• Check tire condition—but not the old-fashioned way. Car owners often are advised to use a quarter to gauge tire tread. According to this advice, if the top of Washington’s head disappears into the groove between treads, the tire still has at least 5/32 of an inch of tread and remains viable. That’s fine for summer, but when you drive in snow, anything less than 5/32 of an inch of tread increases the risk for skids.
Put away the quarter, and buy a tire-tread gauge, available in auto-parts stores for around $5. If the reading is less than 5/32 of an inch, replace your tires with a new set of all-weather tires or, even better, set them aside until spring in favor of a set of winter/snow tires.
Helpful: Make sure that any tire you use carries the rating “M+S” (sometimes written MS, M/S or M&S) on its sidewall. This means that the tire meets the Rubber Manufacturer Association’s standards for use in mud and snow.
• Increase tire pressure to the upper limit of the vehicle’s acceptable tire pressure range. Tires lose around one pound of pressure for every 10°F that the outside temperature drops. If you fail to add air in late autumn, your tires are likely to be badly underinflated by the dead of winter. Driving on underinflated tires not only reduces gas mileage and tire life, it reduces traction, making winter skids more likely.
Maintain the tire pressure that is recommended on the sticker inside your car’s driver-side doorpost, gas cap or glove compartment door—not the one on the sidewall of the tires. The inflation figures on sidewalls are the recommended air pressure when the tires are carrying their maximum load, not the recommended pressure for your particular vehicle.
• Top off the windshield washer reservoir, and store an extra bottle of washer fluid in the trunk. Drivers use up washer fluid very quickly during winter storms. Driving without washer fluid in the winter is unsafe.
• Replace wiper blades with special winter blades. Your current blades still might be up to the job of clearing away rain, but fresh blades will be stronger, sharper-edged and better able to cope with ice and snow.
Select a “winter blade” that has a rubber covering around the blade’s structural elements. This covering prevents the parts of the blade that need to flex from freezing, increasing the odds that the blade will work in the cold.
Do not pay extra for winter blades that claim to be crafted from special high-tech materials or that are heated. These features are just marketing gimmicks that do little or nothing to improve performance.
Helpful: When you use a gas station squeegee to clean the exterior of car windows, also run the squeegee’s sponge along the surface of your wiper blades that comes in contact with your windshield. The cleaner your wiper blades, the better they will clean your windshield.
• Give windows and the windshield a thorough cleaning on the inside. Even drivers who diligently clean the exteriors of their cars’ windows and windshield often neglect interior glass surfaces. These interior surfaces can collect fingerprints and dog-nose prints, which are not particularly visible in warm weather. When temperatures drop in winter, however, moisture adheres to the prints, increasing window fogging and decreasing visibility.
Use a “foaming” automotive glass cleaner to remove smudges from interior glass. Foaming cleaners won’t run down the glass and into defrosters or doors. Use wadded newspaper to wipe the glass cleaner away. Newspaper doesn’t leave lint and does a wonderful job of grabbing hold of stubborn window debris.
• If you change your own oil, do so now. Don’t wait for the scheduled 3,000- or 5,000-mile service interval if temperatures are likely to plummet soon—it’s no fun to crawl under a car in a frozen garage or driveway. Check the levels of coolant, brake fluid and power steering fluid before the cold arrives as well.
Don’t put off a required oil change until the next warm period—that might not come until April. Best: Pay $20 or $30 to have a pro do it now.
• Clean battery terminals—or buy a new battery. Batteries are most likely to fail in winter when engine oil thickens in the cold, making it more difficult to get the engine to turn over. Cleaning the corrosion and grime from battery terminals makes it easier for the battery to do its job. You can have a mechanic do this or do it yourself.
To do it yourself: Don safety goggles and gardening gloves, then disconnect the battery cables, negative cable first.
If the battery terminals are white and powdery, pour a cup of diet cola onto them, then wash the cola away with water. Cola neutralizes the corrosive acids. Use a wire brush or steel wool to remove any remaining residue and grime. Wire brushes specifically designed for battery terminal cleaning are available at auto-parts stores for $3 to $6. Apply a thin coat of petroleum jelly or battery terminal anticorrosion coating, available in auto-parts stores for $5 to $10, to the cleaned terminals, then reattach the positive cable first. Make sure that these cable connections are very tight. Alternative: If you don’t want to bother with battery maintenance, you can replace the battery every three years. The typical cost of a new battery is $50 to $80. You might want to write the purchase date with permanent marker on the battery, so you don’t forget when you bought it.
• Replace the cabin air filter. If you live in a cold region, you likely drive with your windows rolled up all winter. The quality of the air in your car until spring depends on the condition of the cabin air filter. An old, clogged cabin air filter also can reduce the effectiveness of your windshield defroster.
Cabin air filters typically are located in plastic compartments found near the base of the windshield. Replacing these filters is an easy do-it-yourself job in some vehicles but requires removing several parts in others. If your vehicle’s manual does not provide directions, ask an auto-parts store employee if this is an easy do-it-yourself task with your vehicle. A replacement air filter costs about $10 to $15. Note: Some cars more than 20 years old do not have cabin air filters at all.
• Apply a silicon spray to the car’s rubber door gaskets. This reduces the odds that the gaskets will freeze to the frame and prevent entry or exit. Respray every month or so until spring. Spray a small amount of aerosol lubricant into your car’s door locks, too. This makes it less likely that the locks will freeze shut.