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Top Gear gives you lessons on winter car care

Be an all-season friend to your car with our generally helpful tips

A motorway driving shot where several cars driving away from camera send up spray from the wet road, sun is trying to break through cloud
  • Shot of road bookended by a forest with cars driving in both directions in heavy snow conditions

    The winter of discontent might have started with the Truss administration back in September 2022, but politics aside, we've seen a fair bit of snow and ice outside the Cabinet since. Now we've heralded in 2023, the people who study the sky, clouds and rain tell us more polar precipitation is on the way. That isn't great news for your motor car.

    For starters, the salt grit laid to keep us safe does sweet FA for the condition of your metalwork, paintwork and tyre rubber. And that's without mentioning the numpty that flies by overtaking just to spin up a chunk of rock to crack the windscreen. Though cars are pretty robust, the cruelty of winter can test even the most well-made and reliable motor.

    Keeping your car in good nick feels futile. No sooner have you washed it, the proverbial thing is filthy again. Because we love you, our dear readers, as much as we love our collective cars, here are some top tips for keeping your car protected in winter.

    Top Gear's Top Care Tips for Protecting your Car in Winter

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  • Change your oil

    Man changing the oil in a garage with a face visor on

    Ever dipped your dipstick, cleaned it and wondered why is this oil so black? Yeah, oil ain't supposed to be black. Well, good, clean oil isn't, anyway. When (If) you top your oil up, you'll have noticed a glow to this golden liquid. Over time, and with the engine not quite firing perfectly every time, the oil gets contaminated.....

    Ok, you didn't ask for a lesson in chemistry. Just change the oil. Or pay some to change your oil (you'll really notice a difference. Promise).

  • Keep your car clean and pressure wash the undercarriage

    Close up of rear windscreen with 'Wash Me' written in the dirt

    As Howard Hughes would attest, the world is a disgusting place. This goes double over winter, when grit and grime seem to multiply like a mutant virus attacking the world—it gets everywhere, for months. 

    So what’s a person with a modicum of mechanical sympathy to do? Wash, dry and wax before winter truly sets in and roads get covered in that worryingly brown sludge that seems to accumulate by mid-January. Like you, we consistently skip this vital step that actually makes a whole heap of difference. 

    If you missed that deadline, you can catch up at any time on a dry, warm-ish day....good luck finding one of them in January—climate change or no climate change.

    Also, make sure to pressure wash the underside of your car regularly, as well, to make sure that road grit and salt don't collect and rust your car's undercarriage. As for undercoating? Eh, unless you live in the 1970s or somewhere that de-ices its roads with sulphuric acid, it's probably safe to give it a miss.

    While you’re in the cleaning phase, make sure you clean out all the leaves, twigs and errant spiders (this will apply more in Australia than the rest of the world) from anywhere they could block drainage, retain water or, in the case of spiders, terrify you when you try to open a door handle.

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  • Be careful with that windscreen, Eugene

    Man scrapes snow and ice from car windscreen, close up shot

    Hot water is great for a number of things; showers, cups of coffee, analogies for when someone tweets the wrong thing and gets in trouble. Conversely, hot water is no such friend of the frozen windscreen. We’re not saying you'ill crack a windscreen by defrosting it with scalding hot water—after all, they’re ridiculously hardy bits of toughened, laminated glass. ‘Should be OK’, however, is a bigger gamble than your cost-of-living-crisis budget can handle, trust us.

    Instead, start the car and let it warm up, pump the heater and in-car defrosters up (making sure to keep the air-con on to dry the air), brush and scrape off what comes easily. And if you absolutely need to, use proper defroster for the stubborn stuff.

    We’d also suggest stocking up on windscreen wash. It’s a rude awakening every winter to find you’re running out of the stuff on a weekly basis, but that’s just how the roads are. Grit, snow, salt, smog and constant sogginess combine to form the world’s worst mud facial for your car and require constant cleansing scrubs, if you’re willing to keep torturing that particular analogy.

    And finally, if you’re in a particularly cold part of the world (for the next few years, anyway, right guys?), make sure you get a screen wash additive that has antifreeze in it. This saves you from busting pipes or nozzles, or driving straight up the back of the car in front. Also, if the police catch you, you can face up to a £1,000 fine....for a dirty windscreen. (Yes, you did read that correctly.)

  • Engine coolant, because your watery summer effort could mean broken engine

    A mechanic shows young students the engine bay of a BMW

    Not having the right fluids in your car is tantamount to car treason by our non-royal standards. Just like you wouldn't run your petrol car with diesel, running your engine with the wrong coolant isn't the done thing. The coolant stops the engine overheating (as you know) and so, if you don't want incredibly expensive car trouble, top up with the right stuff, at the right ratio. 

