Driving under winter conditions can be hard on drivers, but it can be even harder on cars. If you are not prepared for the change in seasons, snow, ice, and cold temperatures can turn what's normally a leisurely drive into a literal battle for survival for both you and your vehicle.
The time to get your car ready for cold-weather driving is now, not when winter's fury is in full force. Here are some basic pointers on what to consider, and what to do.
Snow tires are a must if you live where ice and snow covered roads are common. No, all season tires won't do, unless you like turning a simple drive into a hair-raising roller coaster experience. Independent testing consistently reports that snow tires simply provide more grip and shorter stops on ice and snow than even the best all-season radial. That could spell the difference between a controlled, safe ride, and a trip to the auto body shop, or worse. And that holds true for owners of AWD cars and trucks, too. Our report on snow tires delves into just how much a difference a snow tire can make with just about any vehicle, and names some top performers and top values. Oh, and for maximum performance and safety in any season, use a tire gauge on a regular basis to make sure that whatever tire you choose is properly inflated.
Batteries tend to go dead in the winter. While it's summer's heat that takes the greatest toll on car batteries, most wait to actually die in the coldest months. That's not because they are being perverse, it's that the stresses of cold weather starting are what generally push a weakened battery over the edge. When the temperatures drop below zero, oil thickens, making it harder to start the engine (so stay on top of your oil changes and make sure you use the car manufacturer's recommended viscosity), and a battery's capacity to store a charge goes down, among other factors. If your car's battery is more than a couple of years old, get it tested by a trusted mechanic. If it needs to be replaced, do it now (and see our car batteries report for some suggestions). It also never hurts to make sure you have a good set of jumper cables on board, or perhaps even a car-battery jump starter -- just in case.
All wiper blades are not created equal. Classic wiper blades work just fine for most seasons, but when winter weather dumps snow and ice, it can get caught up in their metal framework -- the result looks something like dragging an iceberg across your windshield, which doesn't make for the best visibility. You can minimize that by switching to a beam-style blade, which ditches the external support. We have the low down in our wiper blades report. Regardless, winter is a good excuse to give your wiper blades a once over, making sure they are in tip-top shape. Keep in mind that experts say that, with few exceptions, wiper blades should be replaced twice a year. Also, make sure you are using windshield wiper fluid that's rated to not freeze under severe winter conditions.
Be prepared. No matter how diligent you are regarding winterizing your car and staying current with its maintenance requirements, stuff happens, so it's a good idea to have some emergency supplies stowed in the trunk. A flashlight is a must, of course, as is a blanket to keep you warm until help arrives. Some suggest a bag of sand or even cat litter to provide some extra traction if you get stuck in snow or ice. And of course, don't leave home without a windshield brush and ice scraper.
Winter is wonderful to look at. Keeping these pointers in mind can help prevent it from being something less wonderful to drive through. Stay safe!