Protecting your car in winter conditions

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Pat Goss
Automotive repair expert
Friday, February 12, 2010; 1:00 PM

Automotive repair expert Pat Goss took your questions about how to protect your car from the cold, snow, salt and potholes that remain in the wake of this week's winter weather.

The transcript follows.

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Pat Goss: Good afternoon and thanks for joining me on this sunny but still snowy day here in Washington.

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Arlington, Va.: Hello Pat, I have a 2003 Infinite FX45 which has been pretty reliable and great in snow. Infinite says I should change my transmission fluid every 80,000 miles. I had it done at the dealer after 40,000 (3 years) and just had a garage do it again at 83,000. The garage did a drain but not a flush. How important is having it flushed versus drained?

Pat Goss: Extremely important! Draining doesn't clean any of the crud that has built up from fluid deterioration. It also leaves about two thirds of the old fluid in the transmission. Shame on that shop!

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Chester, Md.: Dealer is pushing Xzilon as a five year, no wax option. Is is better than a good wax such as Klasse?

Pat Goss: Most of the paint protection packages are really nothing more than a warranty. If the warranty is good it might be worthwhile but you absolutely must read all the fine print --- especially the exclusions.

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Clinton, Md.: Could water seep into my transmission if I let the car sit on snow?

Pat Goss: Not likely. The vent and the fill tube are quite high and it would have to in really, really deep snow before that could happen.

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Arlington, Va.: 1989 Olds Cutlass Sierra --

This front-wheel drive has turned out to be a beauty in the snow -- slow and steady, with a hefty engine sitting over the drive wheels for traction. And I appear to have lucked into some good tires.

But with the cold, cold temperatures, my cooling system is rarely taxed or tested. But the snow emergency has led to some stopped traffic, or 4-mph creeping on major roads. At one point, after 25 minutes of slow movement, my TEMP light came on. I forced my way out of traffic (gently) and got to a service station, where I found my coolant level was low. I added pre-mixed coolant, and went on my way without further incident.

I now want to test my cooling fan to ensure that IT is operating -- I'm worried that it's not. Can you suggest the safest way to test whether it's engaging/operating without running the risk of overheating. I'm not sure that I'll know when it should kick in, and I don't want to wait too long. But I'd like to self-test the fan before service, in case it was just the coolant issue.

Thanks, sir!

Pat Goss: Test the function of the electric cooling fan but more important check for coolant leakage at the corners of the intake manifold. Gasket leaks are chronic problem on older GM cars and trucks.

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Washington, D.C.: I am leaving the snow on my car for now. A neighbor says I should clear it because the added weight over many days may permanently deform the suspension. Do you agree?

Pat Goss: I absolutely disagree. If the weight were to be there for many weeks or months yes but it will only be a few days so there should be nothing to worry about.

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Reston, Va.: Hi, Pat, my husband and I love your TV show, and have gotten lots of great information from it. I have a 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser with just 20,000 miles on it. It idles very rough, and the two different dealers have told me that it is "normal" for this car. Have even worked with Chrysler customer service to get help, but with no positive results. Do you have any suggestions for me? (I still have a loan on the vehicle!) Thanks.

Pat Goss: If there is no check engine light test for proper alignment of the engine mounts.

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Washington, D.C.: Good afternoon Mr. Goss: This is the first time I've taken full advantage of the 4 wheel drive capabilities of my 2004 Jeep Grand Cherokee. I keep up with regular maintenance, but is there anything extra I should do or check now and/or in the spring to keep my vehicle in top condition?

Pat Goss: If the fluid in the transfer case has not been replaced --- do it. Same with both the front and rear differentials. Also if the transmission has not been flushed spring would be a great time to do that too. Also after each encounter with deep snow take a peek at the boots on the axle CV joints. Ice often punctures the boots.

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Cheverly Lexus ES350: Is it bad for the car to just get in and drive off in cold weather without warming it up? What are the repercussions of doing so?

Pat Goss: Actually warming a car for an extended period of time is what is bad. Let the car warm for about sixty seconds then drive it gently until it reaches normal temperature. that way you will warm everything not just the coolant in the radiator.

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Kensington, Md.: Even though I know my car will get dirty again, should I take it to the car wash now to get rid of some of the chemicals that are all over it?

Pat Goss: Absolutely. The new pre-treatments they're using are deadly on parts like brake lines.

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Cap Hill: Whenever there's a prediction for snow, I see a lot of my neighbors lift their windshield wipers away from their normal resting position. Do you believe that this should be standard snow-operating procedure for everyone?

Pat Goss: On the cars where it can be done it is a good idea. Raising the wipers prevents them from freezing to that glass which often tears the rubber.

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Albany, N.Y.: I just moved to Albany from Bowie -- hardly any snow up here! -- and I am wondering about washing my car. Up here they tend to use more salt than sand. Some people seem to wash their cars once or twice a week, while others seem to leave a white crust on their cars for months. What should I do? I know that your answer may be affected by you not knowing exactly how they treat the roads. Would your answer be affected if I said I drive a 1993 Toyota with 183,000 miles on it, as opposed to a 2009 BMW with 11,000 miles?