    Coolant will half-freeze into a kind of coolant slushie (the absolute worst flavour – apart from sour patch watermelon, of course*) that clogs up the works and prevents proper flow through the engine and radiator. If you like seized engine blocks (and who doesn’t, right?), this is a great way to go about it.

    Other fun options include freezing the water that’s already in your engine, literally splitting the metal around it as it expands, or just shooting a freeze plug out of the block and losing whatever mix of water and coolant you had in there.

    The good news is that a quick check of coolant level and efficacy can be achieved by a) um, looking, and b) a coolant test kit, which will tell you ratio of water to coolant and if your engine is likely to do the whole Mr Freeze thing. Erm, just for clarity, we mean freeze, not star in an appalling Batman film.

    * Also, please don’t drink coolant. Or sour patch watermelon slushies.

  • Take some time to recharge your batteries

    Man stands over engine bay, with two cars parked nose-to-nose. Bonnets up, he is looking to jump the battery

    Batteries in cars aren't a new thing. Despite the ever-increasing swarm of electric vehicles (EVs) on Britain's road, there are some pretty concrete facts that affect all batteries, namely that they hate the cold. Anyone who's ever left an interior light on by accident overnight knows that waking to a flat battery as a welcome as a letter for smear test or prostate check. 

    If you're organised, get a professional to test your battery ahead of the winter months and replace it if necessary. Otherwise, invest in a home monitor, or hope and pray yours doesn't give up the ghost completely on a frosty and twilight morning.

  • Keep it full of fuel

    Woman refuels red car

    This one’s really as much for your preservation as your car’s. Should you slide off a remote road somewhere, get socked in by snow or just find yourself pursued by a T-101, even though you’ve never met anyone called John Connor, it’s anywhere from a boon to a literal lifesaver to be able to keep the engine going and the heater running.

    It’ll also help your car – with less air in the tank to harbour condensation, you’ll get less water in your fuel system. And something we’ve noticed in our years in the motoring industry is that water is a much worse fuel for your average engine than, say, petrol.

    The downside is that you have to spend time in the bleakest part of any town – the petrol station forecourt – far more often than you would if you did the usual ‘fill up when it gets near empty’ routine. The upside is, y’know, possibly living longer. Swings and merry-go-rounds.

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  • Get some winter tyres. Seriously

    Tyre mechanic fits new tyre to wheel using device

    It never ceases to amaze us how few UK drivers bother with winter tyres, even though they’re right there for the taking and solve pretty much everything. We’ve driven 600bhp leviathans across northern Germany in mid-January at autobahn speeds without a single misstep and supercharged rear-drive Jag F-Types on a frozen lake without spinning out. It’s not because we’re the best drivers in the entire world or anything like that (although a few competitive types in the office certainly drive as if they’re trying to be). It’s because we had the right tyres in each scenario.

    Speaking of scenarios, the ideal one is a second set of rims, pre-shod with winter tyres. That way, you can swap in the last days of autumn and swap back in the first days of spring, storing your unused set in your garage, ready for the seasons to change again and again, inexorably marking the dwindling moments we have left on the earth before we’re buried beneath it. Note to self: read more uplifting books.

  • Consider buying a beater car

    4x4 car tackling waterlogged field

    This one’s an idea we picked up from the Americans, who have a pretty decent idea about saving the car you love from the clutches of cold weather. Tuck your beloved away in a nice cosy garage for as long as Jack Frost keeps nipping at your nose, then bring it back once the groundhog stops seeing its shadow or whichever more scientific method you employ to ascertain the end of winter.

    In the meantime, instead of your pride and joy, drive something serviceable, robust and utterly expendable. Really, the idea of the beater car is to look at it and think, ‘If he dies, he dies'. The best beater cars lie at the crucial nexus of incredible reliability and not-so-incredible desirability – so, the Toyota Camry, basically.

    There are a few tips and tricks for storing your car for long periods. And, almost as if by divine providence, we’ve written an article explaining just what they are.

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  • Decamp to the other hemisphere every time it gets chilly

    Static shot of car in the Australian outback

    This one has a hint of genius about it. If there’s no winter, there’s no reason to engage in the grunt work of winter car maintenance.

    Instead, head over to the land of mystifyingly toxic wildlife and bemusingly low speed limits, get some sun (find out that ‘some’ in Australia tends to mean ‘far too much), apply aloe vera and repeat. Then, just in time for the UK summer, 10:30pm sunsets and Glastonbury, come back home.

    Much like a perfect egg, your goal here is to always be sunny side up. Yes indeedy, we did just make an axial tilt joke. (Nothing but the finest around here.) 

    Happily, we can’t think of any global catastrophe that would prevent easy mobility to the southern hemisphere and back as you see fit, so it really is the best solution. Bon voyage!

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