By on February 8, 2019

2013 Scion FRS navy winter - Image: © Timothy CainV writes:

Here are two questions from a regular, and grateful, Piston Slap reader:

  1. How long is best to idle a gasoline engine after starting & before driving off: [A] a few minutes? [B] one minute? [C] until the revs settle down? [D] no need, just drive right off? Assume ambient temperature well above freezing; a shifting style on the sedate side; and a car made in the past 15 years so engine has EFI and EGR and all that. Current ride’s engine is naturally-aspirated and direct-injected, but I sure would appreciate knowing the proper protocol for other combinations too, if different. Several sources over the past years have all agreed on [D] for modern engines, but then just a few months back a Car & Driver column said [A], so now I’m unsure again.
  2. Leaving a car (stick shift *of course*) parked: best in gear, best in neutral, or doesn’t matter? Assume the parking space is either not sloped at all, or is sloped and I know enough to turn a front wheel into the curb toward the down slope.

Sajeev Answers:

Thank you for contributing and reading! To your first question: not much changed since our last discussion. But were the words “Polar Vortex” as commonplace in our lexicon back then? Probably, but work with me here!   

Let’s include engine warm up in the polar vortex: peep this Oil Viscosity Chart to ensure your oil didn’t turn into molasses overnight. If so, let the motor warm up for many, many minutes to let the oil thin out (provided you aren’t using an engine block heater!). More to the point, while restoring my 1989 Lincoln Continental (the aforementioned Pilot Fish), I thumbed through the shop manual’s chapter on Ford’s Insta-clear windshield: while not a popular success, it personifies the engineering effort working to reduce stress in awful weather for both car and driver.

Because there’s more to the story than the engine: your glass is iced up, you need to clear snow from the roof/perimeter, your wiper blades/tires are petrified, etc. Long story short: Option D is still the best for the (not carbureted!) engine, but if you’re in the depth of a polar vortex, consider warming up time for the rest of the vehicle. And perhaps your sanity, too. 

Second question?

Park in first gear, add the parking brake and turn aforementioned the wheels if it’s really hilly. Since Houston is flat and totally geographically boring, I just park in 1st. On seriously steep ramps (i.e. flood protection down here), engaging the parking brake before going into 1st isn’t a bad idea. That makes the drivetrain a secondary brake, which isn’t a big concern with a clutch (easily released before starting) but it’s a great idea on an automatic transmission’s inflexible on-off lock mechanism. Have you ever heard a terrible noise when dropping an automatic out of park on a steep hill?

Back to manuals, do only park it in first gear: numerically higher gears require more wheel rotations to move the rest of the drivetrain. What’s great for jackrabbit starts is also great for holding the vehicle on not-perfectly flat ground…

Send your queries to [email protected]com. Spare no details and ask for a speedy resolution if you’re in a hurry…but be realistic, and use your make/model specific forums instead of TTAC for more timely advice.

[Image: © Timothy Cain/TTAC]

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46 Comments on “Piston Slap: Parked in the Polar Vortex?...”

  • avatar

    This morning it’s 5 Degrees F where I am, I will let my car warm-up to when the windows start to clear and I won’t have to freeze my butt off

    It’s a decision I’m happy with

    • 0 avatar

      -10 F here this morning. Three minutes, thanks to remote start. As for my butt, heated seats.

      -30 F last week. Five minutes. Probably should have made it six. Bloody cold (100 degrees colder than my house)!

      Her vehicle heats up very quickly and has much better heated seats, so I cut the times in half.

      In both cases, my goal is to get the engine to the point where it’s beginning to circulate coolant. I will say at -30F, some systems take a couple miles to start behaving normally. These systems aren’t warmed by the motor, so it’s going to happen regardless.

  • avatar

    To the second question, I’d add “Always, always, use your parking brake.” Instead of carefully considering the conditions and which car you are driving, just get in the habit of activating it every single time, no matter which car you are in. It’s a basic safety measure for a stick, and just a general good-idea in an automatic; Park pawls are not infallible.

    (I’d say the only exception is if you are in the Rust Belt and borrowing somebody else’s automatic that has a cable-actuated p-brake. Wouldn’t want it to jam if they never use it.)

    • 0 avatar

      The parking brake can freeze in place from ice buildup as well. Even though I use the parking brake in all my cars when it’s wet and flirting with freezing temps or below, the parking brake does not get used.

