preparing your car for winter - prevention is cheaper than cure

everyone knows that prevention is better than cure and no where is this more true than maintaining your car - and the older the vehicle, the more important it is when the winter months come around.

preparing your car for winter - prevention is cheaper than cure

Regular servicing will not only ensure better performance, but an efficient engine should also mean lower fuel consumption, not to mention a cleaner exhaust and greater reliability.

Just a few simple checks on a regular basis would go a long way to preventing many breakdowns in other words, especially in winter. Easy to say; harder to find the time to do. Recognising that fact, the AA for example, has instructed its patrols where appropriate to carry out a series of brief checks at every breakdown. But the frustrating thing for many drivers stranded by the roadside is that the breakdown shouldn't have happened - the motoring associations reckon that around half of their call-outs could be avoided by regular servicing.

In addition, a specific pre-winter service check should ensure that vehicles are in good mechanical and electrical condition to face whatever the season might bring. Basic checkpoints ideally would include everything from lights and tyres to battery and starter motor.

Tyres

Tyres should always be carefully checked as worn treads are illegal as well as potentially lethal - for you and innocent bystanders, as well as other road users. Tyre pressure, too, should be regularly monitored. Up until recently motorists in Britain haven't adopted the Continental practice of swapping tyres in the autumn for winter ones - then swapping back in the spring to summer ones. As a result of recent very cold winters however attitudes are changing with many garages now offering a 'Winter Tyre Fitting Service' where they will sell you a set of winter tyres and store your summer ones free of charge.

Battery

Battery failure is one of the most common causes of breakdown - drained from leaving the lights on, as we all do from time to time - or simply dead, kaput, wiped-out. Many recovery patrols now carry new batteries for sale so that they can solve the problem on the spot. A lot of people think that car batteries should last forever and the confusion is compounded by batteries claiming to offer "lifetime guarantees" - the lifetime of what? You? The car? It's actually the lifetime of the battery and on average, that's three years. Sluggish starting is a sure sign that your car battery is getting old. As soon as starting becomes slow, it's time to think about buying a new battery. It's possible that the problem might lie with the starter motor, so ask your garage to check that out too, along with the fan belt.

Radiators

Radiators might be sporting leaks or cracks - take a look. It's worth testing the strength of the anti-freeze, if any, in there. Extra glycol-based anti-freeze will boost levels to manufacturers recommended levels. The washer systems also need to be tested and, of course, before long journeys, water and cleaner should be topped up to ensure optimum visibility whatever the weather. Hoses, too, should be examined for any cracks or leaks and replaced if there's any doubt that they'll see you through the cold snap.

Wipers

Windscreen wiper blades should be replaced after a year's use, so check them out as winter approaches for wear and tear.

Exhausts

Exhausts work hard all year, so it's worth including this important piece of equipment on your checklist, not just as winter approaches, but before a holiday. A quick check up could also save your car failing its MoT. According to the Department of Transport, last year, more than 7% of petrol cars and light vans and nearly 11% of their diesel counterparts failed their MoT because of high exhaust emissions. Exhausts are most likely to split at either the silencer or back box, but usually give little warning of a pending failure.

Cam Belt

If you've recently bought a car second hand it could also be worth changing the cam belt, according to the RAC, who have to deal with 36,000 breakdowns a year caused by broken timing belts. A broken belt, they warn, could wreck the engine, causing £1,000s worth of damage, while the cost of fitting a new belt is relatively low by comparison. There are no warning signs that the belt is about to break. That tends to happen as you try to start the engine and the car simply won't run.

Shock Absorbers

One thing you almost certainly won't be able to check and rectify yourself prior to venturing out on roads in any condition are the shock absorbers. Yet the danger of driving a car with worn shock absorbers is considerable. Research shows that an estimated one in four cars travelling on UK roads today has at least one defective shock absorber. The likelihood of having worn `shocks` is even greater among vehicles that are three or more years old or those that have travelled over 50,000 miles.

Shock absorbers are hidden beneath the car's bodywork and behind the wheels - out of sight and therefore out of mind for many motorists. The performance of a shock absorber deteriorates gradually and imperceptibly over time, during which the driver unwittingly adapts his or her driving style to compensate for the worsening condition and handling of the car.

The effects of worn `shocks` are serious and include:

*reduced braking efficiency & longer braking distances

*an increased risk of aquaplaning in the wet

*reduced efficiency of anti-lock brakes

*sloppy, loose steering control

*increased tyre wear and reduced grip

*increased headlight oscillation

*driver fatigue and passenger discomfort.

You can get your car's shock absorbers checked the next time you take it in for a service. Alternatively, drop by any good exhaust system or tyre dealer outlet.

Bodywork

Finally, while it might seem like common sense, in practice keeping your car clean in winter is easier said than done. Even so, it's well worth making time to wash it regularly, to remove the salt and mud thrown up by filthy roads. This will help avoid rusting and other damage if left to build up - and clean, well-maintained bodywork can add pounds to the resale value of your car.

Rinse off loose dirt with warm water and use a quality car shampoo; washing up liquid can damage the paintwork. Rinse thoroughly and dry the car with a chamois leather. Adding a wax polish will also help protect the bodywork. During winter, experts recommend washing your car every couple of weeks and using a protective polish every two months.

In recent years the number of hand wash car valeting outlets has grown considerably in the UK and many motorists have given up the traditional Sunday car wash ritual in favour of one of these services. The cost, when compared to your valuable time, often makes it great value for money. Washing a car in the depth of winter is not a pleasant experience either!

Basic Precautions

Before setting off on a winter journey, assess the weather and if in doubt stay at home. If, however, you do set off, take time to run through the basic checks outlined above. Keep a few essentials in the car, too, suggests motoring organisation Green Flag. They recommend:

*mobile phone (fully charged)

*shovel

*de-icer/ice scraper

*blanket

*warm clothing

*wellingtons

*torch

*hot drink

*chocolate bar

*extra fuel

So be prepared, stay warm and stay safe!