Pat Goss: Te make and model doesn't matter. Road chemicals eat car parts pure and simple. There's a reason the area is part of the rust belt. That's mostly because a lot of folks don't care enough or aren't ambitious enough to clean their cars. We can always tell when a northern car comes into the shop.

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Snow and your car: Hi Pat,

Can you PLEASE remind folks to remove the snow from their car BEFORE driving. I can't tell you how many people I saw on the roads today with snow covering the top of their car. This is a hazard to all drivers. The majority of these vehicles are SUV's... just because you have an SUV doesn't mean you're exempt from cleaning your car.

Signed, Tired of drivers who can't clean their car even though it's their responsibility.

Pat Goss: I couldn't agree more for heave's sake clean the snow off the roof and windows of your cars before driving. It's courteous and makes driving safer for all concerned.

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Franklin Lakes, N.J.: I have a Nissan Maxima GLE which has close to 300,000 miles on it. I have used it well by maintaining the car. How many more miles can I go without feeling it is time to dump the car! I use it only to go short distances. My husband says we should not use it any more and I feel may be, we should, till it comes up with a big bill to maintain the car. What do you say? Thanks.

Pat Goss: Get the car checked from bumper to bumper by a QUALIFIED technician. Then make the decision based on what is wrong and what is going to go wrong in the near future.

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Oakton, Va.: How do I get rid of the frozen slush that has accumulated behind the wheels on my car? It is frozen solid and I hear the wheels grind against it when I turn - can't possibly be good for the car.

Pat Goss: There are really only a couple of ways. Get the car inside and let it thaw, use warm water from a garden hose, or let it sit in the sun which usually works.

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Dale City: I have a Toyota Tacoma 2001 with 155k miles - when I get the timing belt changed should I also change all other belts and the water pump? Also should I go to dealer for this work or can I use an independent shop? What is a ballpark figure for this work? Thanks.

Pat Goss: Don't have the time to look up prices but at 155,000 miles --- when? If it has never been done you are seriously courting disaster. And yes at that mileage you need everything.

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Lanham, Md.: Pat my Ford Explorer 2000 radiator keeps running low, but the overflow container is full to max. level, what do I do? Temperature gauge stays at normal level also.

Pat Goss: Test the radiator cap. A bad cap will prevent the coolant from being drawn back into the radiator from the expansion tank.

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Alex, Va.: People fill the bed of their pick-up trucks with snow, but how much is too much? As it melts and refreezes are there issues other than the weight of the ice/snow to consider?

Pat Goss: It is mostly the weight that has to be considered as freezing USUALLY doesn't hurt anything. But too much weight can damage suspension, brakes and tires.

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Royal Oak, Md.: I have a 91 4WD Explorer that I have not driven in 2+ years. Reason is that it needs a clutch (slave cylinder and prob. ring gear too) and the bids have been ridiculous, as if repairers don't want to do it. I've priced parts and see that they are available. Is it such a difficult job? It was a very able car in snow and I've really missed it.

Pat Goss: A ring gear replacement requires a highly skilled tech. The rest of the work is very time consuming which is what drives the price up. Also keep in mind if you are looking at some of the cheap parts on the Internet you may not be getting the same quality a shop would provide.

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State College, Pa.: My husband is a volunteer firefighter. If snow is expected, he puts a tarp over the windshield of his vehicle so that he can just pull that off and go when responding to a call and not lose time brushing off the windshield. Right at the moment, he's using a bright blue tarp and bungee cords. Is there anything out there that I could get him for Valentine's Day that would--ahem--look a little better? Thanks much.

Pat Goss: The auto parts stores have a wide variety of windshield covers that are designed for that purpose. Most of them are closed into the doors to keep them in place. They work well and most are under fifteen bucks.

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Annapolis, Md.: You spoke of driving your car gently after warming it up. I live 1.8 miles from Route 50, so I don't have much of a chance to warm up before I have to go to highway speeds. How bad is this? How much earlier should I leave the house to drive on surface roads before getting on Route 50?

Pat Goss: Driving gently has nothing to do with speed it has to do with foot on the floor board. Simply keep the accelerator at or below half throttle and you will be driving gently!

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Washington, D.C.: I have a 2007 Prius, which does not seem to be affected by the recent brakes recall. I've noticed that after the first snow about a week or two ago, by brakes starting making a funny noise, sort of like a crushing ice sort of noise. At first I thought that's exactly what I was doing--braking on ice, but its making the same noise on wet pavement as well (no chance to try them out on dry pavement). They otherwise seem to be working fine. Thoughts?

Pat Goss: Whenever there is a change in noise or fell get the brakes checked immediately!

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Herndon, Va.: Pat: great to see you back on a "chat!" I have a 2009 Toyota Highlander, which handles the snow well, BUT, a question about the all wheel drive - when I was backing out of the driveway and hit a slick spot, the rear wheels started spinning. I eased off, went downhill a little, then tried again slightly faster, and got out. When the rear wheels started spinning, shouldn't some power have switched to the front wheels?

