Prepare Your Car for Winter

Simply stated, cold weather puts some additional stress on your car. So, how can you best prepare your vehicle for winter?

Unlike the cars of years gone by, the modern automobile does not need an engine tune-up every spring and fall, and thank goodness. But, if the last time you opened the owner’s manual was to try and figure out how to set the time on the radio, perhaps it is time to have another look. For reliable winter operation, start with ensuring the regular maintenance has been performed.


Manufacturers will provide a regular and an extreme service schedule. If you take your car on short trips, get stuck in traffic, tow a trailer, drive in the winter, or live in Canada, you should follow the extreme service schedule. The owner’s manual is the best source for periodic maintenance information.

Changing the engine oil and filter every five or six thousand kilometers has always been cheap insurance, so now is a good time to do it. Clean oil flows better in cold weather, and your engine will respond in a positive manner by providing longer service.

Spark plugs and plug wires do need to be changed every once in awhile, as per the recommendations in the owner’s manual. These items will improve cold weather starting, economy, performance and emissions.

Ensure the coolant has been changed at the recommended interval, and that it is a 50/50 water and coolant mix. Coolant at the 50/50 ratio is good for -36 degrees Celsius before it starts to gel, and this concentration is recommended by most manufacturers for optimal cooling system performance.

On many cars, the engine timing belt is a maintenance item. Winter cold starts stress all components in your engine, the timing belt included. Often, a broken timing belt will cause piston and valve damage, with the ensuing repairs costing thousands of dollars.

Is the “Check Engine” light on? The on-board computer is trying to tell you something. Get it checked out by a qualified Technician.

Starter, Charging System, and Battery

There really isn’t a set maintenance schedule for these systems, but it is a good idea to have them checked once a year. A battery that is getting weak may work fine in the summer, but once the mercury drops there is a good chance the battery will let you down. In the trade, a series of tests known as an AVR test, or amperage, voltage and resistance tests, is aimed at the starter and generator, and will verify their proper operation. This series of tests should be available at any shop for a modest fee.

Belts and Hoses

Have your service Technician check all the belts and hoses. The under-hood environment is a nasty one, and rubber components won’t last forever. Look for cracks in the belts, and for rubber hoses that appear to be swollen at the ends. If you can squeeze a hose by hand, and you feel “cracking” inside the hose, it has deteriorated, and you run the risk of losing all the coolant and subsequently the life of your engine.

Engine Coolant Heater

For reasons not fully understood by me, many people are reluctant to plug in the engine coolant heater or block heater, as it is sometimes called. These heaters not only significantly reduce engine warm-up time, but the engine oil also warms up from the block heater. The oil circulates quicker, and therefore reduces engine wear on a cold start. During the winter inspection service, ask your automotive technician to check the integrity of the heater cord and the heater element itself.

Headlight Aiming

This is another area that is often overlooked. Look for a shop that does out of province inspections, as these shops are required to have proper headlight aiming equipment, versus a couple of marks on a wall. You will be surprised at how much better you will be able to see during poor weather conditions.

Winter Tires

It was a snowy November morning, and I was confidently driving on an almost new set of all-season tires. Approaching an intersection, I wanted to stop. My car did not. The result was a very close encounter with a Jeep, and I became a believer in winter tires.

With any tire, the contact patches with the road are quite small, and one of the factors that affect the handling of a vehicle is the points where the tires and the road meet. With winter tires, the rubber compound is engineered to be flexible in cold temperatures, therefore providing good traction. All season tires are made with a harder compound, to maximize tread life.

In defense of a set of four winter tires, imagine this two winter tire scenario – you have good traction one end of the car with winter tires, and not great traction on the other end of the car because the all-season tire tread is not flexible at lower temperatures. You go around a corner and… lose control of the vehicle because of the different friction characteristics of the tires.

I don’t know what picture the statistics would paint, but if everyone ran their vehicles with winter tires, I’m sure there would be fewer accidents. Quebec already has a law in place surrounding winter tires, and perhaps the rest of the country would benefit too.

I highly recommend having the winter tires mounted on a separate set of rims to simplify installation and minimize labour charges. If you time it right, there is a good chance you could save a bit of money by having your winter tires (on rims, right?) installed on the vehicle at the time when you would normally have the tires rotated.

Alberta Motor Association

I’m not on their payroll, but a membership with the AMA is money well-spent. Despite your best efforts to be prepared, an unexpected breakdown can still occur. One mobile service call or a tow will easily cost you more than an AMA membership, so give it some consideration.

Happy winter motoring!

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