Winter Car Care and Driving Tips

Winter Car Care and Driving Tips

Welcome to Winter! Despite the fact that it is only the end of October, here in the Chicagoland area we are already seeing snow on the ground. It is important to make sure that both you and your car are ready for the dangerous winter driving conditions. If you haven’t already, make sure to take a look at our Fall Vehicle Preparation Guide because a lot of the information there carries over into Winter as well. So you’ve done your safety checks, your fluids are topped off, windows are clean, car is warmed up, and staying in is not an option. Living in the Midwest has it’s challenges. Driving in the snow is one of them. The Chicago suburbs, specifically the Naperville/Plainfield area are notorious for bad driving conditions during heavy snow. While the mechanical upkeep of your vehicle is essential, oftentimes, there are factors at play that are unforeseen, such as weather. Unfortunately, the weather is out of our control, but these tips are a few things you can do to help make your drive a bit easier!

While snow tires are not always a necessity in the winter, proper tire care is!
Both over and underinflated tires will cause premature wear. Usually, overinflated tires will wear out quicker in the middle 1/3rd of the tread width, while underinflated tires wear out quicker on the outer sides of the tread width. With severely overinflated tires, you run the risk of a potential blow-out from what might seem like the smallest of potholes. With underinflated tires, just general driving will slowly start chewing up the insides of the tires.

Underinflated tires also lower your car’s fuel economy because of additional drag, so you’ll end up wasting gas. Proper inflation is especially important these days, as many manufacturers switch to run-flat technology that allows the tires to hold out longer during a pressure-loss situation. Run-flat tires have inherently stiffer sidewalls, which means that the tires are more susceptible to damage if the pressure is not within the recommended range. Vehicles with run-flat tires are required to have a Tire Pressure Monitor System that will alert the driver on their dash when tires are running low. The temperature will also affect your tire pressure. Warmer temperatures will cause the air in your tires to expand with the heat while colder temperatures cause air to contract. While it may seem like one should inflate more or less given the season, we recommend setting tires at the same pressure for both winter and summer. Colder temperatures will cause the air in the tires to contract, ultimately giving you lower pressure, and this will cause the tire to have more give, allowing for a better grip in snowy situations. If you go with a pressure too high in the winter combined with the contraction of the rubber in the tire, it becomes a lot more solid and, at times it can seem like you’re constantly on ice, even if there is just a dusting of snow. Hotter temperatures will cause the air in the tire to expand, giving you slightly higher pressure. The slightly higher pressure will also aid you in your fuel economy as well. We recommend checking the pressure of all your tires at least once a month. Digital gauges are great because they will calibrate to 0 every time they’re turned on, but gas station gauges are just fine too. Just make sure it’s not reading pressure before you even check your tires. It’s a good idea to have your own gauge handy in your glove box, and they typically run between $9 to $20.

It’s important to check your tire treads, too, because less tread on the tire means less traction, which could result in a nasty hydroplane (where you’re driving on the water instead of the road, diminishing control of the vehicle) during a rainstorm. There’s a useful penny trick you can do to see if you still have enough tread on your tires. Stick a penny in the tread, and if Lincoln’s head disappears, you’re good. Don’t neglect your spare tire either; it does you no good if it’s in poor condition. Make sure it’s properly inflated as well.

Now that we’ve got the vehicle care covered, here are some practical tips to use while you are driving!

Throttle control is key:
When traction breaks and your tires lose grip, the fastest way to regain traction is to simply let off the throttle. Friction is key in keeping traction. Static friction is greatest at the beginning or when a car is stopped. Once you get moving, rolling friction comes into play. This transition should be as fast and smooth as possible. In order to accomplish this, you need to leave a spot slowly. Letting the car idle out is ideal so the next time you’re stuck try this, get the car to rock out of its place and then let it idle to where you’re trying to get. The temptation to press the accelerator will be high, but the goal is to get the car moving first. Once moving, try to idle to a spot with more traction. Taking off traction control and hammering the throttle may be fun, but the spinning tires creates packed down snow, leading to ice, which will only make things worse!

