With temperatures dipping and some forecasters warning that 2014 could bring the coldest winter for over a century, it's time to think about how to protect yourself, and your car, for driving during the winter months.
WINTER CAR MAINTENANCE
Winter driving puts an increased strain on both you and your car, so it's important to make sure that everything is in good order.
A few simple checks can greatly reduce the chance of a breakdown, as well as potentially making your car easier and less stressful to drive in winter ice and snow.
Fixing something that's relatively inexpensive now, after all, might avoid a much more costly failure in the colder conditions – or prevent you from having to pay a costly recovery fee after becoming stranded somewhere.
To ensure you don’t fall foul of the conditions, here's our list of recommended winter car maintenance tips.
The bare essentials
As a minimum, make sure you have done all your regular checks before winter sets in. Check your car's oil level, coolant level, tyre pressures and lights. If your car hasn't been serviced for some time, it might be worth getting it done before winter sets in. It'll help ensure that everything's in good order before the temperature falls.
Now's also the time to attend to any mechanical or electrical faults, as they could bring your car grinding to a halt in the worst possible weather. Test all of your car's systems as well, as you don't want to find out later that things like your heated rear windscreen have failed.
Check your antifreeze
If your car's cooling system doesn't have the correct amount of antifreeze in it, you could experience a major failure when the thermometers start falling below zero.
Get an antifreeze tester from your local motor factors and check your handbook to see what the mixture should be, and what kind of antifreeze you should be using. Any local dealer or garage will be able to test it for you, if need be.
Inspect the rest of the cooling system as well to ensure that the radiator, coolant hoses and water pump are free from leaks or visible damage.
Take care of your car's battery
The cold can take its toll on your car's battery, even more so if you're not driving regularly. If you find your car slow to start as the temperature falls, your battery is most likely on its way out. So if you've any doubts about the condition of the battery, get it tested by a local dealer or garage.
If your car's battery goes flat if you leave it several days, because of a fault or drains caused by an alarm system, consider investing in a trickle charger to keep it topped up – or get an automotive electrician to resolve any issues.
Keep your lights bright
Besides making sure all your lights work properly, if you know your car's light lenses are damaged or faded then consider picking up a decent scratch repair kit for around £14.99. Carry a set of spare bulbs in your car, too, to avoid getting caught out.
Older cars may also benefit from an upgrade to more powerful bulbs in order to improve visibility, but make sure to choose compatible and appropriate bulbs.
Inspect your brakes
Rattles, squeals, shakes, a soft brake pedal and a noticeable increase in stopping distance are all signs that your car's braking system is in need of attention.
Stopping distances are vastly increased on icy or snowy roads, and worn or faulty brakes will only exacerbate them further - so it's best to get them looked at.
Give your tyres a once-over
The condition and quality of your tyres will make a dramatic difference to how your car performs on wintery roads. If the tread is low, the sidewalls are damaged, you've a slow puncture or they're a budget brand, you may find your car much harder to control.
Check them over carefully and replace if the tread is low or there's any sign of damage. You may also want to consider changing to high-quality tyres, if possible.
Maintain your visibility
One of the biggest dangers in winter is a lack of visibility. Replace any wiper blades that are in poor condition with high-quality items, top up your washer fluid with winter-mixture screenwash and carry clean cloths to wipe down your glass and side mirrors.
It's advisable to carry additional screenwash in the car. Running out can quickly lead to your windscreen becoming obscured by salt and grime. You may also want to get any windscreen chips or cracks looked at, as the cold could lead to them becoming much more severe.
Lubricate seals, locks and hinges
The cold temperatures can cause doors to stick to weather seals, in turn making the doors hard to open or even damaging the seals themselves. Don't use Vaseline to lubricate the seals, as it will degrade the rubber. Use a quality rubber care stick like Gummi Pflege instead.
It's worth taking a minute to go around the car with a can of silicone lubricant as well, and spraying it in to hinges, locks and linkages. It'll stop things sticking when the temperature falls. Don't use WD-40 though, as it's not a suitable substitute for proper lubrication.
Pack a survival kit
Even after you’re done prepping your car for winter, take time to prepare in case the worst happens. Pack a bag with spare bulbs, jump leads, a torch, a decent tow strap, a high-visibility vest, warm clothes, a charger for your phone, some chocolate and some bottled water. Even if you just get stuck in a jam, they could come in handy.
If your area experiences regular or occasionally severe snowfall, consider carrying some wooden planks, a shovel and some old carpet; all of this can be used to help get a stuck car moving.
It may be beneficial, if you have them, to pack a small selection of tools and spares - like a bottle of coolant, oil and an ancillary belt.
