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(Olga Milkina/iStockphoto)
(Olga Milkina/iStockphoto)

Cold weather maintenance

Prepping your car for winter's worst Add to ...

The full fury of winter is fast approaching. Ice, snow, sleet, and frigid temperatures are around the corner, waiting to wreak havoc on the roads. To avoid an accident and stay safe, be prepared.

First off, invest in a good set of winter tires. Some say it’s hype, but winter tires do make a difference – offering better traction on the road and better control of your vehicle.

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Despite the name, all-season tires aren’t designed for year-round use. They’re fine for spring, summer, and fall. But winter is another story.

“Winter tires are dedicated for winter use exclusively. They’re made of a softer rubber compound designed to withstand colder temperatures. … They’re designed to perform on ice, snow and in cold, dry conditions and maintain flexibility and pliability in cold temperatures,” says Canadian Tire’s Melissa Arbour.

So what’s the difference between winter and all-season tires? Winter-tire tread grooves are 30 per cent deeper and have more bite than all-season tires. They’re made of softer rubber, and are designed to remain flexible at low temperatures. In fact, Arbour says, “at plus-7 C, a winter tire will outperform an all-season tire, which starts to harden and becomes like a puck on ice.”

Winter tires also reduce stopping distances by up to 40 per cent versus all-season tires. I put that figure to the test at a winter driving challenge sponsored by Canadian Tire in a Toronto hockey rink. The faceoff is between winter-rated tires and all-season tires. Two cars are on the ice – a grey Ford Focus with Michelin Destiny all-season tires and a black Ford Focus with Michelin X Ice-Xi2 winter tires. I drive both cars, back-to-back, in a braking exercise to see which car stops sooner.

I circle the rink in the black Focus until I reach 25 km/h and then slam on the brakes at the stop sign; the ABS kicks in, grinding the vehicle to a halt at 22 feet. I repeat the manoeuvre with the grey Focus, reaching the same speed. It’s harder to stop – the final resting point is nearly 40 feet from the stop sign, a significant difference that could mean the difference between getting in an accident and avoiding one.

Likewise, in the cornering exercises, the winter tires outperform, offering more traction and better control on the ice compared to the all-season tires.

Winter tires are expensive, but they’re an investment in your safety. The cost is about $100 a tire. (Michelin X-Ice Xi2 are $85.49 each; the Michelin Destiny all-seasons cost $107.49 each). You must buy a set of four winter tires – two won’t cut it.

When buying winter tires, be sure to look for the Rubber Association of Canada’s mountain/snowflake symbol on the sidewall, which indicates it meets or exceeds industry standards for snow and ice traction.

Also, look for the manufacturing date of the tire on the sidewall, too. It’s a series of four numbers – the first two indicate the week and the last two are the year. For example, “4110” means it was made in the the forty-first week of 2010. The shelf life of a tire is about six years so keep it in mind when tire shopping.

The best time to switch to winter tires is when the temperature dips below 7 C; when the temperature hits above 7 C in the spring, it’s time to switch back to your all-seasons.

Make sure all tires are properly inflated, too, even the spare tire in the trunk. An under-inflated tire reduces gas mileage by 4 per cent for every one psi drop in pressure. You can find the proper tire pressure on the door of your vehicle or the owner’s manual. Check your tire pressure regularly – at least once a month. The best time to get an accurate reading is when the tires are cold – first thing in the morning is best.

Before winter arrives, bring your car to a mechanic to check your battery to make sure it can hold a charge. A battery usually lasts three to five years. “On average, one in five batteries on the road today are almost dead. … For about two-thirds of customers, the only way they find out their battery is dead is when it’s dead and they’re stuck and they have to ask a stranger for a boost, which is dangerous,” warns Arbour.

When temperatures dip to minus-18 C, a car’s battery can only use about 40 per cent of its charge, yet will need twice the power to start your vehicle. A battery costs about $100 to replace – a lot less than a tow if your battery dies on the road. Canadian Tire is offering free battery checks until the end of 2011.

Visibility is another key to safe winter driving. Ninety per cent of driving decisions are made with your eyes.

Worn and dirty wipers will obstruct your view. Wiper blades deteriorate over time from use and environmental factors such as salt and heat exposure. So, inspect them regularly and replace them, at least once a year. It’s a cheap investment, costing as little as $18.99.

Remember to top up your windshield wiper fluid, too, with proper products. Plain water won’t cut it – it freezes. Always keep a jug of wiper fluid in the trunk, too, in case you run out.

That way, you’ll be prepared for anything Mother Nature throws in your path this winter.

globedrive@globeandmail.com

Follow on Twitter: @PetrinaGentile

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