Winterize Your Car

by Brent Romans

If you were to ask your car where it would want to live, and it just so happened to be a talking car, it would most likely say “Southern California.” “It’s warm there, the roads are fairly decent, and I might get to see a movie star,” it would say. If you were to ask it where it wouldn’t want to live, it would reply “Detroit.” Or in a broader sense, it wouldn’t want to live where it’s cold, snowy, and just generally yucky.

Wintertime is very unfriendly to a vehicle. 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. But there are things you can do to help your vehicle in this time of duress. Following are some easy steps to “winterize” your car. In fact, they are so easy, a talking car could figure them out! Remember, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.

1. Consider using snow tires.

2. Check the tire pressure.

3. Make sure your vehicle’s four-wheel drive system is working properly.

4. Change the engine oil and adjust the viscosity grade.

5. Inspect the belts and hoses.

6. Inspect the wipers and wiper fluid.

7. Check the battery.

8. Check antifreeze mixture.

9. Carry an emergency kit inside the car.


1. Consider using snow tires. The condition of your car’s tires is critical during the winter. If the tires are worn, or they are high performance tires, braking, acceleration and handling are all negatively impacted while driving on slippery roads. Because of reduced vehicle capabilities, the likelihood of a crash increases.

The tires mounted on this beat-up Ford we spotted were a joke. If you have the cash, consider buying a set of winter tires. Winter tires are optimized for snow and ice. They aren’t magic tires–even with winter tires, your car will still be worse on slick roads than dry ones. But winter tires do help to improve traction on slick surfaces more than all-season tires.

2. Check the tire pressure. Tire pressure is especially important during the winter. Traction is often at a minimum due to wet or snowy conditions. It is critical to have properly inflated tires, as this guarantees the best possible contact between the tire and the road. A properly inflated tire will also help protect against wheel damage that might occur as the vehicle is driven over potholes. Read your owner’s manual to find the correct tire pressures.

Because of wintertime’s lower temperatures, the air pressure in a cold tire will drop. Why? Because air is a gas, and gas contracts when it cools. Keep this in mind if you are checking tire pressures. Generally, for every 10-degree Fahrenheit change in ambient temperature, your tire’s inflation pressure will change by about 1 psi (up with higher temperatures and down with lower temperatures).

3. Make sure your vehicle’s four-wheel-drive system is working properly. A big selling point for SUVs is that they offer 4WD, which improves traction in slippery conditions. But most people don’t use their 4WD systems during the summer. And while a four-wheel-drive system requires minimal maintenance, it’s still a good idea to check that it works properly before the onset of winter.

Make sure the system engages and disengages smoothly, and that there are no strange noises emanating from the drivetrain when the system is in use. Check to make that the transmission and gear oil levels are correct.

If there are multiple drivers for your SUV, make sure each of them knows how to operate the 4WD system. The owner’s manual will state at what speeds and environments the 4WD can be activated.

4. Change the engine oil and adjust the viscosity grade. This isn’t nearly as hard as it sounds. Viscosity simply refers to how thick or thin the oil is. Tar has a higher viscosity than orange juice, for example. Engine oils are sold with different levels of viscosity. When winter arrives, the outside temperature drops. And just like you, the oil inside your vehicle’s engine isn’t feeling too perky after sitting in the cold all night. The colder an oil is, the thicker it will be. A thicker oil doesn’t circulate as well in an engine during start-up as a thinner oil would. If the oil is too thick, the engine doesn’t get the proper lubrication. Also, dirty oil doesn’t circulate as well as clean oil.

To solve this wintertime problem, you can change your vehicle’s engine oil to one that is thinner to begin with. Even when the thinner oil is cold, it is still not too thick for proper engine lubrication. Keep in mind that an engine oil can be too thin.

Determining what type of oil your car should have during the winter is easy. Simply read your vehicle’s owner’s manual. The manual will list the manufacturer’s oil recommendations for different climates. If you have a dealership or local garage perform the oil change, you can ask the manager what type and viscosity of oil they are putting into your vehicle. Pretty much all modern cars have recommended oil grades of 5W-30, 10W-30 or 10W-40. For more information on what these numbers mean, check out

5. Inspect the belts and hoses. The belts and hoses in modern cars lead long lives. But that doesn’t mean they don’t die. Cold temperatures can accelerate the demise of a belt or hose. Before winter starts, have the belts and hoses inspected on your vehicle.
6. Inspect the wipers and wiper fluid. Visibility is particularly key in winter, as it is often compromised by precipitation, salt buildup on the windshield and reduced daylight. The life expectancy of a wiper blade is one year. If your car’s blades are older, replace them.

Also check and fill your wiper fluid reservoir. A harsh winter storm is the worst possible time to run out of wiper fluid or to discover your blades aren’t performing properly.

7. Check the battery. A battery gives little notice before it kicks off. And it absolutely loves to croak when you can least afford it doing so. 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 a certified automotive repair facility. Also, make sure the posts and connections are free of corrosion.

8. Check antifreeze mixture. The ideal mixture of antifreeze (coolant) and water inside your vehicle’s radiator is 50:50. If the mixture deviates from this norm, then hot- and cold-weather performance can be compromised.

If you were to put pure water in your vehicle’s radiator, it would freeze at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. But if you combine the water with an equal amount of antifreeze, the new mixture won’t freeze until -34 degrees Fahrenheit!

You can check the composition of a radiator’s mixture by using an antifreeze tester. You can find these at all auto parts stores, and they are inexpensive and easy to use. If the mixture is off, adjust it by adding either coolant or water.

9. Carry an emergency kit inside the car. Wintertime requires you to load more junk into the back of your vehicle. But hey, better safe than sorry, right? Things you might want to consider carrying:

A flashlight, flares and a first-aid kit.

Jumper cables, a tool kit and tire chains.

A blanket, warm clothes 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.


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