Although more and more people are buying SUVs these days, that doesn’t make winterizing your vehicle any less important. Sure, SUVs usually provide more ground clearance than cars to stay above the white stuff. And they often have all-wheel drive for improved traction. Yet the most rugged vehicles in the industry can still get into trouble when you don’t take care of them. Even a Jeep Wrangler won’t get very far in the snow and ice with a dead battery. Nor is this the only easily avoidable problem that can put a damper on your winter driving.
That’s why you should prepare your car for winter weather no matter what kind of “car” you own.
Check that Battery
Without a good battery, you could have problems starting your vehicle regardless of the weather. The cold doesn’t help, however. It slows down the chemical reaction that creates electricity in the battery. In a worst-case scenario, there won’t be enough energy to turn over your engine. So you want to make sure your car’s battery is up to the task. Corrosion around the terminals can be one clue that it isn’t. Another sign that your battery may not be ready for the extreme cold is if it has trouble in milder temperatures. The thing is, your battery can also die without any warning at all. Many experts recommend always getting a new one every four years for exactly that reason.
One way to be sure about your battery’s charge is by testing it with a voltmeter. This does require a small amount of mechanical skill, but there are plenty of shops that can take care of it. The same holds true for our next bit of advice.
Give Your Entire Car a Checkup
Whether it’s you or someone else actually holding the wrench, it’s best to catch up on all of your car’s routine maintenance before winter sets in. You should start with your owner’s manual for details, but you’ll definitely want to focus on the areas you’ll need most for winter driving. For instance, your brakes should be ready to handle slippery roads, and you should have the proper air pressure in your tires. According to Goodyear, the pressure can fall by 1 to 2 pounds for every 10-degree drop in temperature. Keeping an eye on this is particularly important if your vehicle isn’t equipped with an air pressure monitor. If your car does have one, don’t be surprised to see it light up due to the effect of the cold. Fill up all your tires correctly in either situation. Oh, and remember the spare (if you have one of those).
Your wiper blades also should be in top-notch condition to give you the best possible visibility. If you drive an SUV or hatchback with a wiper on the back window, don’t forget to check that one as well. Check all the wiper-fluid reservoirs, too. Now is the right time to test your rear defroster and, if your car has them, the heated exterior mirrors, seats and steering wheel. Okay, the last few items aren’t necessary, but they sure make winter driving more enjoyable.
Moving under the hood, some automakers recommend special engine oil for the winter months. This is because different oil “recipes” are engineered for optimum performance in different temperature ranges. Generally speaking, you want oil that’s thick enough to keep all moving surfaces well covered and lubricated, but not so thick that the engine parts become bogged down. You also have to account for the fact that oil tends to become thinner in higher temperatures and thicker when it’s cold. As a result, summer oil, designed to stay thick in warm temperatures, may not be appropriate if you need winter oil, which is engineered to stay thin when temperatures fall.
Then, as long as the hood’s open, it’s a good idea to replace any worn belts or hoses you see. Cracks and damage will become worse if you don’t, since the cold makes rubber and plastic brittle and more likely to break. If that happens, your car is more likely to break down.
What about Snow Tires?
If you live in an area that sees serious accumulation, a set of snow tires can have a major impact on your driving. As with the oil, it’s partly a matter of chemistry. The rubber used in winter tires is engineered to stay softer in cold weather. That allows the tires to better grip the road. Winter tires also rely on tread designs that are created specifically to cut through snow and slush to reach the pavement below. Thanks to those features and more, winter tires can deliver proven advantages.
Consider testing published in the Detroit News. The Bridgestone tire company and Tire Rack, a tire retailer, brought a fleet of vehicles out to the University of Notre Dame ice rinks. Researchers first measured the stopping distances for sedans with and without winter tires. Even with the cars going just 10 mph, they found it took an extra 8 feet to stop with all-season tires. At 30 mph, cars without snow tires slid 63 feet further. The numbers for similarly equipped SUVs were 7 feet and 56 feet.
Always Be Prepared
Unfortunately, some blizzards will bring your vehicle to a stop despite your best efforts. Winter storms have been known to trap hundreds of folks at a time on the expressway, leaving them to spend the night in their cars. That means an emergency kit is a must in the snowier parts of the country. You should keep a box in your car with blankets, winter gloves, extra socks, hand warmers, snacks, water, extra wiper fluid and at least a few simple tools. A cell phone charger, flashlight, shovel, jumper cables and a first-aid kit are high on the list. (Of course, we’re assuming you already have the cell phone itself, to make emergency calls if necessary.)
Finally, keeping your gas tank more than halfway filled can keep the engine and the heat running if you’re caught out in the cold. It can also protect your fuel pump and help prevent the condensation that causes fuel-line freezing.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in November 2014. It has been completely updated for accuracy and comprehensiveness.