Winter Car Prep Done Right

Dan Heyman By: Dan Heyman December 3, 2020

The winter season is almost upon us, which means it’s time once again to start thinking about what you should be doing with your vehicle to help best prepare for winter driving.

Before we do so, though, know this: my mother always told my younger self whenever she’d deny my request to borrow the car that “it’s not about you. There’s a bell curve when it comes to driving skill, and most drivers you’ll come across are at the lower end of that curve.” Read: no matter how prepared your vehicle is for winter driving, it’s probably safe to assume there are drivers out there who haven’t done so and it’s on you to be vigilant and very clear on what’s going on around you, what conditions are like ahead, and so forth.

Winter is here – you need winter tires

Winter Car Prep Done Right

Which brings me to my first point: snow tires. In my home province of British Columbia, you’ll see signs asking you to put on snow or “M + S” tires if you’re driving on certain B.C. roads between October 1 and April 30. “M + S” stands for “mud and snow” and while they are designed to offer better traction in those adverse conditions – deeper snow and mud — it doesn’t follow that they are actually “snow” tires which are demarcated with a snowflake graphic on their sidewall. You see, proper winter tires not only get different tread patterns, but they get different rubber compounds as well that are meant to work in sub-seven degree Celsius temperatures.

M + S tires don’t necessarily have that feature so if the road surface on which you’re driving is cold or has a small dusting of frost or snow, these tires will not be as effective as proper winter tires. As far as I and many of my colleagues are concerned, the fact that B.C. allows for M + S tires as well as snow tires on those roads are not enough. If you’re really talking safety first, then a snow tire is the way to go.

Not to mention that there are often other perks.

“Often times, insurance companies will give you a break on your insurance if you have snow tires,” says John Polumbo, a professional vehicle detailer that works with Penske Vehicle Services in Toronto, Ont.. “(Snow tires) aren’t mandatory in Ontario, but every year, I see more and more people buying (them).” For his part, both Polumbo and his wife have winter tires on their vehicles.

However, by no means should anyone assume that just because they have all-wheel drive (AWD) it means they don’t need snow tires. Yes, AWD does provide added mechanical traction by shuffling power to and fro to the tires that have grip, but if you don’t have proper rubber meeting the road, AWD will only take you as far as your tires can. Please, folks – don’t make the costly error of thinking AWD increases your car’s “invulnerability” factor.

The value of rust proofing

Winter Car Prep Done Right

Speaking of “invulnerable”, we turn to your car’s exterior – we’ll get to the interior in a minute – and the ever-moving goalposts of rust proofing. It depends on the climate in which you live; most of Canada lives under a blanket of snow and salt in the winter, and as Polumbo says, “salt and moisture is a bed for rust.”

In Polumbo’s eyes, how you proceed with rust proofing really depends on whether you own or are leasing your car.

“A car will not rust in four years (on a lease) as long as you keep it clean,” he says. “I wash my car once a week during the winter.” Focus on getting rid of all the grime and sludge that builds up around – and within – the wheel wells. That may seem strange, as we all know it’s just going to get dirty again but it’s crucial for keeping rust off. So if you’re on a short-term lease, this method works and you could probably get away without rust proofing.

Don’t neglect your fluids and wipers

Winter Car Prep Done Right

If you own your car and full rust-proofing isn’t in the cards, waxing can help, too, as it keeps cars cleaner and makes it tougher for sludge to build up. Speaking of pre-emptive strikes, Polumbo says that monthly applications of Rain-X, the windshield coating spray used to help water bead or stream off windscreens, will also help in snowy and icy conditions because it also makes it tougher on those water forms to build up on glass. While you’re at it: as good as Rain-X is, the company itself recommends you change your wiper blades every six months.

Speaking of wipers: keep that fluid topped up. A bottle every two weeks in the winter is not uncommon; on the coldest days road spray can freeze almost instantaneously, forcing fluid shots every five minutes or so. Needless to say, you’ll want a lot of this; best keep an extra bottle in your trunk.

Winter and the interior of your vehicle

Winter Car Prep Done Right

So there are a number of ways to prep your car’s exterior, but what about the interior? Salt build-up from boots and pant legs can damage a car’s interior, so switching from your car’s showroom-spec carpets to a rubberized year-round set should be job number one; manufacturers like WeatherTech make mats to fit the footwells and trunks of many vehicles, and they are often easy to clean with a simple high pressure hose.

If the mats aren’t for you, a fabric protector such as Scotchgard 303 Fabric Guard will partially prevent salt buildup on the mats; if you’re more of the elbow grease type, a mix of vinegar and water will act as a stain remover, as long as you’re prepared to air out your car a little to be rid of the vinegar smell. If taking the time to air your car out isn’t an option, there are products such as Salt Eraser spray that are specific to salt removal.

Canadian winters are tough but with just a little vigilance, we can all make them that much easier to drive through.