    • 0 avatar

      DAMN! When people will start reading their manuals? I just opened one for the Toyota 86 pictured above and found this

      When parking the vehicle (in the winter time or in the cold latitudes):

      Park the vehicle and move the shift lever to P (automatic trans-mission) or 1 or R (manual transmission) without setting the parking brake. The parking brake may freeze up, preventing it from being released. If necessary, block the wheels to prevent inadvertent sliding or creeping


      For the Q#1
      Warm UP! Only question – how? If your drive is 10 minutes – warmup more but don’t idle when car is hot already. Or better yet – drive extra mile, go around, make sure your engine performs at peak performance. Great if you drive 15 minutes or more, and if you don’t jump on highway immediately. Once RPMs drop to 1000 or so, start moving slowly. There is great article about this on Jalopnik, that totally supports what I’v said. Gasoline management is one thing, driving on engine in non-optimal temperature and hence not optimal performance, including emissions – is another thing

  • avatar

    On Saabs they always wanted you to put the stick in Reverse, on earlier models I think the was the only way to get the key out, not sure what they were thinking but I am sure they had a reason.

  • avatar

    Park the car in first gear. Normal starting routine should be to push on the brakes followed by pushing in the clutch pedal before turning the key. Once the engine is started, let it run in neutral with the clutch out. This will spin the gears around, making them stir and spread the oil. When you’re ready to drive away, push in the clutch and put the car back in gear…

    When a car has been parked on a steep hill in first gear, pushing in the clutch is not, mechanically speaking, similar to an automatic parked on the same hill and having to tug on the gear selector to get a stuck parking pawl to budge.

    Some cars won’t let you crank the engine with the gear selector in anything except neutral- this is because our government masters decided to preserve dumb people in the gene pool at the expense of harassing intelligent people.

    @seth1065- the Saab thing was some Swedish logic to force the driver to pay attention to even the simplest actions.

    • 0 avatar

      Living in FL I don’t have to worry about cold but my normal routine for manuals is: Park in 2nd as its the gear I use coming down my street. Due to laziness I just clutch in and coast into my driveway and just leave it there. Start the car foot on brake, clutch in (duh) then immediate shift into neutral and leave it there for maybe 1 or 2 min. As mentioned I believe this allows the shaft to spin.

      After owning several turbo cars I got in the habit on letting the car run for 2 or 3 minutes before shutting it off as well. This drove my wife crazy… she kept asking why I hadn’t shut the car off then I explained the whole process thru which oil flows thru the engine. I wouldn’t put a engine under load right away, so always a little idle time before taking off. Same during shutdown.

      I would also recommend stopping a bit short then inching the car forward before leaving it so the hot brakes don’t just sit in one place. This can leave pad deposits which cause vibrations.

      • 0 avatar

        I was with my friend the other day and he reached over and started the rental Fiat 500C without the clutch in. In fact, no one was in the drivers seat. I said WTF did you just do?! This guy just learned how to drive stick. He was confused as to why I asked. I explained to him that normally you have to push the clutch in.

        The next rental I got, a Volvo diesel wagon, is the same way. Stick shift and you can start it without the clutch in.

  • avatar

    I’ve always been told to park a manual in reverse because, as a sliding gear, it’s less likely to pop out of gear once the synchro for first get older and more worn. My ’73 C10 was proof of concept for me so reverse it is for my ’06 Sierra.

  • avatar
    R Henry

    Such silliness. If the car didn’t roll away, you parked it correctly. The only consideration is to “curb” your wheels such that if your car does roll, it doesn’t roll into traffic. This a big deal in hilly cities like San Francisco.

    –Your car doesn’t “like” anything. It’s an effing machine! Getting too wrapped up in this stuff is a waste of energy.

    To Robert in the video: Your car is a mess!

    Get off my lawn!

  • avatar

    Question 1 : I let my EB Mustang warm up for 15 minutes yesterday, max defrost, and seat heater on.( helps when chipping ice). I then proceeded to the car wash, and 6 toonies later managed to spray the rest of the ice off….I’m retired and have lots of time. However I’ve always let my car warm up, and try to remove as much ice/slush/ snow as I can.

    Question 2 The 2005 GT is hibernating in my garage . I’m not going to remove the cover and check. I can guarantee that the shifter is in 1st and the park drake is engaged . I took my drivers license on a 64 Chevy equipped with “three on the tree”..”First gear, park brake on” was, and still is the golden rule . (at least in my world.)

