1. Check (and change) your coolant
Driving on worn-out coolant is a bad idea all year-round, but it’s especially bad in winter. Worn coolant can freeze and destroy your engine. You can test its freeze protection level with an inexpensive gauge (less than $10) from any auto parts store. But there’s more to coolant than just freeze protection. Fresh coolant prevents corrosion damage to your heater core, radiator and water pump. Once corrosion starts, the heater core plugs up and you lose heat. That repair alone can cost upward of $1,000. If you can’t remember the last time you changed the coolant, change it now. It’s cheap insurance against expensive repairs later.
2. Service your battery and charging system
Have a pro check and service your battery and charging system. On a cold winter night, you’re likely to have all your electrical accessories (headlights, wipers, heater/defroster and rear window defogger) running at the same time. That puts tremendous stress on your vehicle’s electrical system. So it’s important to have clean connections and a fresh battery. Old batteries just can’t the handle frequent discharge/recharge cycles and can actually cause premature alternator failure. If your battery is four years old (or older), it’s living on borrowed time. Replace it now with the best battery you can afford.
3. Tune it up
In cold weather, new spark plugs and ignition wires can mean the difference between a rapid start and an engine that won’t fire up. Check your owner’s manual to find the manufacturer’s recommendation for when to replace spark plugs. If you’re within 20 percent of that mileage, change them now and enjoy better starting all winter.
4. Replace your wiper blades
Replace your wiper blades with “winter wiper blades.” Winter blades are covered in a rubber boot that prevents snow and ice from packing inside the squeegee’s support arms. So they keep your windshield clean even in heavy snow. Many newer vehicles come with beam-style blades that don’t have support arms. If you have those on your vehicle, make sure they wipe without streaking. If you see streaks now, they’ll only get worse as road salt and grit wear them down even more. Replace them now for better visibility.
5. Check your headlights
The UV coating on plastic headlights degrades over time and the lenses turn cloudy, reducing road illumination by 70 percent. You don’t have to replace the entire headlight to see clearly again. Just buy a headlight restoration kit (about $25) at any auto parts store. Then pull out one of your low-beam headlight bulbs and examine it. The glass should be crystal clear. If you see gray or brown deposits on the inside of the bulb, it’s time to change headlights. Those deposits can reduce nighttime visibility by almost 300 ft.
— Rick Muscoplat, Automotive Editor