Do I Need to Warm Up my Car? A Winter Weather Primer

Whether or not to warm up the car is a frequent debate when you live in a climate where the mercury often drops well below freezing. Whether you’re getting ready to go to work in the morning or heading out to the parking lot after a long day, the prospect of a cold car is uninviting, to say the least. According to some automotive folklore, a cold start could also potentially damage your car’s mechanical components.

Is warming up your car really that important? Are you shortening the life of your vehicle by ignoring that step? The truth might surprise you.

Carburetor Blues

Once upon a time, “Do I need to warm up my car?” was an important question because each and every automobile used a carburetor to mix air and fuel together under the hood. In colder weather, the amount of fuel needed to keep an engine running increased significantly. In fact, driving a carbureted car with the choke activated was an unpleasant experience that could lead to stalling and fouling your spark plugs—not to mention carbon build-up inside the motor itself.

Modern Cars Are Much Better

Everything changed when fuel injection became the norm for every new car roughly 25 years ago. By using a computer to control the exact amount of fuel being introduced to each cylinder, it was possible for engine management systems to compensate for colder temperatures in real time. This means that cold start conditions pose no significant challenge for modern vehicles; in fact, most cars and trucks need to be operated normally to warm up quickly—not sit in your driveway idling.

Heavy traffic on an icy snow covered highway.

The Verdict

Nonetheless, even today, drivers continue to wonder whether they need to warm up their car. For the vast majority of them, the answer is no. The only real reason to warm up your car is to get the heating system up to a reasonable temperature to ensure that the windows are clear and you stay toasty on your journey. Only in the most extreme conditions (at 40 below, for example), when the engine oil has congealed to the point where it’s no longer protecting your components, should you consider letting your vehicle idle for a few minutes before putting it in drive.

Benjamin Hunting