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Winter-Proof Your Vehicle

Unless you live in the Sunbelt, each year motorists have to go through the mundane, but essential ritual of winterizing their vehicles. Not to do so puts your vehicle, and you, at risk. Fortunately, none of the preventive measures are very expensive and other than taking up precious time, can be done with a minimum of fuss. Used Cars has put together some common-sense tips to help you get ready for old man winter.

Cooling System

If you do only one thing to winterize your vehicle, check your antifreeze! On most older vehicles, you should have your anti-freeze tested every fall and spring and changed every 2 years or 30,000 miles. The proper water/antifreeze mix for your area should be indicated on a chart on the back label of the antifreeze container. Make sure you use the ratio that matches the lowest temperature you can expect in your area of the country. Usually a 50/50 mixture is best. Most newer cars and trucks carry lifetime or 100,000 mile antifreeze. Be sure to check the maintenance guidelines in your owner's manual.

Renewing the antifreeze should include a pressure check on all the components of the system, a thermostat test, and a radiator pressure cap test. Once that checks out, a pressure flush should be performed to wash away impurities, corrosion, and mineral deposits that can build up in the system and eventually clog internal passageways.

Make sure that during your system check you include a visual inspection of all belts and hoses. Look for leaks around ends. Clamps should be tightened. Hoses should feel firm to the touch, not soft and squishy. Belts shouldn't have any frayed edges, and posses no more than half-inch of play when pressed in an area between any two pulleys. The belts are important because one drives your water pump.

Speaking of water pumps, you should consider them a regular service item. Do not wait for it to fail. Often a water pump will signal it's imminent failure by developing clattering noises. It usually signifies that the propeller bearings are on the fritz. You may also hear a screeching noise at times. This could be a low coolant level, inadequate coolant flow, or an indication that you need a new pump. Have it looked at immediately.

On many overhead-cam engines, it is recommended that you replace the water pump while your mechanic is replacing your timing belt, usually at the 60 or 90,000 mile mark. You'll save money by doing it all at once. Otherwise, you should have it replaced around the 90,000 mile mark, regardless of whether you have any other work to do at that mileage mark.

Also check the radiator (internal and external), and the engine itself, especially around the intake manifold and the area where the cylinder heads meet the engine block. Inspect closely for indications of current or previous coolant leakage. If you are inspecting the car yourself, ALWAYS make sure that the car is cooled down before removing the radiator cap to inspect its insides. Coolant should appear clear and the insides of the radiator should be open and clear with no crusting or other blockage noticeable.

Some later model cars, particularly General Motor's products, have long-lasting antifreeze/coolant that is supposedly good for 5-years or 150,000 miles. You can also buy this protection over the counter, but it is not recommended for older cars as it's formula can interact negatively with copper -- found in many older radiators.

Regardless of the type of antifreeze/coolant used, you should still have your cooling system checked regularly.


Most often, the only thing between getting to work on time on a cold winter morning and missing that important meeting is your battery. Cold weather sucks the life right out of your battery, decreasing its performance by a substantial margin. Cars that won't start, most commonly due to a dead or weak battery, account for 40% of trouble call to the American Automobile Association (AAA).

Fortunately, it's easy to make sure that your battery and electrical system are operating at peak performance. If your battery is more than three years old, have your local service station perform a load test to see how much "juice" is left. Your electrical system can be check by hooking up to a diagnostic computer and by visually inspecting exposed contacts to make sure they are free of corrosion, thus ensuring strong current flow.

Most new batteries are designed to be maintenance free, but it's always a good idea to check the water level anyway. If you need to add water, use distilled water.

Of course, even the most prepared motorist can be surprised by winter battery failure. For those times, you should have a backup plan available. Membership in an auto club with emergency service helps, but often it can be a long wait before they show up. Jumper cables in your trunk are a low-cost and effective solution, but you need to have another car around with a driver who is willing to help you.

Also available are portable, rechargeable 12-volt (the rating of your car's electrical system) power units. Depending on size and features these run anywhere from about $30 to over $100. They'll give you at least one start, and often several. The more expensive ones also may have an accessory outlet to plug in your cell phone, laptop or other electrical device.

The big advantage of these portable power units is the security of knowing that no matter where your battery has failed, you can take care of the situation yourself in a matter of minutes. They're available at large department and auto parts stores.

More Tips

Your cooling system and battery may be the most important may be the most important items to keep in top condition, but there are some other things you can do to augment your car's winter performance.

Engine Lubrication If you live in a very cold area, you may want to switch to 5W-30 oil for the winter months. This is lighter than standard 10W-30 oil and offers quicker lubrication to internal engine parts during bitter cold temperatures.

Chassis Lubrication Make sure all suspension and chassis points are properly lubricated and protected with grease. Exposed joints do not take well to road salt and sand, leading to premature wear. Also have your CV (constant velocity) boots inspected to make sure your CV joints are protected. These are expensive to replace and are particularly susceptible to water, salt and sand intrusion.

Tires Most cars are equipped with all weather tires. For most conditions, these are adequate. Make sure the tires with the deepest tread are on your drive wheels. If you live in an area of heavy or frequent snow, a set of aggressive snow tires on your drive wheels will offer superior traction. Tire chains or belts (recommended only for RWD vehicles) will get you through all but the nastiest snowfalls. Studded snows (where still legal) offer extra traction on ice.

Winter Wiper Blades These are merely regular wipers enclosed in a soft, flexible rubber casing. Ice cannot accumulate on the blade -- greatly improving snow and ice storm wiper performance.

Engine Block Heater Do you live where it's really, really cold? Then nothing gives you peace of mind like a block heater. It keeps your block and oil comparitively warm, assuring quick start up with a minimum of cranking on even the coldest mornings.

Other Accessories

You've now protected your vehicle with all reasonable means, but being a complex mechanical device, things may still go wrong -- leaving you stranded.

VMR has assembled a check list of desirable stuff to have with you at all times - regardless of season.
  • Air compressor - small 12-volt
  • Antifreeze/Coolant mix - gallon
  • Auto Club or manufacturer's emergency roadside assistance phone number
  • Cellular phone
  • Cooling system repair kit
  • Duct tape
  • Fan/accessory belt(s)
  • Fire extinguisher - small
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Food - energy bars
  • Fuses
  • Gasket tube
  • Gloves
  • Hazard flares, lights, or reflectors
  • Jack
  • Jumper cables
  • Lug wrench - high quality aftermarket
  • Maps
  • Oil - quart
  • Rags
  • Spare tire - (not as uncommon as you think!)
  • Tire inflator - aeresol "fix-a-flat"
  • Tool set
  • Wiper blades

  • There are myriads of winter weather gear you should carry along with you for most any emergency. Here are some of our favorites that haven't already been mentioned:
  • Sturdy ice scraper w/brush - you didn't need us to tell you about this one
  • Lock de-icer - for those times it rains and then the temperature quickly drops
  • Folding shovel - for the big snow!
  • Windshield cover - laid over your windshield before a storm, it makes short work of scraping
  • Wet-start spray - electrical system spray used to help start soggy ignitions
  • Old carpet - use for traction under a spinning wheel

  • By following these guidelines you'll have the confidence knowing that you and your vehicle are well prepared for whatever old man winter throws at you.