicle? Should I be concerned for anything, i.e. is long-distance driving harmful to a vehicle? If so, what contingencies could I prepare?

For the record, my vehicle is a 2011 Hyundai Elantra.

10 Answers 10

44

Take your car to a mechanic and get it looked at. Make sure that all belts and hoses are in good condition, and all fluids are topped up. Make sure you know the rate at which your engine burns oil, so you know how often to check it, and carry spare oil with you. Make sure your tires have plenty of tread and are properly inflated, and have no sidewall damage, and monitor the tire pressure regularly. Ideally, carry a spare tire and jack and wrench, but a lot of newer cars don't come with these anymore, which is lamentable.

Other than that, you don't have to do very much, as long as the vehicle is in good shape.

Last year I took my then ten-year-old Honda over 5,000 km (~3100 mi.) from Saskatchewan to see the eclipse and visit the US west coast, and other than two stone chips on the windshield, I had no problems. This year I'm taking it almost 6,000 km (~3725 mi.) to Texas via Kansas City, and back via Santa Fe, Denver and Deadwood, and I'm not terribly worried. There is a chance I could have a failure, but that is possible with a newer car, too. (My car has just over 192,000 km (~119,300 mi.) on it.)

Drive safely - know your route in advance if possible. Be well rested, take adequate breaks for food, drink and bathroom relief (and resting your eyes and body), and enjoy the trip. Make sure you have a fully-charged phone with you in case you have trouble, and carry lots of water, especially in the summer, in case you get thirsty in an isolated area.

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    @B.fox Modern vehicles are a lot more reliable than they once were. One other thing: make sure you have good tires, and make sure to check their inflation regularly. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 23 '18 at 21:28
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    @B.fox One other thing: the biggest dangers are inattention and fatigue. Pay close attention to everything on the road, avoid distraction where possible, and be well rested. Don't drive further than your body and mind will let you. – Jim MacKenzie Apr 23 '18 at 21:30
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    @Jim MacKenzie's advice above is particularly apt for the OP, a driver who has little experience with long trips. – David Apr 23 '18 at 21:44
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    Regarding @JimMacKenzie's note, if OP is really going to do 1200 miles in 2 days, that's going to be close to 10 hours per day behind the wheel. I think even many experienced drivers would find it hard to stay alert for a day that long. I'd encourage OP to adjust the itinerary to allow for more travel time. – Nate Eldredge Apr 23 '18 at 23:42
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    While this is all good advice, I would be very surprised if you needed to top-up oil or tyre pressure after just 1200 miles. – Martin Bonner Apr 24 '18 at 7:13
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You might want to consider a membership to a roadside assistance plan, which will at least give you a number to call for 24/7 repair services or towing should you have a problem during your trip.

  • In Canada, I have found CAA to provide excellent service for a very reasonable cost. Actually, I've never actually gotten my own membership, but just borrowed a family member's card when I needed it (3 tows over four years). 'Course, that only works if you break down locally, so I'd suggest getting the 200km+ option which costs a bit more if OP plans on driving in remote areas. CAA is a partner company to AAA in the US. – user76841 Apr 24 '18 at 0:16
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    This! My parents had their 10 year old car break down 3000 km from home, a week into their 3 week trip. Since the water pump had melted (yep) it was a totall loss. Their roadside assistance (ANWB, also an AAA partner company) took care of demolishing their old car and allowed them to borrow a brand new car for a month, so they could finish their trip and look for a new car when they got home. – Belle-Sophie Apr 24 '18 at 7:22
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    This was the first thing that occurred to me when I read the question. If you're worried about a risk torpedoing a plan, insure against it, then proceed with your original plan. – MadHatter Apr 25 '18 at 5:47
  • @Belle-Sophie How did they manage to do that? I've run old ('62) car dry for several kilometers in summer. There was no cooling water in the system even to develop a steam. After refill and replacing the safety cap in the pump the car was OK. First attempt to refill hid whole car in a steam cloud... – Crowley Apr 26 '18 at 11:22
  • @Crowley I'm not sure. Why don't we discuss this in chat? chat.stackexchange.com/rooms/591/you-are-here – Belle-Sophie Apr 26 '18 at 11:25
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A lot of wear and tear happens when you drive while the engine is still cold. On a long distance drive, your engine will be at its optimal temperature most of the time.

