Mr. Green Car: Winter driving—part two

By Allen Penticoff
Free-lance Writer

In the last Mr. Green Car (Dec. 29, 2010-Jan. 4, 2011), we took a look at floor mats and wiper blades. We’ll continue to examine some winter driving issues that you don’t often read about.

If heavy snow falls or after getting out of a snow bank you feel a bad vibration as you drive, stop and take a look at the outside and inside of the wheels to see if any accumulation of snow or ice is stuck there that is causing an imbalance. To fix this problem: scrape it off; get it into a warm garage; or melt it with a hair dryer/heat gun.

On the subject of tires, many of our “all-season” tires are not all that good in the snow (I know, I have a set). Acceptable tread patterns should have open spaces creating “lugs” and substantial “siping” (small slits) to grip the snow, slush and wet that comes with winter. A dedicated “winter tire” will also be made of a softer, more-pliable-in-cold rubber compound. Check your present tires to be sure you have plenty of tread on them. For best winter performance, consider buying more aggressive winter tread tires and put them on a spare set of used steel wheels. This spares your nice aluminum wheels and low-profile tires from winter’s potholes and salt, and also provides much better traction.

With colder temperatures, tire pressure lowers. Check tire pressure often, and fill to the proper pressure to ward off pothole damage and increase your gas mileage. Be sure to have caps on the valves to keep snow, dirt and ice out. It is possible to get ice in the valve when trying to put in air—then air won’t stay in, but continue to gush out. Caps are very cheap.

Keep your fuel tank full. The extra weight aids in traction, and if you get stuck in bad traffic, you have enough fuel to keep warm until things get moving again. I do not use de-icer in my fuel because getting “water” in the fuel is rare. This stuff is methanol, and while it does work to absorb water, methanol can damage your fuel system if not fully diluted in gasoline. If you get water in your fuel line in the winter, the gas line can freeze, for which the only cure is to get the vehicle in a warm building until the line thaws out—then the additive will help.

If being stuck comes along, it is not a bad idea to have a blanket, a good book, a tow strap and jumper cables stowed away. The tow strap could save you from an expensive tow if someone comes along who can give you a pull when you’re stuck…or you can pull them out. Same for the jumper cables—buy good quality cables, and please learn how to use them properly. Leaving your lights on is the leading cause of dead batteries. This happens most often when we use them in the daytime during bad weather—just look back at your vehicle as you walk away—are the lights off? If you are prone to leaving your lights on, consider having a relay installed that will turn them off for you automatically.

If your battery is the least bit weak—have it tested (done free, in your car, at most parts stores). The battery may seem weak because of poor terminal connections—which can be cured by cleaning. If the battery tests weak—replace it. They have a tendency to die at the worst possible time. If the vehicle is driven infrequently, keep the battery charged. Dead/weak batteries can freeze. When they freeze, they are ruined. Starters are often blamed for what is actually a battery/cable problem. Many starters are exposed to adverse conditions low on the engine, where the connections are more prone to corrosion—have the connections checked first before replacing a starter. Starters generally don’t get “weak”—they either work or they don’t.

Have your oil changed to the lowest recommended viscosity (typically 5W-30). This really aids in quick cold starting, as does having synthetic oil. You don’t need to pump the gas to get modern vehicles going anymore. Turn the key, and they run. There is no need to let them warm up, either. Start it, and drive gently until it warms up. Long warm-ups can corrode the exhaust system, waste fuel and pollute the air. Since all engines go to “fast idle” until warmed up, if you have to go down an icy drive right away, consider placing the transmission in neutral, then you are not fighting the engine with your brakes as you go down the drive—I find I have more braking control and can go slower down the drive.

A caution for those of you with all-wheel or four-wheel drive: you don’t stop any faster than anyone else—but you can all too easily get going too fast. Anti-lock brakes are to help you steer when the wheels start to skid, not to help slow you down faster—in some cases they even work against stopping quickly. Caution is the only preventive.

Buck it up…so what if it’s cold, we have winter every year—don’t waste fuel and pollute the air trying to have a warm car to dash out to. Heated seats are better than warming the whole car before you go—you can buy heated seat covers if your vehicle is not already so equipped. Don’t wait in drive-through lanes—go in the nice, warm building to do your business.

Even if you don’t get a chance to wash the whole vehicle, remember to wash your filthy headlights—it’ll make a big difference in night driving. Then, next chance you get, wash the whole vehicle—it will last longer and be less expensive to maintain.

From the Jan. 12-18, 2011 issue

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