With what’s been going on in the world in the past 10 months or so, you’d be forgiven for not having your vehicle’s winter preparation at top of mind. Here’s your friendly reminder: That time is upon us.
Whatever level of use your car or truck is expected to see in the coming months, there are some things that you can do to ready it for winter and the inevitable salt and slop.
Depending on your comfort level and your mechanical inclination, you may decide to tackle some of these checks and tasks yourself. Otherwise, it’s a good idea have a trusted facility with trained technicians take care of it.
Making the winter tire switch
Switching to winter tires seems like the single most obvious bit of winter prep, but it isn’t always as cut and dried as that. Winter tires do outperform all-season (and especially summer-only) tires once the ambient temperature reaches around 7º Celsius or so, and that benefit does not rely on snow or ice being a factor. Even on dry, bare pavement, the softer compound of a winter tire provides superior grip – as much as 50 per cent better, according to the Tire and Rubber Association of Canada (TRAC). Look at winter tires as an investment: stopping just 10 feet shorter once could effectively pay for a set of tires and wheels.
All-weather tires are a compromised alternative that can be an acceptable choice for some. Think of them as a winter-optimised all-season and you’re on the right track. They will not provide the full benefits of a dedicated winter tire, however they are superior to an all-season in the cold, and will survive warm-weather use that would quickly wear out a winter’s soft tread.
A current trend of note is of many light truck-oriented tires receiving TRAC’s familiar “Three-Peak Mountain Snowflake” symbol – the one usually associated with true winter tires – which are then marketed as all-weather or winter capable. Suffice to say that the luggy nature of these all-terrain tires allows them to clear the low hurdle of that certification’s requirement, and that for optimum cold weather grip, proper winter tires are still the way to go. Even with four-wheel drive.
Additionally, for a number of reasons we don’t have space to explore here, your winter tires really should be on their own set of rims. At a minimum, having your winters mounted on their own set of rims can provide considerable cost savings in just a couple of years’ time – or less, while keeping your original wheels in like-new condition.
Time to check under the car
Tire changeover time is a great opportunity to check the suspension and underbody of your vehicle, and with the wheels off it’s possible to properly inspect your brakes. Brakes should be examined not only for wear and condition, but that the pads and calipers are not binding from corrosion, which hampers performance and dramatically reduces their lifespan.
We’re free from the old days’ needs for frequent fluid changes, but it’s a double-edged sword, as few of us tend to give much thought to anything much more than our oil as a result – and even oil receives less attention than it ought to. Clean oil readies your engine for a winter of cold starts and low operating temperatures, both of which contribute to oil fouling and contamination from raw fuel, condensation, and blow-by. With many of us having spent our spring and summer doing nothing but short, local trips, we could be in need of a change despite being nowhere close to our usual mileage interval. Oil consumption is once again “normal” on a lot of newer models, so the correct level should also be verified between changes. Since there’s now numerous manufacturer-required specifications for oil (not just viscosity), consult your manual for what’s right for your car.
Coolant (aka antifreeze) has a long service life these days (anywhere from three to 10 years), so it often gets forgotten about. Level is an obvious consideration – you’d be surprised how often I encounter low levels from minor leaks. Like oil, there are a large number of different coolants, and they are not compatible with each other. Do not use “universal” products!
If you’ve been using a summer washer fluid, you should run it out and refill with a winter-rated fluid to prevent system damage. Briefly spraying the fluid after a cold-temperature car wash will flush the water out of the nozzles and reduce the chance of freeze-up.
Don’t neglect your wipers and battery – and don’t forget your emergency kit
Bad wiper blades get noticed when you need them most, so be pro-active. Single-piece beam-type blades are less prone to freezing, as are the winter-style blades. Replace them in pairs, and don’t forget the rear blade if you have one. Wiper arms should lift freely from the glass, and there should be minimal play in the mechanism in the direction that the arms wipe.
The average life expectancy of a car battery is five to seven years, and cold temperatures greatly reduce available power; it’s a good idea to have it checked, particularly if you’ve experienced slow cranking or had to boost it. Terminal clamps should be checked for tightness and corrosion as well.
If you’re a person like myself that keeps cars well into their midlife or beyond, you should consider having a name-brand undercoating (like Krown or Rust Check) applied annually, from as early on in the car’s lifespan as possible – not an electronic module. Together with appropriate rubber or form-fit floor mats and the occasional mid-winter wash, it’s possible to have a still-certifiable, four-season driven car that’s 20+ years old. It also reduces the incidence of corrosion-related repairs in the nearer term to all manner of things like transmission cooler lines and parking brake cables. A little messy at times, but money well spent.
Depending on where your travels tend to take you, you should have some form of emergency kit with you (in addition to a snow brush and scraper). Even strictly city drivers should consider a basic kit, as help is often hours away during major winter events. Booster cables, a folding shovel, some gloves and a toque, a basic first aid kit, and a spare phone charger are a good start. Space permitting, a small tool kit and an extra jug of washer fluid are handy. You’ll need to be better equipped outside of the urban environment, so consider adding a blanket, a candle/matches/flares, a proper tow strap, some energy bars, and even a whistle (to signal for help).
It doesn’t have to be a big ordeal. Getting ready ahead of time can help you put the “win” back into winter!
Brian Early / Special to Wheels.ca