Better Winter Performance

There's special prep work needed to keep your car from chilling out, dude.

Some vehicles are inherently better-suited to winter driving than others. A '78 Chevy Malibu with bald tires isn't going to keep up with a Land Rover LR3 in a blizzard, you know. But there are things you can do to make whatever you've got stand up better to the elements and get you where you need to be.

Engine block heater:

By keeping the engine just slightly warmer than the brutal outside air temperature, start-ups are far less stressful, warm-ups are quicker and engine (and battery) life are prolonged. You'll also get better fuel economy and lower the amount of harmful pollution spewed by your engine.

Many heavy-duty trucks and 4x4 vehicles come with accessory block heaters already installed, but it's easy to adapt one to virtually any vehicle. Some use a magnetic pad that you simply slap onto the bottom of the oil pan; others slide into the oil dipstick. All have a three-prong grounded plug on the other end that you stick into any household 110-volt outlet before putting the vehicle to bed overnight.

Most major automakers (GM, Ford, etc.) sell accessory block heaters over the counter at their dealerships. Typical cost for the parts involved is between $40 and $150, depending on the make and model car or truck. Installation is not complicated and can be handled by anyone with basic automotive skills and some hands tools, or you can have it done for you by the dealer.

Winter wiper blades:

Many people leave their wiper blades on for too long. Six months is usually the outside limit before they begin to smear and streak instead of clear and clean, and many don't know that you can swap summer-style blades for heavier-duty blades designed specifically for winter service.

Winter blades typically have sturdier frames less apt to bend, and the blades themselves are made of a specific compound of rubber designed to clear snow and ice more effectively, and stand up to colder temperatures better than standard-issue blades.

Peak (www.peakantifreeze.com) sells a line of "Arctic & Polar Guard" replacement blades for most popular model cars and trucks; use them (or an equivalent) until the sun returns in spring.

Car cover:

If you have to park outside, you'll save yourself a lot of grief - and perhaps avoid an accident - if you get and use a good quality car cover to prevent a layer of ice from coating your car's exterior every night. Instead of scraping a peek-hole on the windshield that quickly fogs over, you'll have a vehicle with all its exterior glass free of ice and more able to shrug off condensation so you can see where you're going and what's behind and around you, too.

Another benefit of regular car cover use is that your car will look better longer, which is good for your soul and for your bottom line. Preserve your car's finish, and you won't feel like a loser driving a beaten-down hoopty. And when trade-in time rolls around, you'll get top dollar instead of "we'll have to wholesale that thing."

When you shop for a cover, look for one that's designed to fit your specific vehicle - not a generic "large" or "small" one-size-fits-all deal, which is more apt to be blown off by a strong wind or be harder to put on and take off. California Car Cover (www.calcover.com) sells excellent, form-fitting car covers for most vehicles in prices ranging from about $150 for a basic model to around $300 for a top-of-the-line multi-layered cover that's the next best thing to a heated garage.

Dry gas:

In the winter, condensation (water) in your vehicle's fuel tank or water contamination of the fuel you pump in can lead to hard starts and other drivability problems. Since water is heavier than gasoline, it tends to settle in the bottom of your fuel tank, where it gets sucked into the fuel lines and fuel system. If too much water contamination is present, it can freeze in the fuel lines or, since water doesn't burn very well, give your engine a severe case of the hiccups at the worst possible moment, such as when you're trying to dart across a busy intersection.

To prevent this, try and keep your gas tank as near full as possible at all times (this will help prevent condensation) and once a month, pour a bottle of Dry Gas into the tank. Dry Gas is basically rubbing isopropyl alcohol - pretty much the same thing as the rubbing alcohol you may have in your medicine cabinet. The isopropyl alcohol in Dry Gas works by absorbing the water present in your fuel (as much as ten times its own volume), allowing it to be carried through the fuel system and burned up along with the gas. End of problem! Dry Gas (sold under a variety of brand names) costs less than $2 for a pint bottle you simply pour into your fuel tank. Available at any auto parts store, Wal-Mart, Costco, Target, etc.

Add weight:

If you have a 2WD pickup, SUV or rear-drive passenger car, you'll get more traction if you put some weight in the bed or trunk to help plant the drive wheels more firmly to the road. Two-wheel-drive pickups are especially light in the tail, and will slide around at the least provocation on snow and ice-slicked (or even just wet) pavement, but the same is also true of any front-engined, rear-drive vehicle. Modern electronic traction aids definitely help limit unwanted wheelspin, but the low-tech solution of putting a few bags of concrete mix or anything else suitably heavy in the back end to give the drive wheels more bite will also help keep you from pirouetting like a Russian ballerina.

Rolling stock:

A lot of new cars - particularly sport sedans and luxury cars - come equipped from the factory with fairly aggressive performance tires optimized for handling and grip on dry pavement. However, these tires are often far from ideal on ice and snow, especially if the car they're fitted to is already hobbled (in terms of winter weather tenacity) by being rear-wheel drive. Some cars of this type are seriously impaired; for example, sport sedans like the Lexus IS300, BMW 3-Series (without AWD), or Cadillac CTS-V and the ultra-performance, speed-rated tires they're shod with make a bad situation much worse. You can improve your chances of making it out of your driveway and keeping it on the road by swapping those summer-oriented tires for a set of winter tires, either all-seasons or even snow tires, if they're available for your particular vehicle. Expensive? Sure, but still better than totaling a $50,000 vehicle, or getting seriously hurt. A good set of winter tires shouldn't cost you more than $400-600 or so, installed. And if you live in an area with relatively mild winters, you can definitely get by with a set of all-season touring-type tires your car can wear year-round. Unless you drive extremely aggressively and routinely cruise at 120-plus, ultra-performance, high-speed tires are "image only" things that do you no good in the real world anyhow - and may cause you some expensive trouble if you drive on them in the snow.

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