The car will go the direction the tires are pointed:
This may seem like common sense, but oftentimes I hear of people spinning out who may not have fully understood this. If you’re headed straight and are keeping a safe speed, the likelihood of losing control in a spin is greatly reduced, as long as you have the tires pointed in the direction you want to head. If you start to lose control, let off the throttle and point the wheels the direction you want to maintain, make no sudden or quick movements, as this is your best bet to regain control. If you have to change lanes, remember, let the car coast through the snowy ruts! Try to resist pushing the accelerator pedal when changing lanes to help prevent a possible spin-out.

Stomp, Hold and Steer:
If you’re in a slide and your car is equipped with ABS, remember these three things. Stomp – press the brake pedal hard and fast. Hold – Keep the pressure on the pedal. Steer- look for a good place to direct the vehicle safely and aim for that spot. On ice this method may have to be modified a bit, instead of Hold – Hard constant pressure, let up a little bit till you can feel the ABS pulses slow. On vehicles without ABS, you’ll have to deal with the old pulsing the pedal until the vehicle comes to a halt.

Pay attention, don’t be cocky.
I hear this during winter all the time, “I have snow tires, all-wheel drive, front-wheel drive, a truck, ect., I am an experienced snow driver, I’ll be fine”. You see these people flying on the highway, trying to do close to or above the speed limit. They don’t extend their following distance, pushing people slower than them by riding them closely. If you really were an experienced driver, then you would know that it has nothing to do with how good of a driver you are; it’s how you respond to those who aren’t. Being prepared for someone to make a mistake is what makes the difference. Slow down, read the road, give ample time and room, and try to predict what someone might do. If you wake up and snow is on the ground, your commute is going to take longer. Accept that before you clear the snow off your vehicle. Aggressiveness and frustration are only going to make your ride worse and leave you open to a potentially costly accident.

Here are some common winter car related questions and answers

If snow and ice seal your car shut what should you do?
First, if a door cannot be accessed by a key, try other doors or rear access through the hatch or lid. It’s always easier to crawl around then to deal with a potentially broken key or latch

Check how it’s shut. Does the key turn freely or is it stuck? If the lock cylinder is stuck, you may need to unfreeze the tumbler. The best ways to do this involve using an alcohol based fluid, gel, or spray. Lock de-icer works great but if you are in a pinch you can use hand sanitizer applied to the keyblade. Once the alcohol is in the tumbler, use a plastic drinking straw and spend some time breathing directly into the lock. Keep the blade warm with body heat or by carefully dipping only the metal blade portion into warm or hot water. Care must be taken on newer cars with electronic key fobs and chips, as too much heat or water contamination will damage the circuits.

If the key turns freely both forward and back, does the latch open properly? If so, ice may be holding the seal shut. Give a few good tugs, and if it moves and makes an ice crackling sound, then it may need a little more elbow grease to get it open.

If the latch feels stuck, don’t start yanking! You can bend the internal linkage if you pull a latch that is frozen. Start by slowly and repeatedly opening then letting the latch snap back down. Keep doing so while applying steady pulling pressure to the door. Continue moving at a faster and faster pace until the door frees up and opens.

Do not use hot water. Hot water may be able to melt the ice, but hot water will actually freeze faster, and may take your small problem to a big frozen one.

To keep it from happening once you get the door open use a bit of wd40 in the lock cylinder, on the door latch, and a bit on the door seal.

What kind of damage can excess snow and ice buildup cause to your car and do you still need to scrape off the ice and snow on your car and let it run for a couple minutes even on days you’re not driving?
Always try to clear all ice and snow from the windshield before you leave, even if your defroster has warmed the windshield enough to have proper visibility. The defroster will turn the ice into liquid and that liquid water will now squeeze further into the chips and cracks that may be in your windshield. Once you get on the road, the fast-moving air will solidify the water and can spider crack the windshield without warning.

Also, the ice melting from the defroster can refreeze and cause problems with the wipers.

If you have gotten all the ice and moisture from the windshield, rub any known cracks and chips with hand sanitizer and/or alcohol over 80 proof, as this will keep the water from freezing and displace the moisture.