Pat Goss: Your car has a basic system that really isn't all that capable but yes you should not have had uncontrolled wheel spin without power being transferred to the on-spinning wheel/s.

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Alexandria, Va.: Well, my husband and I have no problem driving in the snow but it seems our manual transmission RSX has had enough. Got on the beltway last night and when I hit about 50 mph, the car started vibrating. I pulled off and things were smooth under 40 mph. Could I have done some serious damage driving (slowly) through my barely cleared complex parking lot?

Pat Goss: Before doing anything serious check for ice on one or more of your wheels. Very common and can be very severe. also we have been seeing a lot of cars with water inside the tires from cheap air compressors. It freezes when the car sits and then causes a vibration until the tires warm completely and the ice thaws.

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Fairfax, Va.: I have a 2006 Rav4 6 cyl. No recalls and a great car. My question: when I press the 4wd button, what am I really getting? Power to all four wheels, or just power to one or the other wheels in the front and back.

Pat Goss: The system should look for a wheel that is spinning slightly and shift that power to another wheel.

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Wiper Washer: Hi, Pat -- Good to see you back!

My 2001 Passat ran out of washer fluid. After I refilled the tank, the fluid won't come out when I move the lever. I haven't been able to find anything about priming the pump or whatever... thanks.

Pat Goss: It shouldn't need priming. So check to see if the pump is running (you can hear it). If it is running suspect the lines may be frozen. If it isn't running check the pump motor.

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Boston, Mass.: I have a 2001 Honda civic with 60k miles. I just heard that there's been a recall for my make and model regarding faulty airbag deployment. How would I go about getting this fixed?

Pat Goss: Contact your dealer -- IMMEDIATELY! This is a dangerous problem so the dealer should be prepared to fix it right away or give you alternate transportation.

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Herndon, Va.: Mr. G: Can't agree more about cars with snow on top. Creeping on I-66 (fortunately, since DC decided to snow plow only one lane off the TR Bridge to Constitution Avenue)someone on the other side of divider charged by just as a load of snow came off and landed on my windshield. If I'd been going only 20-25 mph I don't like to think what would have happened.

Pat Goss: Snow falling from the roof of moving cars can be very dangerous and often causes following cars to be involved in accidents.

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Rochester, N.Y.: How much warming up does a car need before going on the highway? Let's say that it's been sitting around for a few hours, and the temp is about freezing. Thanks.

Pat Goss: As in the other answer about one minute and then drive it gently until it reaches normal temperature. This will warm the engine, transmission, power steering and all the other lubricated parts together not just the engine coolant.

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Fairfax, Va.: My 2002 Avalon was garaged (and lovingly maintained) in a warmer climate until I got it this past autumn: now it's parked outside all the time, in a more extreme climate, and gets a lot of mud and snow on it and inside it. Also, I am not a "car person" and have a history of doing only the most basic service on my cars. I want to keep this car looking good and running well. What should I do to take care of it properly?

Pat Goss: Wash when dirty or at least once every month. Washing includes wiping down the interior and vacuuming. Wax the car at least twice every year and run it through a carwash with an undercar washing system at least twice a year.

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Springfield, Va.: Just an observation. I saw quite a few 4WD and AWD vehicles getting stuck in the snow. Why - because they did not have enough clearance to accommodate 30 inches of snow. The Weather Service and local governments were asking people not to drive unless it was necessary. Not to go out just because you had 4 wheel drive.

Pat Goss: Four wheel drive is only one of many helpers in such deep snow. The most important part of driving in the snow is not four wheel drive but having a head on your shoulders and knowing both your limitations and the vehicle limitations. One of the big problems in very deep snow is getting snow packed under the vehicle which can raise it off the solid surface beneath the snow and you're stuck. Another big problem is the driver who knows he can go like crazy but never thinks about stopping. All cars have brakes on all four wheels so the 4X4 has no advantage in stopping. Common sense.

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Anonymous: I have a treasured 2007 BMW 328i that has to live outside in the driveway (sob). It doesn't go driving in snow and ice, but what things are problems from year-round outside parking in all kinds of weather? Preventive steps to take? Thanks!

Pat Goss: Mostly rust and paint deterioration if not kept clean and waxed.

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Silver Spring, Md.: I have a 2001.5 VW Passat that can't seem to keep any windshield washer fluid in the reservoir. I'm afraid there's a leak, but it looks like replacing it won't be an easy job -- the container seems to snake its way around every empty space in the engine compartment. Am I better of adding a little fluid every week or so?

Pat Goss: If it's like many newer cars the engineers who designed the washer container were jokers. Many are a major job to replace. But check the hoses an fittings before replacing the container.

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Pat Goss: Well folks my time has come to an end. Thank you for joining me and sharing your questions. I really appreciate it and it was great to visit with you once again. Until next time please take a minute to say thank you to someone in uniform and please drive gently --- see ya!

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