Early in my automotive career, I was a service advisor at Luxury Auto Mall of Sioux Falls, a Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Sprinter dealership independently owned and operated by the Rydell Automotive Group (goofy photo of me on the old staff page of our sister dealership, Sioux Falls Ford, in 2009).
As the weather became colder in South Dakota each year, we would often receive questions from customers about how to ensure their vehicle was ready for winter. The six items below are what we most commonly checked, inspected, and replaced.
Although the six items below are good to consider year-round for your vehicle, winter differs from other seasons because of the risks associated with driving. Snow and ice accumulation will make even the most familiar roads hazardous. The sun sets earlier, meaning light is at a premium when we leave work after a long day. Visibility during the evening, especially with flurries, can be limited at best (which is why we recommend a good pair of wipers near the end).
Depending on your level of mechanical proficiency, you might be able to do everything on this list at home. If not, that’s okay. Read on anyway, take a few mental notes, and then talk to a trusted mechanic or service advisor at a later date.
#1: Change Your Oil
Best Full Synthetic Motor Oils
That age-old advice to change your oil is still the best! We recommend one of these synthetic motor oils. Each is available through Amazon, of which Automoblog is an associate and may earn a commission.
Longer than average oil life provides up to 20,000 miles or one year of protection.
Why We Like Synthetic Oil
We recommend a full synthetic to protect your engine as the temperatures drop. When compared to their conventional counterparts, synthetic oils do a better job of keeping your engine clean and free from the deposits and sludge that hinder performance and efficiency.
Although the formulation processes differ and are proprietary to each brand, the general idea is that synthetic oils are achieved through artificially created compounds, as described by Machinery Lubrication. As such, synthetics provide key benefits over conventional oils.
Advantages of Synthetic Oil
A good analogy is to think of a candle. After you first light the candle, it takes a moment for the flame to melt the wax. Conventional oils contain wax that tends to thicken after the engine sits for an extended period in cold weather. When you start your car again with conventional oil, it’s similar to how it takes a moment for the wax to melt in the candle, only this time it’s about engine lubrication.
At the dealership, we would sometimes say that synthetic oils “get to the top” of the engine quicker because they do not contain the waxes like conventional oils do. Based on its chemical composition, synthetic oil rushes through the engine faster, providing immediate lubrication even though the engine is still “cold” after being started.
Other advantages of synthetic oil include a better viscosity index across a range of temperatures, better overall performance for turbo engines, and longer service intervals.
Can You Switch To a Synthetic Oil?
Contrary to popular belief, switching to a synthetic will not harm your engine. If you have never run a full synthetic before, doing so will help flush out any muck leftover from conventional oil.
#2: Check Your Battery
Best Car Batteries
Check your owner’s manual for the correct group size. These are available through Amazon, of which Automoblog is an associate and may earn a commission.
Genuine GM Part handles the higher electrical demands of luxury vehicles, such as Cadillacs, Buicks, and GMC trucks.
How Long Does a Car Battery Last?
Several factors determine battery life, including where you live, how often you drive, and the type of car battery you have, so there isn’t a definitive answer, but the general consensus is between three and five years.
Given the longer shelf life of car batteries, they tend to fall into the “out of sight, out of mind” category. In other words, you never realize you need a battery until your car refuses to start. And, of course, this always happens at the most inconvenient times!
Signs of a Bad Car Battery
One of the most obvious signs is difficulty getting your engine to turn over. If you reach for jumper cables more often than not, it could be a sign your battery is on the fritz.
Other issues can include dimmer-than-normal headlights and various other electrical components not working to their fullest inside your vehicle, including the heated seats, wireless charging pad, or sunroof.
You may also notice corrosion and other gunk around the terminals under the hood. If so, it’s time to replace your battery.
Why We Like AGM Batteries
AGM batteries, short for Absorbent Glass Mat, have fiberglass separators or glass mats that “absorb” the electrolyte solution inside the battery. This design allows AGM batteries to store electrolytes in a “dry” state rather than liquid form.
You may hear the term “spill-proof” or “maintenance-free” with regard to AGM batteries, meaning the acid will not leak out if they are tilted. This is because the glass mat absorbs the sulfuric acid in the battery.
Since the electrolytes are absorbed into a tight fiberglass mat instead of hanging lead plates in the electrolyte solution, AGM batteries are more resistant to vibrations than traditional batteries, which can reduce their life. That same design also allows them to drum up more starting power for your engine on a cold morning.
Compared to standard batteries, AGM batteries are more durable, can charge five times faster, last three times longer, and cycle down to 80 percent of their DoD or Depth of Discharge (a percentage of the battery that can be drained without damaging the cells).
Pro Tip: Keeping a portable jump starter in your vehicle during the winter can help if you have an unexpected dead battery.
#3: Change Your Air Filter
Best Car Air Filters
Consider one of these easy-to-install air filters. Each is available through Amazon, of which Automoblog is an associate and may earn a commission.
Multi-fiber and high-density design traps dirt, dust, and road grime to increase your engine’s performance.
How Long Does a Vehicle Air Filter Last?
On average, replace your air filter every 10,000 to 15,000 miles or once a year. However, that timeline can change depending on where you live. For example, if you drive on gravel roads or live in farm country, the additional dust might require a more frequent or earlier filter change.
Staying on top of air filter changes will result in greater fuel economy, better acceleration, and lower emissions over time.
Signs of a Bad Air Filter
The easiest and quickest way to tell if you need a new air filter is by looking at it. Most air filters are white or off-white when they are new. As you drive, they turn darker over time as they catch dust, dirt, and debris. While discoloration is typical on an air filter, if it looks excessive, go ahead and replace it.
