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Snow showers are in the forecast this week and already the dreaded phrase “polar vortex” has been creeping into weather reports, conjuring up flashbacks to last year’s snowdrifts, slush and spewing road salt.

Hard on us, and hard on the cars we drive, too. But about fifty bucks and a little elbow grease now, before the driveways are covered in crunchy snowdrifts, can protect your vehicle from the ravages of the upcoming winter and make it more pleasant to pilot on your daily rounds.

For some professional pointers and insider tips, I turned to Clinton Laster, president of Flawless Auto Finish in Lincoln Park and a self-described car guy who’s been washing and waxing automobiles — including Autorama entries — since his teens.

After classes in auto body and refinishing at Washtenaw Community College, Laster — whose dad is a veteran car painter — opened his mobile detailing service in 2010. Since then he’s added a bricks and mortar shop and a unique airport valet service that whisks your car away to be pampered while you jet out of town.

Among do-it-your-selfers, the road to damaging your car’s exterior finish is paved with good intentions. Whatever else you do, Laster said, don’t use ordinary dish soap on your vehicle’s paint job — that’s one of the top mistakes he sees.

“Dishwashing liquid is made for greasy Teflon pans, not your car’s clearcoat,” he said. “And when drying, you definitely don’t want to use bath towels. Particularly on darker colored paint, towels will quickly add a lot of fine scratches.”

Instead, arm yourself with microfiber cloths or a chamois, which is a soft leather made from goats and other small animals. And if you do nothing else this fall, spend $15 and an hour or so of elbow grease applying a bottle of poly sealant to your vehicle’s finish.

“You’ll get a good shine but more importantly, it’ll protect your car from fading due to UV rays,” said Laster. “And it will make it a lot easier to keep the salt and road chemicals rinsed off. If you use a good enough sealant, you should just be able to rinse regularly with water.”

To apply, wash your car, then squirt an X of sealant onto your cloth (not onto the car) and rub it on. Let it dry for 15 minutes and then buff with a clean microfiber cloth.

“That’ll give you 6-12 months of protection,” said Laster.

Prevention is better than cure when it comes to the passenger cabin, too, Laster said. “Rubber mats are the best $25 you can spend,” he said. “In the spring, we can easily tell which clients had them and which didn’t.”

Spraying cloth seats and carpeting — especially around the edges of those rubber mats — with a fabric protector like 3M’s Scotchguard is another must, he said, especially on the type of fabric carmakers have been using in recent years.

“It’ll make not only spills, but salt and dirt come off easier when you do clean and vacuum,” he said. He recommends a product called Lexol to baby leather seats and keep them from cracking.

Other pro tips using ordinary household supplies:

■ Dog hair? Put just a couple of drops of fabric softener into a spray bottle, add water, shake and lightly spritz car upholstery and carpeting before you vacuum. “It seems to eliminate the static cling,” Laster said.

■Those foam “magic erasers” are effective tools for grimy areas like visors, headliners, door step panels and even leather seats.

■ Use a soft toothbrush to spot-clean carpet stains and get crumbs out of crevices on the console; damp cotton swabs are handy on the dashboard and a clean paintbrush can whisk dust out of vents.

After you’ve swabbed out the interior and shined up the plastics with a light coat of a protectant spray, consider seat covers or even a couple of spare sheets to neatly protect the cabin from winter wear and tear.

“It can be stressful to ride in a dirty car,” said Laster. “You like your vehicle more and enjoy driving when it’s clean.”

Melissa Preddy is a Michigan-based freelance writer. Reach her via Melissa@MelissaPreddy.com.

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