This time of year, driving’s tricky. Gone are the days of wide-open backroads and steady cruises down the QEW—at least, until next summer. For now, with low visibility and inches of snow hiding black ice, it’s time to winterize your car. No matter what you drive, there are steps you can take to prepare your car for the winter.
When the temperature is particularly cold, as this winter has been in much of Canada, roads can develop black ice, a thin sheet of nearly invisible ice that’s much harder to spot than its shinier counterparts are. All-wheel drive can help your car handle these icy patches, but you’ll want to make sure you have it turned on. Volkswagen like the Tiguan, Atlas, and certain Golf models are armed with 4MOTION®, which stands apart from traditional all-wheel drive in that it’s always on and responds automatically to road conditions. When one wheel senses a loss in traction, for example, the engine adjusts the amount of power it sends to each axle, stabilizing the grip. It’s exceptionally handy when it comes to surprise conditions.
Of course, cars completely without all-wheel drive can be improved in a pinch. Front-wheel drive vehicles should have their rear axles weighed down to improve their traction. Do this by picking up several heavy sandbags from your local hardware store and storing them in your trunk, as close to the wheel wells as possible. Rear-wheel drive cars handle slippery conditions poorly, and we don’t recommend keeping sandbags near your pedals.
No matter your car’s powertrain, though, consider outfitting your wheels with winter tires. Most cars come stock with all-weather tires, which are designed to handle a variety of conditions, from clear summer days to snowy winters. Winter tires have deeper grooves, designed to grip snow and ice better and large treads keep snow from filling the gaps. Not only will this improve your winter traction over all-weather tires, but also you’ll extend the longevity of your main tires, as you won’t be using them during winter months. (And, remember, when changing your tires always install a full set.)
Once your car is stabilized, outfit it with other winter materials. For example, change the windshield fluid to a winter formula, which will help keep ice from building, and consider doing the same for your engine’s oil. Refill your engine’s antifreeze and swap all-weather wiper blades for their rugged counterparts. Consider picking up a set of chains to add to your tires—you can find sets that are easily applied to all sorts of tires and you’ll want to limit use of chains to only the most extreme conditions because they can cause damage to tires and roads when used improperly.
Part of being prepared for winter means having the materials you need on hand to get out of a tricky spot. Short and wide wooden boards can be used to get out of a snowy rut—if your wheels spin without gripping the snow, lay the boards underneath the tires to give them something to hold onto and pull yourself out. And don’t forget the most basic equipment, like a shovel, flashlight, battery-operated radio, safety signs, and even a flare or two if you’re driving somewhere particularly remote.
And, remember, just because it’s winter and you’re on alert doesn’t mean you should be uncomfortable as well. Cars without heated seats can be outfitted with warming pads, or heating can be installed. The same goes for steering wheels. Heavy-duty mudguards will keep your car fresh, and a blanket will keep your riders cozy.
The last thing you can do to prepare your car for winter is prepare yourself for winter driving. Safety features like 4MOTION® All-Wheel Drive and automatic braking (ABS) improve handling immensely, but not even the safest car is not a full substitute for a safe driver. Find a safe place like a large, empty parking lot—seriously empty, with not even a lamppost to crash into—to practice winter driving techniques, such as turning into an icy slide (rather than away from it) and pumping your brakes (but only if your vehicle isn’t equipped with ABS). With the right mix of features, equipment, and comfortability, there’s no reason you can’t handle the winter roads.