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Winterize your car for less

Motor Trend logo Motor Trend 10/17/2014 Sam Smith
© Oregon Department of Transportation

Winter is coming, and that means one thing: Unless you live somewhere like Arizona, California or Florida, it's going to get cold, very cold. So your car is about to get abused. Hail, sleet, snow, ice and subzero temperatures are all in the forecast, and they can do a lot of damage to your vehicle. But there are a few things you can do to ensure that you and your ride make it through the cold, long winter. You don't have to spend a lot of money, just a little, and you don't have to become best friends with your mechanic. This simple list will help you make the right calls.

Replace your fluids

© ThinkStock

Fluids are the lifeblood of your car. If it's liquid and is carried between your fenders, it needs attention. The fluids checklist is short but important: oil, coolant, gasoline, brake fluid. And, if you're unlucky enough to own an older car with hydraulic suspension, check that fluid, too.

Your car's oil needs to be thick enough, clean enough and fresh enough to provide engine protection in the dead of winter. Change your oil and oil filter, regardless of mileage interval, when the season begins. Consult your owners manual to ensure that the oil you use is the proper grade to deal with the temperatures in your region.

Research

Your car's coolant should be fresh and clean; even a healthy engine can overheat in winter if not cooled properly. For winter, the coolant should be a 50-50 mix of water and antifreeze. Water alone can freeze inside your engine, expanding and damaging vital components.

Old, stale fuel can be difficult to ignite in cold temperatures, so when it comes to gasoline, fresher is better. This only matters for cars that sit a lot, or diesel vehicles.

Brake fluid is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs water from the air over time. In cold weather, that water can freeze in brake lines, making your brakes feel sluggish and damaging important seals and components. Again, the fresher your brake fluid is, the better.

Average cost: $50 to $80 of fluids, not including gasoline. Costs vary with a vehicle's fluid capacities.

Decision guide: See AWD rides under $30,000

Change your wiper blades

© Charles Plueddeman

This one is simple. If you can't clear snow and ice from your windshield, you can't see the road. If you can't see the road, you probably won't be able to stay on it. The rubber on wiper blades ages quickly and tears easily when frozen, so if you're smart, you'll buy new blades with every new season. The more expensive blades usually clean better, so stick with name brands.

While you're at it, Rain-X and similar windshield-washer additives help slick off water and snow. They're worth a try and usually are cheap.

Average cost: $3 to $20 apiece for wiper blades, depending on brand and fitment.

Test your battery

© Belinda Images / SuperStock

In deepest, darkest winter, few things are tested as much as your car's battery. Cold temperatures reduce a battery's available cranking amperage, which limits the juice available for starting. Compounding matters, cold engines are harder to turn over and often require more cranking time to fire, taxing your battery even further. Is it any wonder most batteries give up the ghost in the dead of winter?

Get your battery professionally tested. Replace it if its health is marginal. You'll thank us later, when you're not stuck by the side of the road in a snowstorm.

Average cost: Free. Most auto parts stores and mechanics will test your battery's health without charging you. Battery replacements aren't free, obviously, but it's better to know in advance if your unit is subpar.

Check your tires

© Perry Stern

The three most important words in real estate are location, location, location. Similarly, the three most important words in driving are traction, traction, traction. During winter, ice, snow, standing water and cold-hardened rubber all conspire to keep your car from staying on the road. It doesn't matter how much power you have or how sophisticated your all-wheel-drive system is — good tires are the only thing standing between your car and the nearest ditch.

When it comes to winter safety, it's best to err on the side of caution. Check your tread depth; that is, how much tire life and grip you have left. It's free, and easy enough to do yourself. To check your tread, stick a penny in the thinnest part of a tire's tread, with Abe Lincoln's head facing into the tire. If Lincoln's head is uncovered, you probably need new rubber.

You should buy the most weather-appropriate tires you can afford. If that means a set of $200 all-season tires versus old, bald snow tires, go for it. If that means summer tires because you live in California and it never drops below 45 degrees, not even in darkest January, then go down that road. But whatever you do, make sure you have safety on your side.

Average cost: $30 to $150 per corner for new snow tires, depending on make and model of car. All-season tires are often priced similarly. They provide more performance and safety year-round, but sacrifice grip on ice and snow.

Preserve your carpets

© WeatherTech.com

You know how your fancy, factory-installed carpeted floor mats are usually stained with salt and dirt every spring? If you care about the way your car looks, you have one of two solutions for this: pop for a carpet scrub at the local car wash, or buy good all-weather floor mats.

We recommend the latter. First, they preserve your carpets (washing damages them just as much as leaving them dirty), increasing resale value when you decide to part with your vehicle. Second, they're just nice to have. They hold salt, large quantities of water — often a lake's worth of standing liquid without overflowing, as in the case of WeatherTech Mats — and they make your car feel as if it was designed to conquer winter, instead of just putting up with it.

Average cost: $50 to $150, depending on the size of your vehicle and whether you want to outfit the rear footwells. That may sound expensive, but the best of these mats last for years.

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