Seven Avoidable Winter Disasters

Certain hidden issues can cause major damage to your vehicle. Here’s how to head them off in time.

By Liz Arnold

1. The Disaster: Cracked Engine Block

Engines need coolant (also called antifreeze) from the radiator to help maintain a stable operating temperature. The generally recommended 50/50 mix of coolant and water circulates through the engine, and because the coolant contains a special additive, it won’t freeze in the cold or boil in the heat. Coolant helps keep your engine working efficiently, helps limit emissions, and provides warm air when you crank up the heater or defroster. Running low on the fluid can be catastrophic, because with too little or the wrong ratio (e.g., too much water, as the coolant boils off over time), the iron or aluminum engine block can crack, ruining your engine.

How to Avoid It: Check your vehicle’s coolant level whenever you fill up the fuel tank (but make sure the engine and reservoir cap are cool to the touch). Read this article on how to add coolant for more detailed instructions, and consider using Motorcraft® coolant for the best results (available for purchase at your neighborhood dealer, and authorized retailers). Coolant is usually brightly colored, so keep an eye out for pretty puddles under the car and fix any leaks immediately.

2. The Disaster: Broken Windshield

Chips or cracks can turn your windshield into an unfortunate physics experiment. In cold weather, windshields become more concave, and that slight bending makes cracks spread horizontally. When temperatures drop below freezing, cracks are even more likely to spread, because moisture in a chip will freeze and expand. The combination of cold air outside and a strong defroster inside can further stress a damaged windshield, as can the opposite extremes in summer: heat outside, cold inside.

How to Avoid It: Watch out for flying road debris, a common cause of chips. Snowplows can launch stones, ice and asphalt your way. So can other drivers, when they don’t clear snow from their roofs (be courteous and clear yours). And before the weather gets frigid, visit your local Ford Dealer Service Center to repair any cracks that may inhibit your visibility this winter. A crack should be treated as early as possible, because the windshield provides some structural integrity in the event of a rollover.

3. The Disaster: Dead Battery

Engine oil gets thicker in the winter and requires more effort from the electric motor starter. Blowers, wipers and heaters suck extra power. Not to mention headlights, which you’ll use more often during the shorter, darker days. Just the cold weather itself can sap your battery: Below freezing, your battery loses about a third of its power; below zero, 50%.

How to Avoid It: First, don’t drain your battery. Staying cozy in the car with the stereo and headlights on and the engine off, for example, uses a lot of juice. And have your battery checked at your local Ford Dealer Service Center. It doesn’t take much time and will identify the battery’s condition even if it seems to be working well. If your battery tests poorly, you can get it replaced in the service bay with a new Motorcraft® battery and great warranty protection that includes free towing.

If your battery dies, but it’s in good condition with no cracks or leaks, you can try jump-starting it. Read this article to learn how. Keep in mind, however, that deeply discharged batteries can freeze (an indicator is ice on the cell caps). You don’t want to jump-start a frozen battery, as it could cause an explosion. Instead, you may need a replacement.

4. The Disaster: Reduced Handling and Stopping Ability

Tire pressure drops approximately one psi for every 10-degree Fahrenheit drop in temperature. The vehicle’s handling and stopping ability are affected by underinflated tires, which can also reduce fuel efficiency and the life of tire tread.

How to Avoid It: As a safety feature, Ford’s Tire Pressure Monitoring System (TPMS)—on all 2008 model year vehicles and forward—will trigger a warning light on your instrument panel if one of your tires is significantly underinflated. Pay attention to this light. It may come on briefly on cold mornings, due to a slight drop in tire pressure; but once the vehicle is driven a short distance and air inside the tires warms up, the warning light should go off. If it doesn’t, check the pressure in your tires as soon as possible and inflate them to the proper level.

You can check tire pressure yourself (a digital gauge should be used to obtain a more accurate reading) and fill the tire to the proper level as listed on the Vehicle Certification Label located on the driver’s doorjamb. Read more about tire inflation and watch a short video about how TPMS works.

5. The Disaster: Not Having Wipers When You Need them Most

Using your wipers to remove a blanket of snow from your windshield can overload your electrical system and shut down the wipers altogether.

How to Avoid It: Remove ice and snow from the windshield and wipers with a brush before you start driving, and inspect blades for rubber deterioration—an indication that you may need new ones. (Read this article to learn how to change windshield wiper blades, or bring your vehicle to your local dealer.) Also be sure to turn off your wipers before you turn off your engine. That way they won’t automatically snap into action when you start the car again.

6. The Disaster: Undefrosted Windows and a Clogged Filter

This may be surprising, but your cabin filter (usually found behind the glove compartment) can directly contribute to foggy windows. The cabin filter prevents allergens and dust from entering through the vents. So when the filter gets dirty and clogged with those particles, the car’s heating and cooling system is less efficient—and that means the efficiency of your defroster is reduced.

How to Avoid It: Replace the cabin air filter every 15,000 miles or once a year. You can do it yourself or visit your local dealer.

7. The Disaster: Corrosion

Road salt is a blessing to winter driving and a curse to your vehicle. Salt lowers the melting point of water so that ice will melt, even at freezing temperatures—and your tires can grip the road and sand. But salt can also corrode your car. A chemical process accelerates the formation of rust, especially on the exposed underbody of your vehicle. The salty slush from the road turns to saline when you park in a warm garage. That can lead to a slew of problems, like leaks in the hydraulic brake system and damage to the subframe, coil springs, and the muffler and exhaust systems, to name a few. Salt can also damage your vehicle’s clear finish, so repair paint chips to eliminate entry points for harmful moisture.

How to Avoid It: Help battle corrosion by getting your car washed regularly. Make sure it includes an under-spray. As a preventive measure, you can have it waxed and sealed by a professional.


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