A lot of wear and tear happens when you accelerate and slow down, use the brakes, the clutch, etc. On a long distance drive, you might be two hours on the motorway without ever braking or shifting gears.

So, the wear and tear, and the chances of breaking down, are less than if you did the same distance 5 miles at a time over many weeks.

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    Agree with this answer, but I want to add, watch out for issues that only show up after driving for more than a few miles. My friend's car overheated the first time we drove a long distance in it, because he'd never driving it more than a couple miles and the radiator was faulty. – nathancahill Apr 24 '18 at 4:33
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This may sound strange, but have you considered renting a car for the trip? Rentals are usually well maintained and a mid size car with unlimited miles will cost less than the cost of a tuneup.

  • Not strange at all. AAA publishes a guide that allows a rough estimation of the per-mile cost of driving various classes of vehicles. It can often be cheaper in the long run to rent for drives in the thousands of miles. – Peter Schilling Apr 25 '18 at 3:49
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    For a small sedan like an Elantra, maintenance+depreciation runs about 21 cents per mile, so a 1200-mile drive might be around $250, which is probably more expensive than a 2-day rental with unlimited mileage. – Peter Schilling Apr 25 '18 at 3:55
  • I did this when my kids were small. I'd rent a big Cadillac with plenty of room for everyone plus luggage. Cramming everyone into one of our small cars would not have been pleasant for anyone. First time I had a car set to 100mph on cruise control. Wheee! – Tim Nevins Apr 26 '18 at 19:48
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In addition to the other answers I'd suggest planning for the contingency that you need to split the drive over 3 days instead of 2, if you find you are getting tired or making slower progress than expected.

So, know where you'd head if you had to break for the night after 6 or 8 hours instead of 10 (or sitting in an unexpected traffic jam for several hours).

Then you can adjust your plans if necessary and stop in a town with food and rest available, rather than finding out halfway across a mountain pass that your eyes won't stay open any longer.

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[Technically, the question is about the vehicle, but I venture that a human being of good judgement would allow it.]

Not that it will actually help, but... you need to be aware that your reaction time will be dulled by about 2 to 1.5 (additional) seconds. [This is from personal experience, not science.]

Also (since I'm here)... if you are getting tired... I have found that annoying music is far less effective than enjoyable music; pick something that you want to sing along to. (This is not to be taken as explicit advice to push on when you are tired.)

More subjectively... I find that it is a sign of getting tired, that I am less able to stick to the speed limit effectively, and to follow my desired line on corners; I would not immediately take this as an indication to pull off the road, but certainly as a flag. If and when it gets worse, pull over! [Pardon me speaking strongly.] (I am speaking as a then-full-time driver; I do not know how it translates, for someone who does not normally drive for hours.)

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    If you are tired, pull over and sleep! Drowsy driving is drunk driving. Rural cops get it, and don't hassle sleepers. – Harper Apr 24 '18 at 21:37
  • This! The vehicle is only part of the system, the driver is another part of the system. OP must consider the complete package, not just the mechanicals. – Criggie Apr 24 '18 at 22:09
  • pick something that you want to sing along to. this makes my long drives enjoyable – Nino Škopac Apr 30 '18 at 4:23
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I've driven my Opel Corsa 1.3 CDTi (I don't remember the exact year it was manufactured but it would've been in the early 2000s) that at that point in time already had a mileage of more than 250,000 KM (250 thousand kilometers) across Europe twice (from Croatia to Netherlands and back) which is 1420 KM each way without a problem. The car has always been properly maintained, the roads were in perfect condition, and I was traveling in the summertime. Furthermore, those were trips where I only took small brakes to refuel, eat and stretch my legs.