Consider winter tyres
The UK has among the slowest uptakes for winter or all-weather tyres in Europe. As soon as temperatures drop below seven degrees, winter tyres are proven to reduce stopping distances and make your car easier to control.
Winter tyres are expensive but they're well worth it, and if you're going to be doing a lot of travelling it'll make driving a lot safer and less stressful. You can find more information on winter tyres by scrolling down this page.
Opt for snow chains, socks or mats
If you live in an area with regular amounts of high snowfall then a set of chains could make sure you don’t get stuck. A decent set can be had from upwards of £50 online, and with practice can be fitted in minutes.
Snow socks are serve a similar purpose and can give you enough grip and traction to drive safely across snow-covered roads. They're unpleasant to handle when they've been used though, so remember to carry disposable gloves and a bin liner or two to put them in afterwards. As with chains, don't continue driving on them once you've reached clean asphalt.
Those needing something just to get them moving could consider a set of inexpensive snow mats. Alternatively, just carry some offcuts of old carpet in the boot for emergencies.
Protect your car's paint and metalwork
The grit laid down to help de-ice roads can cause corrosion, so treat any rust, touch up any paint chips or damage and wax your car comprehensively, if you can, before the winter season starts.
It's sensible to pressure wash the underside of your car regularly too, in order to blast off any salt and solution that could potentially corrode your car's underside.
WINTER TYRES - JUST HOW GOOD ARE THEY?
The one thing we know about the seasons is that they are seasonal, correct? Which means it’ll be winter before we know it again soon, and the questions about winter tyres will once again arise in the minds of the everyday motorist.
Such as: are winter tyres worth what they cost, do they really make a difference compared with summer tyres when the roads turn greasy, should they be made compulsory in the UK (as they are in many other "cold" European countries at certain times of the year), and which are the best ones to buy; and where are the best places to go to find the best deals?
Until 2012 I was sceptical about the whole business of winter tyres. I thought they were a ruse quite frankly, a conspiracy designed by the car and tyre manufacturers to get us to part with our hard earned folding for something that we don’t strictly need. But then I tried some, at which point my opinion on the subject changed completely.
I was running a long term BMW 1M at the time, and at BMW’s insistence the car was fitted with a set of Michelin Alpin winter tyres. And when it came back I was stunned by how different it felt to drive; how much more comfortably it rode, how much sweeter it steered, how less fidgety it felt on badly surfaced roads, and how much more grip it had everywhere in the wet.
The whole car felt as if it had been unlocked somehow, and there was also an amusing little sticker that had appeared in the top right-hand side of the windscreen, warning me not to drive above 149mph. As if BMW GB was saying: ‘Because we know what sort of larks you normally get up to in our 1M…’
There were some other qualities about the car on winter tyres that were less desirable, true. I noticed, for instance, that the speedo had become wildly ambitious; at a true 70mph it was reading almost 80mph, which meant the fuel range indicator was similarly off-piste. And the car’s traction control also become neurotic, killing the power at the merest whiff of throttle, even on bone dry roads.
But when eventually it snowed – albeit only a bit – the tyres were an absolute revelation. The 1M was not rendered useless, as I’m no doubt it would have been on its original 19-inch summer tyres. Instead, it could go pretty much anywhere because it could stop, steer and accelerate, almost as if the roads were merely wet rather than covered in snow.
And having subsequently tried Michelin’s latest Pilot Alpin 2 tyres in Latvia – on anything from the new 911 to a Range Rover Evoque – it’s equally clear that winter tyres aren’t just here to stay but are getting better, year-on-year.
Winter tyres are now big business for the tyre companies of Europe, even if we in the UK have yet to embrace them like most other countries in the Union. But my guess, my hope indeed, is that this attitude will change in the near future.
What’s the point in spending upwards of a thousand pounds on winter tyres in the UK when we don’t have the weather to justify such extra cost, I hear you cry.
Put it this way, next time it snows – and they say it might do properly again in the UK this winter – and our nation grinds to a halt once more (which it will) just think how much money will go up in smoke in the resulting mayhem. And think how much more efficient it would be if, as they do in Latvia when it snows (which means most of the year), we all continued to get around in our cars, vans, lorries and buses, virtually as if nothing had happened.
That’s how much of a difference winter tyres can make. And the sooner we realise it, the less carnage there will be next time our beloved weather forcasters warn us there’s a “cold snap” heading our way.
Winter tyres Frequently Asked Questions
Can I drive on winter tyres in summer?
Yes, but the best thing to do is store them in the summer otherwise they’ll wear out quite quickly.
What are the biggest benefits of winter tyres compared with normal tyres?
