How to Keep Your Car Running Well in Cold Weather

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As the leaves start to turn, those who live in cold weather states know it’s time to prepare for winter. Up go the storm windows, out come the hats and gloves, and for the especially prudent, it’s time to winterize the car.

Cold temperatures, ice, and especially salt, can wreak havoc on a vehicle. Harsh weather can test the limits of any car. If your car isn’t in top shape as you head into winter, you could find yourself broken down alongside the road.

All-weather vs. snow tires

When a car leaves the factory, it’s fitted with all-season tires. The tires are designed to maximize fuel economy, give a quiet ride, and last for thousands of miles. All-season tires perform best on dry and wet roads, and roads that have only a slight dusting of snow.

A dusting of snow is about where the capabilities of all-season tires end. They don’t perform well in snowy or icy conditions., a provider of auto information for consumers, compared all-season tires with winter tires. The tests were conducted in northern Minnesota.

Edmunds tested a Honda Civic Si equipped with both all-weather and snow tires. They tested how long it took for the car to reach 40 mph, and how long it took for the car to stop while traveling 60 mph. Both tests took place in snowy and icy conditions.

When fitted with snow tires, the Civic took 11.7 seconds to reach 40 mph. By contrast, it took 41.7 seconds to reach the same speed in all-season tires. The reason? The tread patterns on snow tires are designed to cut through snow, and ice.

The ability to stop quickly is even more important. The Civic with snow tires, traveling at 60 mph, required 362 feet to stop in the snow. That’s a full football field counting the end zones. By comparison, with all-season tires, the car needed 421 feet to stop.

All-season tires are a great option for drivers who live in moderate climates that do not encounter extreme cold, ice and snow in the winter months. For those who live in areas where snow is a regular occurrence, it’s best to switch to snow tires during the winter.

Check your tire pressure

Once you’ve made a decision between all-weather tires or winter/snow tires, the air pressure needs to be checked once winter has arrived. Tire pressure drops one pound for every 10-degree drop in temperature. Checking tire pressure in late October won’t be an accurate indicator of what it will be in January, so check the pressure after it’s turned cold.

Battery maintenance

Batteries are the Rodney Dangerfield of cars. They get no respect. People just assume the battery will always work. This blase attitude is especially true of those who have maintenance free batteries.

Cold weather puts a strain on batteries because engines are harder to start, and batteries aren’t as strong when it’s cold. As you prepare your car for winter, have your battery checked to make sure it’s working at peak efficiency. If it’s not, look into buying a new battery.

Battery strength is measured by so-called cold cranking amps, or CCA’s. Powerful batteries, like those needed in cold winter states, are rated at 600 CCA or above. In addition to looking for a high CCA, ask the salesman the temperature at which a battery was tested. If it wasn’t tested below 32 degrees, then that model isn’t for you. Look for a battery that has at least 600 CCA’s, and was tested in conditions below freezing.

The cable connections are also crucial to the performance of your battery. If there is corrosion on the connectors, disconnect the cables, pour a little baking soda and water on the corrosion, and it should come right off.

Lastly, if you think it’s cold outside, so does your battery. Buy a battery insulator that wraps around the battery to add an extra layer of protection (and warmth) against the elements.

Wash and wax

It’s good practice to wash and wax your car before the first snow. When cars leave the factory they are treated with primer, under-coating, paint, and a clear coat finish to protect the visible areas of a car.

With four layers of protection you might ask: why bother to wax the car? The answer is simple: because over time the protective layers wear down. Rust and oxidation are your car’s enemies so it’s a good idea protect your car as best you can.

In addition to waxing your car, you should wash it as often as possible (weather permitting, of course) to clean off the road salt and slush.

If you clean your car at a DIY car wash bay use the power washer to clean off as much snow, salt, and road grime as possible. Be sure to clean the underside of the car. Salt collects in the nooks and crannies under the car, and if it’s not removed could turn metal to rust.

The survival kit

It seems that every year we experience the storm of the century. Cars and trucks get stuck on roads and highways along the northern tier of the country. Some of those cars don’t move for hours. That’s why it’s a good idea to pack an emergency kit...just in case.

The emergency kit should include:

  • Blankets
  • Collapsible nylon bag or small backpack to carry essential items if you abandon car
  • First-aid kit
  • Flashlight
  • Hand/foot warmers
  • Heavy-duty trash bags (you’d be surprised how warm they keep you)
  • Medications
  • Multi-purpose knife
  • Phone charger
  • Small shovel
  • Small tool kit
  • Something to keep you occupied
  • Walking shoes
  • Water/energy bars
  • Work gloves


You might be surprised to learn that while idling, the average 4-cylinder car can burn about a quarter of a gallon per hour. If you find yourself sitting on the highway in snarled traffic, and the needle is heading quickly toward E, you might have a problem.

Turning your car off to save gas kills the heater, but running the heater without the engine drains the battery. Bottom line: keep your gas topped off, and have something that will keep you warm in the car.

It’s natural to take care of yourself as winter approaches. It’s equally important to take care of your car. Adding a coat of wax will protect the from the elements, and switching out the tires is like pulling out the snow boots. The extra grip helps keep you safe. Finally, having both a well-maintained battery and an emergency kit can save your life. Knowing that your car will start under frigid conditions means you’ll have heat when you need it most, and an emergency kit that includes some essentials such as food, blankets, and medicine could save your life.

The technicians at YourMechanic can help prepare your car for winter. They can inspect your heating system, inspect and repair window wiper systems, top off your car’s coolant/antifreeze system, and switch out your all-season tires for snow tires to ensure that your car is ready to get its cold on.

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