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Prep car for winter driving and save fuel

Tara Baukus MelloWith record-setting snowfall blanketing much of the eastern U.S. and low temperatures chattering teeth in other parts of the country, making sure your car is in proper shape for winter driving can mean a bit of extra cash in your wallet and possibly a boatload of dollars if you can prevent a costly repair. No matter what age and make of car you drive, follow these tips to save money.

When temperatures drop, so does the fuel economy of your car. One key way to save money during winter driving is to make sure your car is primed for optimum fuel economy. First, check your tire pressure and add air if necessary. According to AAA, you'll get 10 percent better fuel economy with tires that are properly inflated. The correct pressure is listed in your owner's manual or on the driver's side doorjamb. Tire pressure decreases by about one pound for every 10 degrees that the temperature drops. So if you haven't added air to your tires in months, doing so will improve your fuel economy as well as improve your car's traction on slippery roads, reducing the likelihood of a costly accident.

If you live in an area where you need to drive through snow or slush regularly, then you probably want to purchase a set of snow tires. They can last for several seasons, depending on how you drive. Snow tires will reduce your fuel economy because they have deeper tread, and thus greater rolling resistance, but they are critical if you need to drive in regularly sloppy conditions. Most experts feel that if you live in a city where the roads are cleared promptly (or you can wait to go out), then all-season tires are acceptable as long as the tires are in good condition and properly inflated.

Another way to improve fuel savings in winter is to avoid "warming up" your car by idling. When a car is idling (running, but not moving) its fuel economy is zero mpg. Unlike cars of the past, the engines in modern cars generate relatively little heat at idle, so idling is not warming up the engine. Instead, start your car and drive it right away. This will generate the heat that your car needs to operate at optimum efficiency, and it will also get your car's heater to start blowing warm air faster. Just be sure you don't stomp on the accelerator pedal; you'll just be wasting the fuel you saved by not idling.

While it may seem more appropriate for summer driving, you should check your cooling system in winter (or have your mechanic do this) to ensure you are using the proper coolant and there are no leaks. A 50-50 mixture of coolant -- also called antifreeze -- and water is best. If you use 100 percent coolant, your engine will actually have a harder time staying cool, reducing fuel economy and damaging the engine in certain situations. Check the system for leaks (and regularly check your parking space for puddles) because low coolant can cause your car to overheat, even in winter.

Like oil, coolant gets dirty over time and needs to be changed regularly. Check your owner's manual to find out the schedule. And if you are adding or replacing the coolant yourself, double-check that you are using the type that is recommended for your engine or you could cause more harm than good.

Finally, have a mechanic check your car thoroughly to make sure it's in good mechanical condition, including checking all the belts and hoses for wear as well as looking for leaks, and respond promptly to any issues that arise with your car. The last thing you want to have happen in the winter -- for your safety and for your wallet -- is to become stranded.

Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. If you have a car question, e-mail it to us at Driving for Dollars.

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