Keeping your vehicle in tip-top shape requires constant monitoring of vital fluids. Read you owners manual and look for a diagram of the engine. Most times there will be a diagram showing where to check all the major fluids. This should be your starting point. If your manual is lost in the glove box or you never had one, then ask your mechanic or a friend who knows cars to show you all the places to check. There are 4 major levels to check on most cars.
Engine oil - Usually towards the front of the engine and marked "OIL" Always check your oil level with the engine OFF. Remove the dipstick and wipe the oil off with the rag or towel then put the dipstick back into the hole. Now pull out and get a reading. You might have to hold the dipstick to the light to get a good reading as fresh oil can sometimes be hard to see. On the dipstick there will be two marks indicating a maximum and minimum level for the oil. Make it a habit of checking your oil every two weeks.
Transmission fluid - If you have an automatic transmission then you will have a dipstick to check the fluid level. It is most commonly found towards the back of the engine compartment or towards the passenger side. You should find out how to check the fluid by looking at the owner's manual or on the dipstick itself. Most cars have to be running with the transmission in park or neutral. Also the transmission should be warmed up to give a true reading. Make sure the car has been driven for a short distance to make sure everything is up to operating temperature. Checking the level is just like checking your oil, wipe off dipstick, replace, pull out again and check level. If you have a manual transmission there is no dipstick and to check the fluid level you must crawl under the car and remove a fill plug. I would have your mechanic check this for you once a year if you do not feel comfortable doing this.
Engine coolant - -- CAUTION -- Never open your radiator cap when the engine is hot ! The pressure in the system can send hot coolant splashing out on to you. Most cars have an overflow bottle, which will have level markings. Keep the coolant between these markings. If you have to open the radiator, make sure the engine is cold.
Power steering fluid - Your car uses oil to assist in steering the car. The fluid is usually checked at the pump, but can be away from the pump in a separate reservoir. Like the transmission, this fluid should also be checked when up to operating temperature. Most commonly the level is measured by a small dipstick attached to the cap of the reservoir.
Brake fluid - On most newer cars you can check brake fluid level without removing the cap on the master cylinder. There will be level markings on the side of the plastic reservoir. If you have to remove the cover to check the fluid level, be careful not to spill any fluid on the surrounding paint. Brake fluid makes a nice paint remover :-)
Windshield washer fluid - That's the magic blue liquid that squirts out of your hood. Most reservoirs have the level marked on the side but some newer cars have them buried underneath everything so you can not see. Just fill to the top, there is no harm in overfilling.
If you need to add any fluids to bring the levels up, a funnel is helpful to avoid spills. Keep track of how often you add oil, and transmission fluid. Frequent additions can point to leaks and engine wear.
Kevin Schappell maintains http://www.carbuyersclub.com where he gives advice on buying, selling, insurance, and financing. A mechanical engineer and car guy, Kevin has decided to spend his online time helping others learn about automobiles. To learn more about how your car works, Kevin has created http://www.mycarwizard.com.