Packed up snow can keep moisture close to the body, which will accelerate rusting especially since it can trap salt too.

Snow or ice on a wheel or drive shaft can cause a bad vibration and can cause damage to drive components. so don’t let it get too bad

Built-up ice can break/damage window regulators, windshield wiper blades, and window seals when trying to operate them. It can also tear door seals. DON’T OPEN WINDOWS/SUNROOF TO CLEAR ICE! In fact, try not to open them at all until the car is warmed up. This is how regulators and motors for windows fail.

Built-up snow/ice can cause weird noises and/or vibrations if packed up under the car, in wheel wells, or on the inside of rims.

Your car doesn’t need to be started/scraped off if it isn’t being driven that day, but the longer you let it sit with snow/ice on it, the harder it’s going to be to get it off. The longer you let it sit, the harder it’s also going to be to get it to start.

Can you use the ice scraper that you use on your windows on the rest of your car? Will it damage the paint? If so, what method should you use to get ice off your hood?
an old cardboard brim on a baseball hat works great at pushing, or if needed, scraping ice and snow safely from paint. The bristles on a brush can cause swirl marks. A hard plastic gift card or old credit card works great on glass.

Don’t scrape ice or stuck-on snow off of paint. Just get off whatever is loosely on the painted surfaces. Scraping ice/snow off of paint can damage it: chipping, scratching, or peeling the paint. Just get the loose stuff off and get the vehicle into a warmer environment ( garage) for some time and let it naturally melt off.

Even sliding ice accross paint can scratch or damage paint. Just walk away and let it melt.

How long do you need to let the engine warm-up before you drive?
Its best to warm your vehicle up until the temperature needle lifts off of the base line.

On extremely cold days, your car can make some weird/unusual noises, more than likely from the power steering pump (essentially it’s trying to pump molasses). If/when this occurs wait until everything quiets down to more of what your vehicle “normally” sounds like. Then wait until the temperature needle lifts off of cold before moving.

Do you need to get snow tires?
Snow tires really do make a huge difference; however, they do not make you a better driver. The best lessons I learned about driving in snow were from driving in adverse conditions with bad tires. A competent driver will be so with or without them. Snow tires are a luxury, but a smart one that can make your life easier. They should not be used as a way to increase your speed and confidence in bad weather conditions.

I would recommend investing in snow tires for a rear wheel drive vehicle; however, they are not 100% necessary for front wheel drive or AWD/4X4. The investment can be really worth it. Think about it; $1000 for snow tires or $5000 in body repairs.

A good all-season tire can be a good compromise if you don’t want to swap out wheels/tires twice a year.

If you can afford to run high performance summer tires on your vehicle, you had better be able to afford winter tires as well.

How often should you add antifreeze to your car’s cooling system?
Coolant in the winter will boil over less, but due to contraction, will pull further into the system. A good 50/50 mix should suffice at the beginning of the season, changing out every 2-4 years (2 being best). Colder climates may need 60/40, especially areas with higher wind chills.

A last couple of tips:

During winter we recommend you try to keep at least ½ tank of gas in the tank in case of a worst case scenario. If you are stuck somewhere and need to keep your car running for warmth you won’t want to run out of gas. The standard vehicle can idle for roughly 48 hours straight on a full tank of gas.

Good investments for your car: block heaters and battery heaters/blankets for cars in colder areas, and for diesels in general.

Have your battery checked once it starts getting cold out, and maybe again if there’s a big cold front coming through your area.

Have tire pressures checked. Cold air isn’t as dense as hot air so the cold will contract the air in the tires, lowering your tire pressure.

Make sure all fluids are topped off and full once it starts getting colder.

Cold weather causes EVERYTHING to contract. Gaskets will really contract, so the winter time is when a lot of leaks will start to appear. Don’t wait to get them repaired. The longer you wait and the colder it gets, the worse the condition will become. Be prepared to budget a little more on maintenance/repairs in the winter months as the cold weather strains engine components much more than the rest of the year.

If you have any questions about winter vehicle car give us a call at 630-305-3054, or check out our website at

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