  • avatar

    The right thing to do varies with temperature. When the weather will stay above freezing or the air is extremely dry, use the emergency/parking brake no matter what your transmission, select park with an automatic once it is set, turn your wheels away from the curb if facing up hill, towards it facing downhill, away from the street if there is no curb. Park manuals in reverse.

    This changes if you live somewhere that it will get extremely cold or if you live somewhere humid that will experience any freezing at all. When that is the case, do not set the emergency/parking brake. It may not release and it may end up boiling your brake fluid when you drive around with two of your brakes dragging. Then you won’t have brakes when you need them and you’ll damage your brakes. Don’t park automatics on steep hills in this situation, as you’ll be putting too much strain on the parking pawl. Get a car with a manual next time if you need to deal with severe winter conditions.

    • 0 avatar


      Just happened on my wife’s car a few weekends ago in Duluth, MN.

      It was -12 and we were parked across the street from open water on Lake Superior with sea smoke coming off the water.

      Froze the parking brake on her Subaru Forester and it was a HUGE pain in the butt.

      I crawled underneath (fun when it’s -12) and found the parking brake cable and jiggled it a little bit. Didn’t work. Moved the car into the sun and let it sit running for 10 minutes and the light finally went off.

      Yeah, don’t set the parking brake when it’s really cold.

  • avatar

    I would suggest not using the parking brake and trying to park on a level spot, because road salt, melting snow, and very cold weather can freeze the caliper/shoe to the disk/drum, or in worse cases if the car sits for a few days can also rust the pieces together, making it virtually impossible to move the car without doing some disassembly with a heating torch.

  • avatar

    I had my parking brake freeze up something fierce after dunking my 4Runner into some muddy slush last winter (broke through about 4 inches of ice and dropped axle-deep into a stinky mudhole). Parked it after said excursion (and successful extraction with my buddy’s 4Runner) to grab a beer, walked out and put it in drive, truck absolutely won’t budge. Gave it enough gas and with a huge “pop” I was free. Spent 15 minutes with a hair dryer and WD40 back at the house warming and drying things, it was fine after a few days.

  • avatar
    Arthur Dailey

    I was the one who posted the similar question in 2015.

    Changed my warm-up procedure, since then. Now start the cars when I take the dog, but don’t turn them off. Get back, scrape them, bring him inside, and then drive off.

    So they generally get a warm-up of 5 to 10 minutes prior to driving off.

    Depending on the temperature the clutch on the MT is still sometimes sluggish. And since I do use the ’emergency brake’ on the MT, when it is very cold can sometimes audibly hear it disengage.

    And no, still no block heaters. As previously stated the electrical panel/wiring in my home does not permit the addition of another outlet, unless I want to spend more money than many of the B&B claim to spend on buying a car.

  • avatar

    Well, some of the diesel VW Passat , the 2012-2014 vintage would require a nice warm up or slow driving for the first few miles. Otherwise the turbo would blow..the shaft would rupture. Lots of failures reported on the diesel forum.

  • avatar

    I learned somewhere to use 1st if grade is uphill, reverse if downhill. Either way I always set the parking brake and let it grab by letting off the service brakes with the transmission in neutral (both auto and manual) before putting the stick in gear or P.

  • avatar

    I’ve been driving my V6 Mustang in some horrible Michigan weather. I let it warm up 5-10 minutes – spent scraping off the ice and brushing the snow – and then drive very gently.

    And I always use my parking brake and keep the manual transmission in first gear. My driveways is is kinda of steep, so I fear it rolling into the neighbors yard across the street.

    With Michelin X-Ice tires, it’s not too bad in the snow ‘n’ ice. A tendency to momentarily dart to the left on sheer ice was off-putting until I got used to the stability control saving the day. And on super icy areas, the traction control can bog the car down to a crawl but I haven’t gotten fully stuck yet.

  • avatar

    A lot of people had remote start when I lived in Canada. Apparently, not a good idea to let the car idle to warm up, and not just for the wallet. I made sure I found a house with two car garage, which was harder than I imagined. The garage wasn’t heated but never got colder than 40F. I would just open the garage, get out and drive slowly…15-20 mph for 3-5 minutes which worked out great because I was on back roads. As for the parking brake…I used it religiously but not too much in the winter because Halifax in most areas was like San Francisco. I also made sure my driveway was not on an incline…which again was not easy to find. I had friends who had 20-25 degree slopes…crazy. In the winter, I tried not to use the parking brake even at work, but it was a perfectly level garage. Eventually, after 5 years, the salt did destroy one caliper.

