Guides for winterizing your car pop up like clockwork every fall, but no one ever talks about summer preparation. Thinking about some sun-drenched driving? Here's how to make sure you're ready.
Tires are the single most important part of your car. They have an enormous impact on performance and safety, and they're one of the few components on your vehicle that can kill you if you ignore them. A worn or underinflated set of tires can be detrimental to handling and braking and can lead to blow-outs at speed. If you own dedicated sets of winter and summer tires, inspect both sets of rubber as you swap them out for seasonal duty or storage. Even if you use all-season tires, check for bubbles in the sidewalls (usually a sign of broken belts in the tire's carcass), uneven wear, or visible wear bars. If you see any of the above, replace the tire. Be sure to look out for missing balance weights — the clip-on or stick-on lead/steel weights that mount to the edge or inside of your wheels. While you're at it, make sure that your spare tire is properly inflated.
Winter traffic is often much slower than summer traffic, and once Jack Frost shows up, your brakes see a great deal of abuse. Brake pads often suffer extreme thermal cycling — massive temperature changes due to the high heat of use meeting with freezing water or deep puddles. Removing your wheels often helps with a brake inspection. If you're technically inclined, remove your brake pads and check them for significant wear and cracking; if you're not, make sure that their edges aren't crumbling or heavily discolored and that the your brake rotors or drums have no significant cracking. If you see anything suspect, hit up your mechanic to double-check and/or replace anything that's worn.
Winter takes a toll on every part of your car — everything from your brake lines to your engine gets blasted by a constant barrage of salt, ice, water, sand, and general filth. Interiors become filled with dirt and tracked-in grime. Do yourself a favor and clean your car top to bottom, inside and out. Use good, high-quality cleansers and high-pressure water on the outside to get rid of salt and trapped sand, and be sure to hit the wheel wells and underbody. Clean all that junk out of the trunk and remove litter from under the seats. Vacuum and wash the funk-filled carpets and clean the inside of the windows, which have undoubtedly been smudged when the defroster couldn't keep up and you used your hands to carve out a peephole. Also take time to properly wash and treat the engine bay. It may sound unnecessary, but it's much easier to diagnose leaks or aging parts when everything is clean.
Pull out your car's dipstick and check the level and color of the oil — if it's still a pleasant shade of amber and meets the fill mark, you're fine. If it's amber but low, top it off. If it's black and nasty, change it ASAP. Regular oil should last 4000-5000 miles with no problem; synthetics should go for 6000-7000 miles between changes. (Both of these are general guidelines and vary with driving style and climate.)
Inspect your coolant level and coolant mix. The overflow or radiator tank should be full, and a coolant tester available at any auto parts store will tell you if the water to ethylene glycol ratio (the green or orange stuff) needs to be adjusted for maximum cooling. Change your coolant at least once a year for maximum performance. Just make sure that Fido isn't around if you spill some — dogs love glycol's sweet flavor, but it's toxic if ingested.
If you drive a car equipped with an automatic transmission, consult your owners manual on how, or if (some cars boast so-called "lifetime" fluid) you need to check your fluid level. The fluid should be at the level recommended by the manufacturer and a handsome, bright shade of red. Too much fluid can cause overpressure problems — rough shifting, slippage, and the like — and too little can burn out your torque converter. Be sure to fill it with the recommended ATF mix as designated by the SAE number in your manual.
Note: If your car is equipped with a manual transmission, checking fluid level is difficult but not impossible. Jack the car up, crawl underneath it, and remove the fill plug — usually a recessed plug or bolt in the side of the gearbox housing. On most transmissions, with the car level, the fluid should just meet the bottom of the plug's hole. Consult your owner's manual for specifics, and if any of this sounds daunting, there's no shame in asking your mechanic to take a look.
Power-steering fluid is often overlooked in general servicing, but it's important to keep it topped off and clean. Low steering fluid can lead to increased steering effort and premature failure of your power steering pump; dirty fluid can lead to premature failure of the entire system, which is never cheap to fix. Check your owner's manual for specifics on how to check your fluid level. If the fluid is low, fill to the maximum. If it's dark brown have the power steering system flushed and refilled.
When it comes to your safety, brake fluid is almost as important as tires. Your brakes are hydraulic devices, and brake fluid is little more than a high-temperature hydraulic fluid. Degradation of that fluid can lead to reduced braking performance or, in extreme cases, complete brake failure. (Yes, that's right — you won't be able to stop the car. Period.)
Brake fluid is kept in a translucent reservoir near the base of your car's windshield. It should be clear and at or close to the reservoir's "full" mark. If it's low, fill to that level. If it's dark and grimy, it should be flushed and replaced by an experienced mechanic (an knowledgeable shade tree mechanic can tackle it in a few hours). Brake fluid is extremely poisonous, so handle it with caution. Because brake fluid is hydroscopic — it absorbs moisture from the air and loses effectiveness with age — never reuse an opened bottle.
Modern car batteries consist of lead plates suspended in a water-diluted acid bath. Check your battery periodically to make sure that its fluid level is up to snuff and that there is no visible discharge or leakage around the battery's top. If you have a sealed battery like an Optima, you're essentially off the hook, but if you've got a traditional battery, check its fluid levels and fill to the brim using only distilled water.
We've all been there: You hit a snow pile or a hidden curb a little too hard and break the air dam, a piece of door trim breaks in subzero temps when you bump into it, the antenna motor burns out because the mast is frozen in place, the trunk light doesn't come on anymore... Little stuff that doesn't affect your car's performance or safety breaks in winter and makes your life more annoying. While you're giving your car a check-up, it's worth your time to bite the bullet and fix these issues. A complete and fully functional car is a heck of a lot more satisfying to drive than a rattly, clanky one with a hundred quirks.
Like most rubber products, wiper blades are usually designed to work best in a specific temperature range. Blades formulated for warm weather are different — more flexible and efficient but often less durable — from those designed for winter. Winter blades tend to be more flexible at lower temperatures but too soft at high temperatures, leading to premature failure. Most blades also take a beating in winter while scraping over jagged ice buildup. No matter how expensive your winter blades might have been, they're very likely worn out and streaking by spring. Greater visibility equals greater safety and less stress, and wiper blades are cheap insurance.