Leaves are falling, nights are cooler, and, in some parts of the country, it could be just a couple weeks until that first frost or surprise snowfall.

It's time to get yourself and your vehicle ready. Cold snaps not only expose the weaknesses of dying batteries and balding tires; it's also when you might pay the price for a lack of maintenance. Fraying or glazed belts, bulging hoses, and cracking ignition wires are just a few of the issues that could leave you stranded in damp or cold weather.

And those are all basics that might be spotted in any good mechanics' inspection. Get one, and you'll likely save the added cost, as well as frostbite and inconvenience, of a winter breakdown. If you've been lax in maintenance over the summer, don't press your luck.

Whether this winter you're going up to ski resorts, through the woods to a snowbound weekend cabin, across stretches of Interstates for the holidays, or just to and from work, you'll need a properly maintained car in tip-top shape.

Then, consider the following advice for winter motoring:

Get the car ready. Have your vehicle inspected, make sure wipers are replaced and washer fluid filled, and pack some emergency basics.

Before you leave. Clear all snow off the vehicle, scrape the windshield if necessary, carefully loosen the wiper blades, clear off the nozzles, and be sure you can use the mirrors. And before the snow arrives, don't forget to pack all the tools you'll need, like brushes and scrapers.

Watch your tires. Tires need more frequent checks during winter's extreme weather and temperature swings, so check them visually every time you set out, then check pressures once every couple of weeks, ideally; it's a good time to give them a closer look for wear as well. One other idea: invest in a good set of winter tires

Check your fluids. Don't forget to pop the hood and check oil and coolant levels at least every other time you fill up.

Take it easy. Get out early and allow lots of extra time if the roads are slippery. Remember, when you're out driving, keep it slow, and stay smooth.

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