  • avatar

    I’m with Sirwired, use the parking brake. With the exceptions noted, wet/freezing weather-find a level spot to park.
    Most automatics of the last few decades do not get jammed in Park on a hill the way older vehicles did, but are you going to trust that mechanism to hold back at least a ton and a half of rolling weight?
    Here in SoCal we seldom have trouble with parking brakes sticking. However I see people get out of cars and trucks with them rocking back and forth in Park obviously without the brake on. Most of the time they do not roll away. Most of the time.

  • avatar

    As mentioned above what gear to leave the manual transmission in depends on the slope if there is one. You want the vehicle, if it was to roll, to cause the engine to trun in its normal direction. So if the slope would cause the vehicle to roll forward you put it in 1st and if the slope would cause it to roll backwards you put it in R. The use of the parking brake on an automatic should be limited to rare cases in particularly cold weather. It can freeze on and it will happen at the worst time. With a manual you really should use the parking brake but caution is in order.

    As far as warm up time when it is as cold as some areas have been seeing recently then yeah you should let it run for at least 2-3 minutes before driving off. A block heater is no help at all for the poor engine because it is the oil that needs to be warm to work properly and a block heater will not warm the oil.

    • 0 avatar

      Pretty sure the engine has more resistance to turning backwards than forward.

      And how will a block heater not warm the oil? Because the oil is down in the crankcase? The oil is not going to get as hot as the coolant in the engine, but but it will definitely warm up some. Ditto with the transmission (especially a transaxle on a transverse FWD car), and even the battery.

      My ’03 SVT Focus has a 130 degree setpoint factory block heater – part of the cold-weather package. I have it hooked to a timer. When it’s been running for a few hours, it will melt snow on the hood of the car – even though the hood has insulation – and will make the cam covers almost too hot to touch. The head and block ARE too hot to touch. It’s a 350-lb chunk of metal that has been heated to 130F…heats the whole underhood area. On a 0-degree day, I would bet the oil is somewhere around 50 degrees and the tranny fluid about the same. Battery acid I have measured at 35 degrees under those circumstances.

      Starting at home at 7:30 a.m., when the heater has been on since 5:00 a.m., is a world of difference from starting at work to drive home, at the same temperature…and since coolant is basically the same viscosity at 0 degrees as it is at 130 degrees, I attribute the ease of starting in the former case to 1) warm oil, and 2) warm battery. The difference in shifting the 6MT when the block heater has been running, compared to when it has not, at that temp, is night-and-day…because the ATF in the tranny is a lot warmer.

      Block heater heats all that stuff under there.

    • 0 avatar

      Engines have about the same resistance to turning backwards as forwards, but some timing belts or chains can lose tension and skip teeth if turned backwards.

      A block heater will heat oil a little, not much (though any amount helps), but a dedicated oilpan heater will. On some WW2 aircraft, it was common practice to drain the oil at the end of the day, bring it inside for the night, and pour it at room temperature into a cold engine the next day.

  • avatar

    Sajeev, when you gonna answer my question?

  • avatar

    Last week in -27C, I brought home a brand new Lexus ES as a loaner and a few hours later went to back up and the rear brakes had frozen to the discs. In very cold weather my old Malibu with Muncie 4-speed I would leave in neutral, and still the car would creep a little when I engaged the starter. Then it took numerous gentle cycles of the clutch pedal to get it into gear. As a northern person, I can tell you, synthetic oil was life-changing.

  • avatar

    The best way to warm up a car is to drive it gently until you feel hot air coming out of the vents. After starting the engine, I wait for maybe 30 seconds before moving. I use that time to lock the doors, put on my seat belt and, if I must back out, to check that my way is clear.

    The only place I don’t set the parking brake is inside my garage at home because the floor is level. A manual transmission may not go into gear which leaves you in neutral. People have had their vehicles roll away because of this.

    I used to know a guy who parked his minivan on a steep hill with the transmission in park but no parking brake. The vehicle didn’t roll away but pressure on the park pawl was so heavy that he broke it getting the transmission out of park. He was very upset that the manufacturer refused to pay for the repair, citing abuse on his part, even though the van was still under warranty. On a hill, engage the parking brake and let it take up the pressure of holding the vehicle. Then, put the transmission into park. That way, there will be little or no pressure on the park pawl.