On rear-wheel-drive cars in particular, they improve all areas of performance. But the biggest differences are in braking and traction, and the differences are monumental, as in more than 50 per cent.
Do I really need winter tyres on a front-wheel-drive car?
Yes, because although the improvements aren’t as great as they are on rear drive cars, they are still very significant indeed, especially in braking performance.
How much do winter tyres cost?
About the same as summer tyres, depending on size, style and make.
Where’s the best place to buy them?
Always check for deals on the internet (with companies such as blackcircles.com) but check with your car manufacturer first to get the recommended sizes.
Do winter tyres make any difference in the rain?
Yes, a huge difference. In fact, they will improve the braking, traction and overall grip of your car at pretty much any temperature below 5-7 degrees C – even in the dry. And in the wet, in those sorts of temperatures the difference is chalk and cheese.
Is it worth putting winter tyres on a tired old banger?
If you value the front and rear bumpers of your tired old banger and don’t fancy the idea of ruining your no claims bonus, yes. If not, no. And good luck.
Can I get 20-inch winter tyres that look the same as 20-inch high performance summer tyres?
Yes. Most of the major tyre companies now make 20-inch winter tyres.
What’s wrong with carrying a set of snow chains instead?
Best of luck fitting a set of those once you’ve slid to a halt on the hard shoulder on the uphill section of a busy motorway.
Are winter tyres worth it?
In our humble opinion, yes. With extra cheese and chilli sauce on top.
DRIVING IN WINTER
Driving in winter can present additional hazards, ranging from a mildly inconvenient cold snap that can compromise visibility through to ice and snow driving, which can endanger the well-being of both you and your fellow road users.
However, so long as you are well prepared and take sensible precautions, all winter driving hazards should be no more than a mild inconvenience.
To maximise your safety on treacherous roads, follow our step-by-step guide to ensure you are as well prepared as possible.
Shortly before you drive
Clear all of the car's windows, and make sure the wing mirrors are clean, so you have full visibility.
Remove any snow or other debris from the car's bodywork, including the roof, so it doesn’t slide off your car when you brake or accelerate.
Make sure the car's windows are demisted properly before driving off.
Lift the car's windscreen wipers, and rear wiper if fitted, to check that they're not stuck.
Ensure all snow and ice is cleared from your footwear before setting off, lest your feet slide off the pedals when you stand on them.
Remember to pack some essentials, such as a blanket. It can also be beneficial to carry some window cleaner and kitchen roll, as they will allow you to quickly clean windows and light clusters.
When you drive
Do not rush your journey. Rushing will make you more stressed and potentially less able to concentrate. Leave plenty of time and check traffic and weather reports before you depart.
Proceed carefully, at a reduced speed, when the road conditions require it.
Accelerate, brake and steer gently. Rapid, harsh inputs could unsettle the car.
Leave considerably longer stopping distances than normal. In heavy ice and snow, stopping distances are typically ten times farther than normal.
If the wheels lock while braking, release the pedal momentarily then reapply the brakes. Repeat as necessary to bring your speed down.
Don't close up on the car in front when stopping - leave a large gap, in case they get stuck or slide backwards.
If you get stuck and your wheels spin, try accelerating away in second gear using a minimum amount of revs and steering.
Try to reduce torque to the wheels by staying in as high a gear as possible while on the move.
Conversely, if you have automatic transmission and are at a standstill with the wheels spinning, try manually forcing the car to stay in first gear or second gear. Many automatics now have a winter or snow mode; if so, make sure it's on.
Locking an automatic in, say, second can also prove advantageous when driving on very poor roads. It can offer some engine braking and helps you control your road speed more easily.
Traction control systems can have an adverse effect when driving on ice and snow. Sometimes switching it off and allowing wheelspin from rest can give you more forward motion.
When travelling downhill, gently bleed off as much speed as possible and engage low gears to maximise engine braking. If you need to brake, do so in a straight line if possible - and gently.
Only attempt to drive up steep hills once you know the route is clear. Try to avoid stopping on an incline; remember that you'll need some run-up to get up a snowy hill - if you're going too slowly you could stop and slide back down.
If your car begins to skid, remember to steer into the direction of the skid - if the tail of your car steps out to the right, for example, you'll need to turn right to try and get the car pointing the right way.
Should you feel like you are losing control, if possible keep your eyes fixed on where you want to go and steer in an effort to get there. Staring into an oncoming obstacle will usually result in a collision.
Try to get all braking and accelerating completed in a straight line. Try to avoid both while turning.
If fog and snow is causing glare during night driving on main beam, try using dipped beams instead.
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