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Prepping the car for adverse weather

small white car on road with mountains behind
Highlights
  • Battery-related issues are AAA's most common service calls.
  • In winter, keep your gas tank full.
  • When it comes to oil, it's all about the viscosity.

As winter approaches, we know to keep the ice scraper handy and to check the antifreeze. But using the wrong techniques to prepare your vehicle for cold weather can damage your ride and cost you big bucks.

When it comes to winter, all drivers are not created equal, according to Boston master mechanic John Paul, AAA's " Car Doctor."

"It has to do with where you grew up," he says. "For people who deal with it all the time, winter is just like a sunny day, it's something that just happens. But if you moved to New England from Florida, winter is a catastrophic event and people don't know quite how to deal with it.

"In New England, we have wet, we have cold and our drivers aren't always the best. Fortunately, we have really good hospitals."

Automotive writer Paul Duchene says that as temperatures go down, the cost of repairs goes up.

"Anything that is going to be done to your car in the wintertime when everything is wet and cold is going to be that much nastier for the guys who are going to have to do it -- and that much more expensive and inconvenient," he says.

We asked our experts to shovel out the do's from the don'ts when it comes to winterizing your ride. Where mistakes require service, we've based the repair estimates on parts for a 2004 Subaru Outback and shop labor at $85 per hour. Parts quotes are courtesy of AutoZone's Alldata Web site.

Winterizing your car
Bankrate's winter system check
Bankrate's winter system check
  1. Battery
  2. Warm-up
  3. Antifreeze
  4. Oil
  5. Tires
  1. Gas tank
  2. Wipers
  3. Heater/defroster
  4. Winter kit

1. Battery

Paul says battery-related issues are AAA's most common service calls. Winter causes sort of a chain reaction: It makes your engine oil thicker, which requires your starter to crank longer, which places additional demand on your battery. As a result, you lose about 30 percent of your battery's capacity in cold weather. Batteries last, on average, three to five years. If yours is older, it will most likely die in winter.

Bad move: Going into winter with a 5-year-old battery.

Good move: Buying a new one on sale in the fall for under $50. And don't forget to clean away the corrosion and tighten the cables against the cold.

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2. Warm-up

The winter ritual of starting your car and letting it warm up forever is an unnecessary waste of fuel. The engine actually warms sufficiently -- meaning oil moves to all the important engine parts -- within the first minute. The real danger occurs if you get into your "warmed" car and immediately floor it before other moving parts, such as the transmission, have had their lubricating cuppa joe.

Bad move: Flooring it out of the driveway in extreme cold -- you could break a gear. Cost for a new transmission: $5,500 + five hours labor = $5,925.

Good move: Warming the engine briefly (30 seconds to a minute), then driving slowly the first couple of miles to allow fluids to reach all moving parts.

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