If the material appears fringy and tattered or the seal around the top of the filter is coming loose, it’s time for a new one. Really nasty air filters may look like a bird’s nest!
Mice even snack on air filters, and we saw this a time or two in the service bay at Luxury Auto Mall of Sioux Falls. If your air filter looks like critters have used it as a buffet line, toss it and get a new one!
Pro Tip: Your vehicle may also have a cabin air filter, depending on the make and model. Cabin air filters help prevent dust, pollen, and other particles from getting inside while you drive. Like the engine air filter, if you pull out your cabin air filter and it looks like a bird’s nest, pitch it and get a new one.
#4: Check The Serpentine Belt
Best Serpentine Belts
Keep your engine in tip-top shape with a new serpentine belt. These are available through Amazon, of which Automoblog is an associate and may earn a commission.
Strong tensile cords, ground rubber ribs, and Bando’s proprietary technology for better grip and less slip.
How Long Does a Serpentine Belt Last?
Generally speaking, a serpentine belt lasts anywhere from 50,000 to 100,000 miles. Since that’s a pretty wide window, having a trusted mechanic inspect your serpentine belt is a good idea, especially if you have a vehicle with higher mileage.
Signs of a Bad Serpentine Belt
Doing a quick visual inspection can tell you a lot about the belt’s condition. Take a flashlight and look at the underside (the side with the grooves). If your belt has a significant number of cracks or appears frayed or brittle, consider a new one.
You may also hear some odd squeaking or squealing noise under the hood when a serpentine belt goes rogue. While driving, your vehicle may also feel different than usual in how it steers or handles.
Importance of a Serpentine Belt
For what amounts to a relatively inexpensive part, a serpentine belt is one of your vehicle’s most essential components. If it snaps or fails, there is no way of driving any vehicle, no matter how fancy or luxurious it might be. A good serpentine belt is essential because it drives vital engine components like the alternator, power steering pump, and water pump.
#5: Pitch Old Wiper Blades
Best Wiper Blades
Increase your visibility with a new set of wipers. Each is available through Amazon, of which Automoblog is an associate and may earn a commission.
Low-friction rubber wiper durability-tested for 3,000,000 passes across the windshield.
Signs of Bad Wiper Blades
Bad wipers give themselves away by the streaks they leave on your windshield (and sometimes by the sounds they make!). Over time, the rubber blade wears down and may no longer make contact with the windshield. If this happens, you may see a leftover water blob in your sightline. Old wipers have a habit of missing spots like this.
Like your air filter and serpentine belt, you can visually inspect your wipers. Be mindful of cracks and cuts or if the rubber appears to be peeling. Given how difficult winter driving can be and how easy they are to replace, a fresh set of wipers will go a long way.
Current industry guidelines and state regulations often recommend tire replacement at 2/32″ depth (about 1.6 millimeters), although AAA’s research found such recommendations can vary. Replacement at 3/32″ is preferable to 2/23″, but AAA’s research found that at 4/32″, stopping performance had already decreased, especially on wet pavement.
The Automoblog research team looked at the affordability, industry reputation, reliability, and tread-life warranties of major tire manufacturers and came up with a list of the best tire brands. As part of that list, our research team goes over different tire types, industry grading standards, proper tire maintenance, and how to choose the right tires based on your needs. Our team also put together this helpful guide on the best winter tires.
You can do a quick home inspection on your tires with some loose change. Slip an upside-down quarter between your tire tread and look at Washington’s head. If you can see all of Washington’s head, it’s time to shop for new tires.
Carl Anthony is the Managing Editor of Automoblog and the host of AutoVision News Radio and AutoSens Insights. As a respected automotive industry thought leader, Carl has appeared on numerous podcasts and radio shows, including Wrench Nation, Cars Yeah, The Car Doctor, and Brains Byte Back, in addition to appearing as a regular contributor on MotorMouth Radio on WHPC 90.3 FM.His work can also be seen and heard 24/7 on the Automoblog YouTube channel.
Frequently Asked Questions
When should I see a mechanic?
A check engine light, fluid puddles on your garage floor, or any shaking, vibration, or other odd noises while driving are good reasons to visit your mechanic. Experienced technicians are also trained to look for not-so-obvious problems that are important to address.
What is the best way to maintain my vehicle?
One of the best places to look is in your owner’s manual. Every owner’s manual has a recommended maintenance (or similarly named) section. This section details what services the manufacturer recommends and at what mileage intervals.
However, the mileage intervals for certain services may not match up with how you use your vehicle. For example, you may consider flushing and exchanging your vehicle’s primary fluids earlier if you fall into a heavy-usage category (like towing a trailer frequently). We live in Michigan, where winters can be frigid, so we service our major fluids before the recommended intervals. It’s a peace of mind thing for us. Talk to your mechanic to get their input and go from there.
In the meantime, we have put together this helpful guide on what to check on your vehicle every so often. Doing so will help you keep your car running for the long haul.
What should I put in a winter emergency kit?
Your winter emergency kit should include a flashlight, jumper cables or portable jump starter, salt or kitty litter, a small shovel, scraper, flares or glow sticks, food and water, and any medications you are taking.
Packing an extra set of clothing, spare blankets, a phone charger, and a road atlas is also a good idea. Consider taking a book of matches or a lighter along with some candles for extra light and heat.
To help you better prepare for winter, we put together this free and helpful guide. It includes a comprehensive checklist for winterizing your vehicle, driving tips that will help keep you and your family safe, and how to respond during an emergency, among other things.