Win­ter beater: great idea or waste­ful money pit?

Winnipeg Free Press - Section E - - AUTOS - By Brian Turner

WIN­TER beater — if ever a term be­longed in a Cana­dian dictionary, this is it. Say those two words to any­one stand­ing in a Tim Hor­tons line and you’ll in­stantly share the same im­age of a bat­tered, slightly rusted 10- or 15-year-old sedan be­ing driven through the worst of our win­ters by some­one with a north-of-$50K pres­tige ve­hi­cle parked safely in a her­met­i­cally sealed garage.

Most driv­ers of win­ter beat­ers brag more about the prow­ess of their salt-and-slush-ready wheeled war­rior than they do about the Bimmer or Lexus col­lect­ing win­ter dust. But are there solid and sus­tain­able rea­sons to sup­port di­vest­ing our­selves of all the com­fort, tech­nol­ogy and safety that our new ride can pro­vide just when we need it most?

It’s easy to peg the ad­di­tional costs of ac­quir­ing a used ve­hi­cle for win­ter use. If you can fit all your driv­ing needs into a compact sedan (and that’s not al­ways pos­si­ble for ev­ery owner), all you have to do is scan any num­ber of on­line buy-and-sell ads to be over­whelmed by choices. If you stick to some­thing that is four to eight years old, with less than 150,000 kilo­me­tres on the odome­ter, you’re likely to start at the $7,500 mark to pur­chase one of the top two en­tries in this class: the Honda Civic and Toy­ota Corolla. If you can set­tle for some also-rans, you can still find a good se­lec­tion in most mar­kets for less than $7,000, but the days of a cold-sea­son char­iot for less than $3,000 are long gone, un­less you’re a wrench whiz and have the tools and skills to re­build a lost cause, or have an ex­tremely gen­er­ous fam­ily mem­ber look­ing to di­vest him­self of some gen­tly used wheels. You can of­ten find lower prices at small ur­ban or ru­ral re­tail­ers, thanks to lower over­head.

A pre-pur­chase in­spec­tion is a must when con­sid­er­ing a can­di­date for win­ter duty. Cor­ro­sion is still the main killer of Cana­dian ve­hi­cles, and while a lit­tle sur­face rust isn’t too much of a draw­back, any weak­ness in main body pan­els, sub-frames and sus­pen­sion com­po­nents can be a sign to pass on to the next en­trant. Get­ting a thor­ough fit­ness ex­am­i­na­tion by a qual­i­fied tech can help re­duce your risks.

No mat­ter what price range you’re in, you’ll most likely have to make some type of an in­vest­ment in prep­ping your win­ter beater. A set of new snow tires and rims will set you back $1,000 for the av­er­age pas­sen­ger car. A pre-sea­son main­te­nance ser­vice will pro­vide a $100 hit to the wal­let, not to men­tion what else a thor­ough and trained tech might find that’s in need of re­pair.

Most ve­hi­cles in this class have a lim­ited-life­span tim­ing belt on their en­gines. It’s a favourite ser­vice item for many con­sumers to skip be­cause of the high parts and labour costs, but head­ing into cold, damp driv­ing con­di­tions with a past-its-ex­piry-date tim­ing belt can lead to ma­jor en­gine dam­age if the en­gine mis­fires (a com­mon oc­cur­rence in win­ter).

If the ig­ni­tion sys­tem — along with cru­cial flu­ids and fil­ters — needs at­ten­tion, you can add at least an­other $500 to your prep-work tally.

While in­sur­ance pre­mi­ums for a lower-value auto are less than those for a newer, more ex­pen­sive ride, proper cov­er­age for both won’t be a cost-neu­tral af­fair. You can take ad­van­tage of multi-ve­hi­cle dis­counts, and some re­duc­tion for re­mov­ing road per­ils and col­li­sion cov­er­ages from the hi­ber­nat­ing auto; un­for­tu­nately, th­ese won’t bal­ance out the ad­di­tional pre­mi­ums for a sec­ond or third auto on your pol­icy.

The big­gest ben­e­fit to a win­ter beater is ex­tend­ing the life of your fair-weather pride and joy, thereby in­creas­ing its trade-in value. If you can ex­tend the en­joy­able life of a pri­mary ve­hi­cle by two or three years with the use of a win­ter beater, it’s easy to cal­cu­late the num­ber of monthly car pay­ments you’ll save. If you add this to your bal­ance sheet, you might make an em­pir­i­cal case for em­bar­rass­ing var­i­ous fam­ily mem­bers in your new (old) wheels.

But other ben­e­fits are a lit­tle harder to peg. Hav­ing a “never win­ter driven” tag on your pri­mary ve­hi­cle at trade-in time can bring higher val­ues (es­pe­cially when added to a lower odome­ter read­ing), but this fac­tor is sub­ject to the whims of the mar­ket and is of­ten un­pre­dictable. You will also ap­pre­ci­ate the lower main­te­nance ex­penses on a three-sea­son ve­hi­cle that isn’t sub­jected to the worst of win­ter.

Of course, the most im­mea­sur­able ben­e­fits of driv­ing a pris­tine car the rest of the year are the boost in pride of own­er­ship and the shiny chrome ca­ress to your ego.

Win­ter beat­ers are a fact of life for con­vert­ible driv­ers in Canada

One of the largest de­mo­graph­ics of win­ter-beater own­ers is driv­ers who own con­vert­ibles. They sel­dom have any choice but to look for a win­ter beater, un­less they live in the wet and sel­dom snowy re­gions of our West Coast.

Ian Black, se­nior me­te­o­rol­o­gist for CBC, is one such driver. No sur­prise that a weath­er­man would choose a fair-weather ride (small Euro­pean con­vert­ible) to get the best out of our vary­ing sea­sons. His win­ter beater is a 2010 Toy­ota Venza, which comes in handy for a young fa­ther of two hockey-play­ing chil­dren. He chose it for its hockey-equip­ment com­pat­i­bil­ity and sure-footed win­ter han­dling, along with great fuel mileage from its four­cylin­der en­gine.

When it comes to win­ter prep­ping, Black is as spot on as he usu­ally is with his fore­casts. He leaves noth­ing to chance, making sure the Venza is equipped with good-qual­ity win­ter tires and he swaps out the bat­ter­ies on his fam­ily’s small fleet (the other 12-month ve­hi­cle is a Toy­ota Camry) ev­ery four years, be­fore they let any­one down on a frosty morn­ing.

Dur­ing a brief chat, he made sure to note that get­ting his win­ter ride on the road at this time of year doesn’t mean he’s ex­pect­ing any se­vere weather. Al­though in our re­gion (East­ern On­tario), we did get some pretty mean flurries just a few days af­ter Black’s Venza hit the roads. What kind of weather de­tec­tion is he us­ing?


A used Toy­otoa Corolla may just be the per­fect win­ter war­rior; driv­ing it will also help pre­serve your sum­mer ride.

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