Cold Weather Car Tips

Jan 30, 2019

Editor's note: This piece, originally from Jan. 27, 2014, has been updated to include a recent interview with Mark Savage about cold weather car tips.

With the arctic weather we've been getting, most of us are taking extra precautions to face the cold. But should we do the same for our cars?

The cold, combined with additional snow, makes it not only irritating to drive in, but also a challenge to keep our cars ready to cope with the double whammy of extreme cold and icy roads. 

"When it's cold, anything that could be bad could happen is much more likely to happen," says automotive contributor Mark Savage. "So you just want to be careful and don't put extra stress on your car."

Savage answers some of the most pressing winter car care queries:

Do I need snow tires?

While not as popular as they used to be, snow tires might not be a bad idea given this winter's weather, Savage says.

Snow tires have more "sipes," or small cuts in the tread of a tire, which provide the extra traction in wintry and icy conditions.

"That's basically the trick here, getting enough of the tire to get enough grip on the pavement so that you can either start quicker or stop quicker," Savage says. "[It's] fascinating and revealing how quickly you could stop and easily you could start with snow tires."

While they're recommended for when temperatures reach 45 degrees or less, which Savage says definitely applies this winter, many people don't want to spend the money. That's true especially for those living in urban areas that are well-plowed and salted. But Savage says rural drives may want to consider the option.

Do I need to warm my car up before driving it?

Before direct injection and better technology, you needed to warm your car to get oil to circulate around the engine before driving. But Savage says nowadays, 30 seconds is more than enough warming time to get the fluids going. Of course, many people opt to warm their cars for the practical purpose of not wanting to sit in a freezing cold car, though Savage adds this uses gas and adds more pollution to the air.

That said, Savage warns that cars and their brakes do need some time to warm up while you're driving. Go slowly and brake gradually for the first few minutes of driving.

Should I get a block heater, or will a garage protect my engine?

You don't hear much about block heaters for warming engines anymore, but you can still buy them from auto dealers and for relatively cheap after-market prices. Savage says they are a viable alternative for helping your engine and oil warm up faster in extreme cold, particularly if your car stays outside.

However, he notes that garages are always the best option even if they are not insulated.

"If you can put your car in a garage that's a great thing because it keeps it out of the wind and probably keeps it 10 to 15 degrees warmer," notes Savage.

Do I need to wash off all this salt?

Many people have concerns about what road salt and snow can do to their cars' paint. Savage says today's car paints are much better, thicker, more elastic and less brittle than those of the past. Additionally, most cars today are made with galvanized steel, which takes a long time to rust, or have aluminum hoods, which don't rust. Even older cars take several years to rust from winter wear-and-tear. Still, he says it's worth it to wash the salt off once a winter - just not during such extreme cold or your car could freeze shut.

What does the cold do to my tires?

As the air gets colder, your tire pressure can get low, which can mean worse gas mileage and worse traction. Savage recommends keeping an eye out on your tire pressure after cold snaps.

"The key thing here is if you have a newer car you're going to notice that your 'check tire' light will come on, because [during] severe cold weather the air kind of escapes from your tires a little bit so you're going to lose a pound or two of pressure," he explains. "I wouldn't worry about it too much unless you look at your tires and definitely something is a lot lower, then maybe add a little bit but don't over-inflate."

Isn't 4-wheel drive enough to drive in wintry weather?

Savage says 4-wheel drive is "mainly intended for mud and snow that's a couple inches deep." So drive carefully, even if your car is equipped.

"It doesn't give you a lot of extra traction on ice," he says. "You're in the same boat as the rest of us."

Should I replace my battery?

"Those people who have had bad batteries over the last year or so and have not replaced them - this is the time it should have been replaced by," says Savage. "Otherwise you're going to have trouble starting the car because if you can get the battery to fire up, really most of everything else tends to work after that."

Helpful tip: park away from the wind

Although the temperatures are dropping, some people may still have to go to work and leave their cars in an open parking lot or on the street. Savage says, if it possible, do not park with the nose of your car facing the wind "because that wind chill you're feeling — your car is feeling it, too."

Mark Savage writes the auto review column, Savage on Wheels. He is also editor of Scale Auto magazine, part of Kalmbach Media in Waukesha, Wis.