WINTER ON WHEELS
Winter is almost upon us, and that means drivers from Northern Maine to Southern California will soon face colder weather and reduced sunlight. "Winter creates road challenges no matter where you live. Even if you don't get ice and snow, the colder weather, dark nights, and fallen leaves will make the roads more dangerous," says Lauren Fix of the Car Car Council, an industry consortium that promotes vehicle maintenance.
Fortunately, winter-proofing a car takes only a bit of do-it-yourself maintenance or a few hundred dollars in repair-shop fees. After that, just be sure to wash and wax a vehicle monthly during winter to protect its resale value. "Your car might run fine, but if it looks like heck, then buyers won't give you fair value for it," Fix says.
Here are six steps to preparing a car for the coming months on a budget.
CHECK UNDER THE HOOD
You don't need to be a mechanic to identify some car problems -- just look under the hood. Fix, a race-car driver and National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence-certified auto technician, suggests checking for "leaks, cracked hoses, or anything that looks like it doesn't belong. You might not know what it is, but you'll know it doesn't look right." Just take care not to get burned on hot parts or leaking fluids while looking under the hood, and don't wear a scarf or tie that could get caught in moving parts.
Cold weather tends to make problems worse, so have a mechanic check anything previously flagged as sounding funny, vibrating oddly, or even smelling bad (Fix once traced a rotten-egg aroma to a melted brake pad). "You can spot problems with your car by using all of your senses except taste," she says.
PREP THE BATTERY
While few drivers know how to test batteries or own the "multimeter" needed to do so, mechanics and auto-parts stores will often check for free. AAA and other auto clubs also generally offer complimentary battery testing, just so they don't have to provide roadside assistance later.
Once the battery has been checked out, the next step is removing any corrosion -- the white powder that builds up on the terminals, reducing contact between the battery and the starter motor. Having a professional clear corrosion is a good idea for novices, as batteries contain dangerous acid. Many mechanics will clean batteries for a small fee or as part of a larger job.
Do-it-yourselfers will need rubber gloves, eye protection, baking soda, water, and an old toothbrush, and should remove metal jewelry before starting. Mix some baking soda and water and pour an ounce or so onto any visible corrosion. Don't worry if the powder starts bubbling -- that's normal. After a minute or two, use the toothbrush to wipe the corrosion away. (Don't blow it away, as it could get in your eyes.) To be really thorough, unhook the battery cables and remove corrosion there, too. But beware: Disconnecting a battery runs the risk of setting off a vehicle alarm or losing car-radio presets.
CHECK THE TIRES
Proper tire inflation and tread are vital for winter driving. Experts recommend checking tire pressure once a month all year long, but especially in winter -- cold temperatures can reduce pressure. Look for a placard inside the glove box or driver-side doorjamb to see the proper inflation levels.
Car owners can check the tires' tread using the so-called "quarter test." Take a standard U.S. quarter and turn it upside down, then push it in between the treads at several different points. If the top of George Washington's head peeks out between the grooves in any location, the tire only has one-eighth an inch of tread or less and needs replacement. Videos online demonstrate the method.
CONSIDER SNOW TIRES
Most cars come with "all-weather" tires, but snow tires are necessary in cold climates. "I drive an all-wheel-drive sport utility vehicle and I still put snow tires on it," Fix says. "It's like putting snow boots on in the winter instead of sneakers."
Expect to pay around $250 to $600 or more for four good winter tires. (Some drivers will also spend around $400 or more for an extra set of wheels, making snow tires easier to install and remove each year.)
TEST WIPERS AND LIGHTS
Fix says visibility accounts for 80 percent of driving decisions, so she recommends replacing wiper blades every six months and skipping the budget brands. If it's hard to remember how old your current wiper blades are, think back to whether they worked the last time it rained. (Tip: Some auto-parts stores will install wiper blades for free if you buy them there.)
Take a few minutes to test the headlights and taillights and make sure none have burned out. "The important thing in winter is to see and be seen," Fix says. "A lot of people will say: 'Hey, I cleaned out a little porthole in my windshield and I see where I'm going.' But other drivers have to see you, too."
CHECK AND UPGRADE WINDSHIELD WASHER FLUID
Windshield washer fluid can literally save lives if snow or ice covers the windshield of a car on the road. So make sure to have plenty. Checking the washer-fluid level is usually an easy task because of a see-through reservoir in the engine compartment (check the owner's manual for details). Most garages will top off washer fluid for free on request for customers in for an oil change or other service.
Fix also suggests springing for costlier de-icing washer fluid, which melts snow and ice better than the cheap stuff. Expect to pay about $6 a gallon for de-icing fluid vs. about $2 a gallon for standard formulations.