Winter is the enemy of the car. Cold temperatures make it harder for an engine to work properly. Snow and ice limit traction. Potholes damage wheels and tires. Salt causes rust, and gravel pits the paint. The following are some easy steps to help your vehicle weather the storms of winter.
1. Consider using snow tires: If your tires are worn or if they are high-performance or all-season tires, braking, acceleration and handling will suffer on slippery roads. Because of reduced vehicle capabilities, the likelihood of skidding (and possibly crashing) increases. All-season tires will work to a certain point, but their effectiveness depends on their tread depth.
If you have the cash, consider buying a set of winter tires, which are designed to provide maximum traction in snow and ice. You might also consider getting a dedicated set of rims for your winter tires so you don't have to remount them each year.
2. Check your tire pressure: Tire pressure is especially important during the winter, because traction is often at a minimum due to wet or snowy conditions. Properly inflated tires will guarantee the best possible contact between the tire and the driving surface. In winter's lower temperatures, however, the cooler air contracts, and the air pressure in your tires can drop. That's why it's advisable to do a check for proper inflation as fall turns to winter, and then continue to check periodically throughout the season. Proper inflation also saves money because it minimizes tire wear. Read your owner's manual to find the correct tire pressure, or look for the sticker in the driver side doorjamb.
3. Review the use of your four-wheel-drive or all-wheel-drive system: A big selling point for SUVs is that many offer four-wheel-drive (4WD) or full-time all-wheel-drive (AWD) systems, which improve traction in slippery conditions. Since most people don't use their 4WD systems during the summer, it's a good idea to review how they work. You should consider checking the owner's manual to learn the different driving settings and when to use them. The owner's manual will state at what speeds and in what environments you should activate 4WD.
All-wheel-drive systems, on the other hand, are usually automatic. If your vehicle loses traction, the system automatically engages, supplying power to the wheels that most need it. Again, review your owner's manual to see how your system performs.
4. Consider using a different oil in the winter: When winter arrives and the temperature drops, the oil in your car will become thicker. This means the engine may be harder to start, and the oil won't circulate as well during the warm-up process. To solve this wintertime problem, some engines might perform better with a thinner oil. This may be more of an issue on older vehicles, since many new cars already come with oil that's thin enough to withstand the winter. To determine the best type of oil for your car in winter, read the owner's manual. It will list the manufacturer's oil recommendations for different climates. If a dealership or local garage performs the oil change, check with the manager beforehand to make sure the desired oil type and viscosity is available.
5. Inspect the belts and hoses: Belts and hoses in modern cars lead long lives. But that doesn't mean they don't die. Cold temperatures can split hoses and break belts, so have them inspected before winter starts. Replace anything that looks marginal so you won't be stranded in a blizzard by the side of the road.
6. Inspect the wipers and windshield washer fluid: Maintaining good visibility is a struggle in winter, as rain, snow and salt build up on the windshield. Part of the solution is to make sure the rubber on your wiper blades is not dried out or split. There are even some aftermarket wiper blades specially made for winter use. Also, check and fill your windshield washer fluid reservoir and make sure it is filled with fluid that has been mixed with a de-icer. Additives in the fluid will keep it from freezing at low temperatures.
7. Check the battery: Batteries give little notice before they die, and they absolutely love to expire at the worst possible moment. Very cold temperatures can reduce a vehicle's battery power by up to 50 percent. If your vehicle battery is older than three years, have it tested at an automotive repair facility. If you're the DIY type, you can roll up your sleeves and clean corroded battery posts with baking soda, water and a small wire brush.
8. Check coolant level and mixture: Most antifreeze that you'll find in automotive supply stores comes pre-mixed, so just make sure the coolant reservoir is filled to the proper level. In especially cold areas, consider testing the antifreeze to make sure it will prevent freezing during a cold snap. You can check the composition of a radiator's mixture by using an antifreeze tester — an inexpensive device available online or at auto parts stores.
9. Carry an emergency kit in your car: A roadside kit doesn't take up much space and can be valuable in an emergency. Many companies sell pre-assembled kits, but if you want to save a few bucks, you may already have the key items around the house. Things you might want to consider carrying include:
- A flashlight, flares and a first-aid kit
- Jumper cables and/or a portable jump starter (which doesn't require another car)
- A tool kit and tire chains
- A blanket, warm clothes, hat and gloves
- Paper towels
- A bag of abrasive material, such as sand, salt or non-clumping kitty litter. Use this for added traction when a tire is stuck.
- A snow brush, ice scraper and snow shovel
- Extra washer fluid
- Extra food and water
10. Check the heater and windshield defroster: Winter will put your vehicle's windshield defrosters to the test. It's a good idea to verify that they are in working order. While you're at it, check the air-conditioner, too. An easy way to speed up the defrost process is to turn on the A/C. (You can leave the temperature dial on warm so you don't have to suffer.) And now is also a good time to make sure your heating system works.