  • avatar

    Regarding warmup:
    An engine running cold experiences much more wear than warmed-up. Both the time spent running cold, and the load (and engine speed) while cold, should be minimized. Finding the balance between these conflicting requirements is an optimization problem, the solution to which (on modern EFI vehicles), according to OEMs, is to let it idle only long enough for oil to flow everywhere it’s needed, about 30 seconds. Then drive gently (about 1/3 of full load and 1/3 of redline) until the coolant is up to temp, and moderately (under 2/3 load and revs) until twice that time has elapsed. The reason for the latter is that oil takes longer to warm up than coolant, and WOT/redline driving should only be done with warm oil.

    Regarding parking brakes:
    If you have disk/caliper handbrakes, use them always, in part because they’re typically self-adjusting and need to be used once in a while to remain usable. If you have drum handbrakes, beware of freezing. Note that some cars have disk brakes in the rear but the handbrake is still drum-type inside the rotor hat.

    If you have an automatic, use Park; it takes highly unlikely events for that to fail, and it’s a positive lock of the powertrain. If you have a manual, don’t rely on gears alone to hold a vehicle; engine friction and compression are not a positive lock. I’ve seen one move – turning the engine – 5 minutes after being parked on a slope, in gear but without a handbrake. Fortunately I was around to catch it.

  • avatar

    Here’s an observation about my ’15 Audi A3 – feel free to chime in if you have any pertinent info.

    My car has the S-tronic 6-speed, with a “Drive” and “Sport” mode (there’s also a tiptronic mode). Under normal circumstances, in “Drive” mode, the transmission starts in second, and grabs higher gears at the first opportunity. Basically, it’s a gas-saving thing (and it does get better mileage when I just leave it in “Drive” versus using the tiptronic). But when it’s really cold (as it was this morning), it starts in first, and holds revs like it’s in sport or manual mode. As the car warms up, it begins to shift normally.

    This runs counter to my normal routine with a cold engine, which is to start it, run it for about a minute, and then drive slowly, keeping the revs low. Apparently the S-tronic gods like revving the engine early on a cold morning (feel free to insert your own sexual innuendo here).

    Strange, to say the least. Could be I’m just used to a manual.

  • avatar

    By the way, here’s a fun life hack: if your door or locks get frozen, squirt a little hand sanitizer into the handle/lock. The alcohol melts the ice.

  • avatar

    Since I started driving manual vehicles 8 years ago I’ve always parked in first or reverse, really it’s whichever gear I’ll need when I will set off next, and I’ve apploed the parking brake. But if it’s cold and snowy when I begin a car journey, I’ll start the car, clear windows as necessary, cycle through the gears to make sure the transmission is cooperating and drive off. Shift gently, allow all of the suspension components to warm up, axles, various other bits that the car needs to move. I really don’t need the interior to be overly warm to be comfortable, as long as I can see.

    Most of my vehicles have had the ratchet type parking brake with the cable and linkages and I’ve never personally had one fail on me in the St. Paul, MN area. However, my current car has the electronic parking brake, which if I understand correctly activates the service brakes. I can hear it whirring to life as I park and can feel the brake pedal moving as presssure is applied to the system. I have to wonder if some of the issues others have described with cable actuated parking brakes have been mitigated with the advent of electronic parking brakes.

    • 0 avatar

      I am sure the “frozen brake” problem is solved now; however, new problem introduced – no snow-donuts problem. Besides, the electric motor can seize anytime – cold or hot.

  • avatar

    I wish more cars had an oil temperature gauge. My Chrysler 300 has a digital oil temperature gauge, besides a digital engine coolant and digital transmission temperature gauge. Here in Canada in winters that is a very useful indicator as to whether the engine has reached it’s normal operating temperature.

    I normally wait for engine rpms to drop below 1000 on a cold start up before driving off slowly. Keep the rpms and engine load low. And even if my trip is short, I try and get the engine oil to get up to it’s normal operating temperature which is at least 75 Celsius to 80 Celsius.

    • 0 avatar

      Yeah EOT is a nice thing to know. Unfortunately not many cars give you access to that information even if they have a sensor for it. Many cars with variable valve timing have an oil temp sensor and with the right scan tool you can read its value. It can take a fair amount of driving after the coolant is up to temp to get the oil up to temp.

  • avatar
    George B

    I start the car, wait a few seconds before putting the engine into gear, and then let it warm up by driving slowly/low RPM with very little load on the engine while driving on the residential streets in my neighborhood. No fuel wasted sitting idling as the engine warms up and 10 mph reduces trip time as compared to 0 mph. By the time I get to the main side streets, the coolant temperature is warm enough to heat the car and I drive with moderate acceleration.

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