Cold comfort

A few precautions can help your car sail through winter

If you’ve ever felt like hibernating or heading south during the ravages of winter, then pity your poor car. “There’s a lot more strain on all the moving components in the vehicle in cold weather,” notes John Healy, director of Canadian programs for General Motors of Canada. While winter takes a toll, there are steps you can take to protect your car and avoid being stranded. A checkup by a trusted mechanic is a wise investment, as is a trip to an auto-supply store and some visual checks, if you know your way around under the hood.

Smooth start-ups
You can start with your battery. On average, batteries last four to six years. According to Car Care Canada, a battery at -18C generates only 40 per cent of the cranking power of a battery at 27C. “It’s difficult for a customer to recognize when a battery’s life is over,” notes Peter Tschoepe, group vice-president of Toyota Canada. Garages have the proper equipment to test your battery and alternator (which recharges your battery). Your battery may have a built-in indicator that you can check to get a general idea of its charging state. You should also check for loose connections and white powdery residue on the posts. Both impair performance. If you don’t have a block heater, consider installing one. It will reduce the strain on your battery, starter motor and engine. Your owner’s manual may also recommend switching to 5W-30 oil, which flows better when cold. It’s important to check the level and strength of your antifreeze, which is mixed with water to create coolant. Your owner’s manual will tell you how to check the coolant level. You can check the strength with an inexpensive tester (less than $10) or leave it to the pros. If your coolant level is low, your heater won’t work well. Belts and hoses, which wear over time, should be checked for cracking or fraying.

Keeping warm
For comfort and safety, make sure your heater and defroster work properly. If you have an air conditioner, remember to switch back to the fresh- air setting, rather than recirculate mode, to prevent fogging. Some cars automatically switch on the air conditioning when you use the windshield defogging setting. If yours doesn’t, turn on the air conditioner briefly while the heater is defogging to help clear moisture. Yes, they will work simultaneously. If your wipers are smearing or chattering, replace them, preferably with the winter variety. Lock de-icer is great for getting you out of a jam, but it can also wash away useful lock lubrication. Buy some lock lubricant and use it on a regular basis. A shot of lubricant after a car wash should prevent a morning lockout. Wash your car regularly through the winter. If it’s coated with salt, you’re wise to park it outside, rather than in a heated garage, since corrosion only occurs at temperatures above freezing. Keep your gas tank as full as possible in the winter and use a winter blend of gas or add gas-line antifreeze during fill-ups. The emptier the gas tank, the greater the likelihood for water to condense and freeze, clogging fuel lines.

On the road
If you get stuck in snow, don’t gun the engine or quickly shift from forward to reverse to try to rock the car out. This can lead to costly transmission damage and destroy tires. Carry traction aids such as sand, cat litter or chains (if they’re legal where you live). Consider investing in a set of winter tires if you live in a snowbelt. Check your tire pressure, which is affected by temperature swings. If you can’t start your vehicle, never accept a boost unless you’re sure the procedure will be done correctly. An incorrect boost can cause hundreds or even thousands of dollars of damage to on-board computers or inflict injuries.

Maryanna Lewyckyj is a consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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