Like others have said, it's all about the condition. Planes can be 30 years old and more, but if they're properly maintained there's no reason to decommission them.

To answer your question, I wouldn't worry about it.

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Aside from all the other good advice, keep an eye on the car's engine temperature gauge and plan to stop as soon as you can safely do so if it exceeds the normal temperature. Failure to do so will quickly destroy your car, or at least total it in the sense that it's economically impractical to repair unless you know how to do all the work yourself.

If you absolutely need to keep going for a while in a vehicle that's overheating because you don't feel safe where you are, turn the AC off and the heater on full blast. Depending on the cause of the overheating, this might be able to dissipate enough heat that you don't destroy your engine immediately.

Another possible failure mode (which I once experienced) on long trips is loss of transmission fluid due to seal failure. The likely symptom is feeling like the car barely speeds up when you press the accelerator. If this happens you want to stop and get a tow. I kept driving (topping off the transmission fluid again and again) and ended up needing a transmission rebuild (likely over $2500 in 2018 dollars) rather than just a seal replacement.

  • The #1 thing that will spike your engine temperature gauge is running the air conditioning while working the engine hard, e.g. climbing a grade. (And people are often oblivious of being on a grade.) However the usual failure mode is radiator boil over, which is spectacular and most people stop immediately, before engine failure occurs. I would also say looking at your engine temp gauge is useless unless you know what "normal" looks like. So watch it regularly, before you have trouble. – Harper Apr 27 '18 at 1:38
  • @Harper: Rather than boil-over you can burst a hose. If you're at highway speed with ac on internal recirculation and the burst spraying down you may not see or smell it. Head gasket failure is also a real possibility and you won't see the coolant loss because it goes out the exhaust. – R.. Apr 27 '18 at 2:47
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If you maintain your vehicle well and it's mechanically sound, then there shouldn't be any issues. My car is 13 years old. We've had it for 12 of those 13 years. I live in the central U.S. My car went over 100,000 miles (160,000 km) during the middle of a 4,000 mile (6,400 km) round-trip to the west coast. It went over 125,000 miles (200,000 km) during a 1,300 mile (2,000 km) round-trip to the east coast. It went over 150,000 miles (240,000 km) during a 1,000 mile (1,600 km) round-trip to New Orleans.

I currently have 185,000 miles (almost 300,000 km) on this car. It needs some suspension work, a new power steering pump, and new tires. With that work, I would have complete confidence in driving it on a similar trip.

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There are two parts to the additional stress. First, running at real speed, i.e. 70-80 mph. . Second, sustained high power operation. Doing both for the first time will expose existing flaws in the car. So do these things early and often, well before the trip, to shake the bugs out of the car.

Western rural speed limits are 75-85, however it is rare for traffic to exceed that. Traffic is mostly trucks, and their fuel cost goes up a lot with speed.

Once your car is happily cruising and stable, it should be relatively stable. Just as aircraft rarely have a problem in cruise, constant speed cruising for a car is easy service. The only things which wear worse are tires and suspension.

  • 130 km/h are not very fast for most modern cars, and definitely not something requiring "high power". Many cars approach Vmax of 200km/h at full power, which requires about 2.4x the power of 130km/h, or the other way around: In this case you only use about 40% of the max power output of the engine when going 130km/h. – JimmyB Apr 26 '18 at 15:41
  • @JimmyB Aside from meaning "high power" relative to what his engine normally does... the American West has a triple whammy which gobbles up that 40% in a hurry. First, much is on high steppe of 4000-8000' which derates your aspirated engine by 20-30%. Second you're on grades a lot, and even 1-2% drags you down. Third is the wind. My little car with stickshift (I keep it in top gear) often spends hours at a time at WOT (gas to floor) unable to attain the speed limit. Still gets 30+ MPG, so, not complaining. – Harper May 3 '18 at 2:48

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