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3 timely tips for cold-weather car care

Tara Baukus MelloThe harsh weather of late fall and winter can wreak havoc on your car, not to mention increase the chances of a problem that leaves you stuck on the roadside. Follow these three car-care tips to ensure your vehicle and its occupants are protected.

Think clean and protected. Your car's paint takes a beating when the weather is harsh, so take some time now to give it an extra level of protection. Wash and dry it thoroughly and then park it in a shady place.

First, use a car-care bar made of clay to remove any contaminants that have adhered to the paint. Then apply a polish or a glaze to bring out the shine, followed by a high-quality liquid or paste wax to seal the paint.

You can do the job yourself in a few hours for about $20, or you can hire a local detail shop that will charge $100 to $150, depending on the size of your car. If you hire a pro, look for someone who will do the entire job by hand or knows how to be gentle with a power buffer to prevent swirl marks in your paint.

Keep an eye on your tires. Your car tires are the only parts of the car that actually touch the ground, and those four patches of rubber need to be in top-notch shape to provide optimum safety and fuel economy. For every 10 degrees the temperature drops, tire pressure decreases by about 1 pound. If you haven't checked your tire pressure lately, it's probably low. Once a month, inspect your tires for signs of wear and tear such as cracks or embedded nails.

Then check the tire pressure. The proper tire pressure -- written in pounds per square inch, or PSI -- is listed in the car owner's manual as well as on a label on the driver's side doorjamb. Driving on tires that are in good shape and have proper tire pressure will help ensure good traction on slippery roads and reduce the chances of a blowout when hitting a pothole or other object.

It also helps prevent issues that could require expensive repairs such as excessive wear on suspension components. Good tires also help improve fuel economy -- a nice bonus with today's rising gas prices.

Be prepared in an emergency. The only thing worse than being stuck on the side of the road because of a breakdown or a car accident is finding yourself in that situation and being completely unprepared. Be sure your glove box or other storage compartment inside your car has a small amount of nonperishable food and water as well as an emergency blanket, notepad and pen, flashlight with spare batteries, and a battery-powered cellphone charger.

Make sure these items are easily accessible from the driver's seat in the event that it's not safe to get out of your car. You can pack a larger emergency kit in your trunk that should include items such as sturdy walking shoes, a jacket or rain poncho, flares, a shovel and sand or cat box filler for traction.

There are numerous other items that may be useful depending on your car and where you drive regularly. Take some time and think about what you might need, and create a kit around that or purchase a pre-made kit for about $20 at a department store.

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If you have a car question, email it to us at Driving for Dollars. Read more Driving for Dollars columns and Bankrate auto stories. Follow her on Facebook here or on Twitter @SheDrives.

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