If you’re the kind of person who drives their car until saying goodbye feels more like a mercy killing than retirement, you’ll have to replace the drive belts at least once. However, most car owners aren’t familiar with drive belts regarding their purpose, care, or replacement. From the differences between drive belts to the symptoms of a bad one, we’ve got you covered. 

What Are Drive Belts? Serpentine Belt vs. Timing Belt

Most modern, fuel-powered cars have two drive belts, the serpentine belt and the timing belt. 

The timing belt opens and closes engine valves in conjunction with a vehicle’s pistons and allows the crankshaft to turn the camshaft. To simplify things in a way that would pain a mechanic, the crankshaft and camshaft are the foundation of your car’s engine. Together, they ensure that the engine correctly goes through the intake, compression, power, and exhaust strokes, enabling your car to operate smoothly.

The serpentine belt powers various engine components, including your alternator, power steering pump, air conditioner, and more. Simply put, your serpentine belt powers many of your car’s functionally necessary and quality-of-life features (for example, your alternator charges your battery and other electrical components such as infotainment systems). 

Long story short, there is no “timing belt versus serpentine belt” comparison – they may work together, but both serve distinct functions. Your drive belts are instrumental to your car’s longevity – without them, you aren’t going anywhere fast. To be precise, you’re going nowhere at all. 

Do All Cars Have Drive Belts?

Not all cars have drive belts. Before timing and serpentine belts became standard, many older cars used timing chains and V-belts. Most brands have entirely transitioned away from V-belts in favor of serpentine belts. However, some brands, like BMW, still use timing chains instead of belts for many makes and models – check your owner’s manual if you need clarification on whether your car uses a belt or a chain.

In contrast, most electric vehicles (EVs) eschew drive belts entirely. Since EVs use electric motors instead of internal combustion engines, they don’t need drive belts. 

Picture of electric motors being assembled.
Electric motors don’t require the same drive belts as internal combustion engines.

How Often Do I Need to Replace My Timing Belt?

Timing belt replacement requirements vary by vehicle, so check your owner’s manual, but generally, timing belts last between 60,000-100,000 miles. 

Timing Belt Replacement Cost

Replacing a timing belt usually costs between $400-1,000, depending on the type of car (some timing belts are harder to replace than others). If you want to minimize timing belt replacement costs, do so before it breaks – because broken time belts often result in other damaged parts, replacing a broken time belt can easily double the cost. Unfortunately, due to how long timing belts last, most timing belt replacement costs aren’t covered by insurance (but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth checking your policy!).

How Do I Make My Timing Belt Last Longer?

Timing belts are pretty hardy – they usually don’t need any explicit maintenance. That said, if you want to extend the lifespan of your timing belt, ask your mechanic to look at the surrounding components – the tensioners, water pump, and belt path pulleys – when you bring it in for routine servicing. These parts sometimes wear out more quickly than the belt itself, and keeping them in good condition (or replacing them with newer, more efficient components) can help the timing belt itself last longer.

timing belt vs. serpentine belt picture.
Keeping the components around a timing belt clean or replacing them entirely can help extend your timing belt’s lifespan.

Bad Timing Belt Symptoms

You may want to ask your mechanic to take a look at your timing belt if:

  • The check engine light comes on;
  • The engine won’t turn over and/or starts to misfire;
  • Smoke emits from the engine after starting the car;
  • Oil starts leaking from the motor. 

Your owner’s manual should tell you how long the drive belts that came with the car will last – once you get within 5,000-10,000 miles of those limits, ask your mechanic to check your drive belts whenever you bring it in for service. They may charge a few bucks extra for the time spent, but considering how costly drive belt repairs can be if they break, better safe than sorry! If your car shows any symptoms of a bad timing belt, take it in sooner rather than later.

How Often Do I Need to Replace My Serpentine Belt?

Like timing belts, a serpentine belt may have a longer or shorter shelf life depending on the vehicle, but most will last around 90,000-100,000 miles.

Serpentine Belt Replacement Cost 

Serpentine belt replacement costs usually run around $100-250, depending on the vehicle – it’ll hurt your wallet a lot less to replace a serpentine belt versus a timing belt. Sadly, similar to timing belts, most auto insurance plans don’t cover serpentine belt replacement costs. 

Picture of drive belts powering parts of the vehicle.
Your drive belts power a number of vital components in your vehicle.

How Do I Make My Serpentine Belt Last Longer?

Like timing belts, serpentine belts are pretty hardy. That said, if you want to extend its life a bit, ask your mechanic to apply some belt dressing when you take your car in for service. Applying belt dressing roughly every three thousand miles (or whenever you take your car in for an oil change) can extend the lifespan of your serpentine belt. 

Bad Serpentine Belt Symptoms

You may want to ask your mechanic to check your serpentine belt if:

  • The check engine light comes on;
  • Your car’s water pump starts leaking,
  • Your engine starts overheating;
  • Your power steering fails or feels faulty;
  • Your battery suddenly drains and/or your engine stops without warning;
  • You start hearing a “chirp” or “squeal” coming from under the hood, indicating a slipping belt. 

Like timing belts, it’s a good idea to start checking on the health of your serpentine belt if your car shows any bad serpentine belt symptoms and/or it’s reaching its expiration mile.

There you have it! A rundown on what exactly your drive belts do, how to tell if they’re going bad, and the cost of replacing one (or both). In the market for more auto tips and news? Stay tuned!

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