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By Paul Williams

All production vehicles available to Canadian consumers are designed outside of Canada. You might think this is not particularly relevant, but if we add, “…and they’re typically designed in sunny areas with nice dry highways,” you’ll start to see how this may impact the type of vehicles we can buy here, and how well they adapt to the severe winter climate experienced by most Canadians.

For instance, windshield wipers that “hide” when parked may make a car look sleeker, but Canadians know that heavy snow or freezing rain will imprison the wipers in their crevice under the hood. The only way to dislodge them is to smash the ice with your scraper, while trying not to break the wipers in the process.

Camera-based blind spot indicators are a problem here, too. Snow is again the culprit, as it blocks the camera, rendering the system inoperable; same thing for those handy rear cameras that work so well in California.

And how about tires? Big wheels are the norm, these days, with even 19 or 20-inch tires becoming standard equipment on some family vehicles. They are stylish, but big tires are expensive, and big winter tires are even pricier. Run-flat winter tires? You don’t even want to know (but $500 or $600 each, plus tax and installation, is the likely starting point). What we need are affordable winter wheel/tire packages using smaller wheels for our stylish vehicles that are designed and engineered to fit over a vehicle’s brake calipers.

Speaking of tires, the new Tire Pressure Monitoring Systems are very helpful, and crucial when a vehicle is running on standard run-flat tires. Change the alloy wheels for steel rims in winter, and the TPMS warning light is likely to glow for six months, or simply not work at all.

The engine block heater is a device that seems to have lost favour over the years (and I say that not based on any scientific evidence; just that no-one I know uses one, and I no longer see any cars in my neighbourhood with the tell-tale extension cord in the morning). Most vehicles can be ordered with a block heater, and this simple, inexpensive device does wonders on a cold winter day. Your car will start easily, the engine will reach its operating temperature quickly, and your vehicle’s interior will warm up in mere minutes. Too bad you have to open the hood in the dark, and root around the engine bay to find the plug. A designer could make that process so much simpler, and maybe would, if they’d grown up in Flin Flon.

Of course, some vehicles are equipped with a remote starter, which means you can start the car from the comfort or your home or maybe your office (there’s a button on the keyfob), let it run for 10 minutes or so, and if you’re lucky, hop in and pretty much drive away. People who own vehicles with this feature seem to really like it. Personally, I’d prefer one installed by the manufacturer/dealer, rather than an aftermarket unit. It will be covered by your vehicle’s warranty, whereas an aftermarket unit won’t.

Speaking of heat, very few cars come standard with heated seats, and when they do, it’s typically in an expensive car with leather upholstery. Why is that? Subaru makes cars with heated cloth seats (standard equipment even in the base 2010 Legacy) so it certainly can be done. Once you’ve experienced heated seats, you never want to go back.

Now, what about those sporty cars with low front airdams? Even some SUVs have these, and the problem as most Canadians know, is that in the winter, when snow piles up at the end of your driveway or at the side of the road, you can rip those airdams right off your car. The temptation to buy that “Aero Kit” may be strong, but maybe it should be easily removable, or at least inexpensively replaceable.

All of the above items are worth considering when you’re purchasing a car. Even if you’re not thinking “winter,” it’s bound to arrive. When it does, will your car work with you, or against you? Here’s a checklist to consider:

Accessible windshield wipers: are they going to freeze solid in a recessed area, or will you be able to access them easily?

Heatable mirrors: just about a “must have” in snowy regions. Taking a scraper to your mirror is a recipe for disaster. Power, heatable mirrors are what you want.

Heatable windshield washer nozzles: some vehicles have this feature (Subaru, Volkswagen come to mind). It’s a useful feature. Some even have heated windshield washer lines.

Heatable windshield wiper parking area: a desirable feature that helps to keep your wipers from getting stuck to the windshield.

Radar-based blind spot system: blind spot systems are very effective, but camera-based systems are still a work-in-progress. Radar-based systems are unaffected by rain and snow.

Winter tires (cost and availability): find out precisely how much a winter wheel/tire package will cost you. Winter tires are a “must” in our view (in Quebec, their use is mandatory). Check the wheel size of your prospective car. What are your options when it comes to winter tires?

Block heater: Usually available as a dealer-installed extra, for a modest amount ($195.99 for a Honda Civic, for example) Plug your car in when parked in the driveway, and it will start easily and warm up quickly.

Availability of factory remote starter: Because of complex anti-theft computer systems, it’s advisable to buy a vehicle with a remote starter that built-in at the factory, or dealer installed with manufacturer warranty.

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