(All too) often, people believe that the cold, in addition to bringing snow and ice, only affects one particular part of the car that deals with friction, in other words the tyres. In actual fact, cold is also the enemy of liquids, of gaskets, glass, gas, diesel fuel and certain plastic parts. To be as safe as possible, it is essential to act ahead of time.
What to check
Beyond routine checks which should be carried out all year round (belts, brakes, oil, water..), for example, many people forget that in winter, driving in the dark, and in low-visibility conditions, is much more frequent. So the windscreen wiper blades should be checked, as they should glide smoothly across the windscreen, without being dry, eaten away or bent out of shape; their contact surface with the glass must be as even as possible.
The windscreen wiper fluid level must be checked, and you must make sure it is resistant to low temperatures, otherwise it may have frozen and be unusable when you need it. Again as regards liquids, check that the cooling fluid contains at least 50% antifreeze: if it freezes, this could cause serious engine damage. Typically, an antifreeze should withstand a temperature of minus 25° C, but a check at the garage may suggest that you need to top it up, to increase the percentage. It is always advisable to use the product specified by the manufacturer.
Also worth reading: Do-It-Yourself maintenance
Fewer daylight hours, colder temperatures
Given that there are fewer daylight hours, it is clear that the importance of the light clusters rises. It is therefore necessary to check the efficiency of the lights: the side lights and the rear brake lights, as well as the dipped beam headlights and the full beam headlights. The glass or plastic parts of headlights must be cleaned thoroughly and the front and rear fog lights checked, as these often become essential in winter.
Battery care: if you think it’s cold in a garage, what about when your car “sleeps” outdoors? It is even more exposed outside, but it needs to be kept in perfect working order: check the condition of the battery, both in terms of charge level and surge power – required to start the car – because after several nights out in the cold, the battery may die out unexpectedly, especially if it is already old.
The climate control also needs to be in tip-top condition, with the compressor in good working order and the pollen filter clean. There is nothing worse than driving at night with the windows inside the vehicle misting up, without being able to demist them.
Watch the bars
When it’s cold, the tyre pressure physiologically tends to decrease. For instance, a tyre inflated to 2 bars at a temperature of 20°C can drop to 1.8 bars when exposed to zero degrees. Remember, therefore, to check tyre pressure more often than in other seasons, always following the manufacturer's instructions for the inflation level. Never arbitrarily reduce the pressure hoping to achieve more grip: with modern tyres, this is counter-productive. Finally, you should remember that if you inflate your tyres in a heated place, you need to add 0.2 bars to the value recommended in the owner’s handbook, in order to compensate for the effect of the colder external temperature.
Also worth reading: Everything you need to know about tyre pressure
Also take a look at the spare wheel (make sure it is inflated correctly) and at the repair and inflation kit (make sure it is ready to use); this remains a good piece of advice to avoid trouble, if you are forced to stop, perhaps in the middle of the mountains while it’s snowing or far away from a service centre.
In the boot
In addition to the spare wheel and the tyre kit, remember always to keep a set of jump-starting cables, along with a pair of work gloves in your boot to protect your hands against the cold if you break down, as well as a piece of cardboard to kneel on and insulate your knees from the snow if you need to fit the snow chains on. These should be kept in perfect working order, storing them correctly and washing them thoroughly (to remove salt) after each use.
Also worth reading: Tyres and snow chains, here are some tips
Our last piece of advice is rather obvious but still important: based on the assumption that every car should have a first aid kit, it is good practice to check it and even supplement it for the winter, a time when ice can play nasty tricks not only on cars but also on people.