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Winterize your car

In Vancouver, some classic 1950s cars still look like they just pulled out of the lot. Understandably, it's because without winter road salt eating away at their bodies and ice freezing up their engines, cars fare pretty well in the West Coast's balmy weather.

Cars in most other parts of the country are not so lucky. As those of us who scrape ice from our windshields, change our tires and turn icy corners at 10 kilometres per hour can attest, winter takes a toll on our cars.

To prepare your car for winter, experts suggest a few basic checks and changes, starting with a tune-up.

Maintenance check
About 30 years ago, drivers took their cars to the shop to prepare them for winter. The carburetor had to be set differently, and a higher-temperature thermostat helped the engine burn off condensation. "It used to be a real ritual," says Marc Boulanger, a technician at Alpine Autowerks in Calgary.

Our cars don't require this kind of overhaul these days because of how technology has changed, but a winter maintenance check is still a smart idea. Brakes should be equalized so they don't pull more in one direction (which is important if your car starts to skid on ice), and the engine's wires and spark plugs need checking to ensure an easy startup.

You should also have the lights and heater checked, as well as the defroster -- a must if you're traveling long distance. And don't forget about the battery: "It takes a lot more power to turn the engine over in the winter," says Boulanger. And considering that manufacturers are creating smaller batteries than they did a few decades ago, your battery should be fully charged to ensure peak performance.

It also pays to top up all your fluids -- including radiator coolant, windshield washer and oil -- to keep the car running smoothly. Keep spare supplies in the trunk so you can fill up on the go.

If you live in a northern Canadian climate where -30°C is normal in the winter, experts suggest buying an engine block heater, a battery heater and perhaps even an oil pan heater.

Engine issues
Most gas stations sell winter gasoline that also contains antifreeze. Because excess water can freeze and cause cracks in your engine, experts suggest a 60:40 coolant-to-water ratio to prevent coolant from freezing during the winter

If it's a particularly cold winter, topping up your antifreeze isn't a bad idea. For about $3 a bottle, add the whole thing to the gas tank every three or four fill-ups.

Winter tires
The single most important winter investment is a new set of tires, which can improve your car's traction, braking and acceleration. There are two kinds of cold weather tires: all-season and winter.

All-season tires are meant for temperatures that don't dip below -15°C, while winter tires are for anything colder. Winter tires can also increase braking performance by 25 per cent over all-season tires, according to a Quebec Ministry of Transport study.

Winter tires are identified by a mountain or snowflake symbol. A good set will run about $90 a tire, and mechanics suggest that all four tires be changed, not just two.

To ensure your winter tires won't glide across the ice like Nancy Kerrigan, be sure to monitor their inflation levels, as full inflation provides better contact with the road. For every 5ºC drop outside, the pressure inside your tires goes down by one pound per square inch (psi). If your tires are already underinflated, this can be very dangerous.

Therefore, to keep the tire fully inflated, experts advise adding three or more psi of pressure to each tire. You can find the ideal inflation level for your tire on its sidewall.

You should also check if you have enough tread to get you through the season. "You don't run a snow tire to the point that it wears out because its value is in the first half of its life," says Boulanger. To ensure the correct depth, have it measured at a shop.

Provided you don't ride around in the summer with your winters, which melts the rubber, winter tires should last for about four seasons.

Winter wipers
Effective winter wipers can improve road visibility substantially. Winter wipers are equipped with a rubber boot that covers the blade. This rubber is thicker than a summer blade so as to prevent warping in cold weather (cold weather causes the rubber to contract). This also keeps the wiper flexible enough to provide proper cleaning.

If you have a problem with snow cementing the wiper to your windshield, a Teflon-coated wiper may do the trick nicely. Known as an anti-stick coating, snow will wick away easier than a noncoated wiper.

In addition to the winter wiper, try using winter windshield washer fluid. This fluid has antifreeze additives to prevent ice and snow cementing wipers to the windshield.

Pack the goods
If your car does break down, be prepared. "If you're on a side road in the country and there are no cars every 30 seconds, you need to keep warm and have flares so people can see you -- it's just a precaution," says Dean Brule, a service adviser for Carle Ford in Gatineau, Que.

Here's what you should carry with you at all times: flares, extra gloves, booster cables, road salt, a small shovel, extra windshield washer fluid, a blanket and a first aid kit.

To ensure you don't need the safety kit above, always drive defensively in the winter. Allow yourself more time to travel and don't tail gate the car in front of you -- the stopping distance required on an icy road is double that of a dry road. 

Melanie Chambers is a freelance writer in London, Ont.

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