Winter can bring out the problems with your vehicle that you never suspected - and in many cases, a few simple checks and checkups will keep them from turning inconvenient. "Vehicles need to be maintained year-round, but because of the unique conditions of winter, you need to emphasize some things," says Bob Clark, manager of industry relations at the National Institute for Automotive Service Excellence and an ASE-certified technician himself:
Get your oil changed.
And don't just replace what you've got - if you live where weather changes on the hour, you may want to go to a lighter-weight oil for the winter months. "Consult the owner's manual for the manufacturer's recommendations," says Clark.
Have your cooling system checked.
"Low engine coolant doesn't necessarily manifest itself in the winter as quickly as it will in summer, but it can severely affect performance of the heater," Clark adds. "Poor heater performance can be one indication that it's time to flush old antifreeze and put in new fluid." Antifreeze should be changed every two years or 30,000 miles, on average.
Get your electrical system tested.
Your car's electrical system is in high demand in winter. Check all your exterior and interior lights and replace dead bulbs. You may also want to have your battery load tested to make sure it's providing a good charge - under the worst conditions, it could let you down.
Take a closer look at your tires.
You need good traction, and if you live in a northern state that gets a lot of ice and snow, you might consider investing in a good set of specially designed winter tires. "The further north you live, the more you need to consider a more aggressive tread." At the very least, make certain your existing tires are in good shape and properly inflated for optimum performance.
Do a quick overall check.
Examine your car's belts and look at hoses for the beginnings of cracks. Change your wiper blades if they need it and add plenty of cold-weather wiper fluid. And make sure you keep some gloves, flares, tools, and even some high-energy snacks in the car in case of emergency. "You might put some warmer clothes in there too, depending on the climate," says Clark. "If you have to spend some time in the car, or have to walk for help, you'll need them."