The Truth About Winter Driving
And it might surprise you!
We've all been there, knee-deep in snow, car stuck on a sheet of ice, wondering whether we'll make it home that night. Well, I say all, but I imagine if you happen to live in California, or Ethiopia or any of all number of places where snow is something you only see on Christmas cards, maybe this doesn't apply?
Anyway, I live in the UK. Usually that means we get dreary, foggy, wet, miserable winters, which suck the life out of you and leave you feeling soulless and broken come spring. This year however, it's been different! We've had a good smattering of snow, so much so I actually managed to build a small igloo with my son!
Admittedly it wasn't exactly a 'family igloo' but it worked.
Due to our usually just wet and muddy winters, many British drivers aren't familiar with winter driving technique. We also don't tend to be well equipped to cope with snowy, icy roads and you regularly see cheap front-wheel drive hatchbacks pirouetting down the road like Torville and Dean in an Olympic Final.
The question is, what makes a person able to get from A to B in thick snow? Is it technique or equipment? Or both? If it's all about being well-equipped, then what equipment do you really need to tackle the white stuff? (Mirror, credit card and rolled up banknote aside)
The fact is some people drive better in snow than others. Driving in extreme conditions is all about planning ahead and making gradual adjustments to speed and steering where possible. Braking or accelerating hard is a no no. Wheel-spinning polishes the snow or ice and makes it harder to find grip on. Turning sharply exerts a lot of sideways force, so should be done slowly and carefully.
4WD or AWD is a great feature to have while driving in adverse conditions. Because of differentials, when you're driving 2WD, unless you have a Limited Slip Differential, you are actually only driving one wheel most of the time. In a 4WD system the same applies, you are usually only driving a maximum of 2/4 wheels at any given time. Yes, if you have a specialist machine like a Defender or similar and have diff locks, a centre lock and a clever electronic traction system with an effective snow mode - things will be better. 4WD systems are definitely great for managing and utilising all the grip you have, but they can only work if you have SOME grip somewhere.
Tyres are really where grip starts. Arguably where it finishes too! If you're running a focused summer tyre in the winter, the rubber will go hard and you'll have no grip on ice or snow. If you run a general purpose tyre you might get away with it, but for good winter grip you need a decent cross climate tyre or dedicated winter tyre. The right tyres are arguably more important than a clever 4WD system.
Case Study #1 2015 Ford Focus ST3 on Goodyear Eagle F1 Tyres (FWD)
My old Focus
This was completely undrivable in snowy conditions. The tyres were NOT designed for this situation and the FWD combined with the torque and turbo surge of power made it barely driveable on icy roads and completely unusable in snow.
Case Study #2 2005 Jaguar X-Type 3.0 Sport Premium on Goodyear Tyres (AWD)
My old X-Type
This car had an excellent AWD System. It was able to drive in more or less any conditions, I never got stuck once. The tyres weren't as focused summer tyres as the Goodyear Eagle F1 on the Focus, but were a more general purpose tyre. The biggest compromise was braking. It was generally an excellent car for driving in the snow with though, with a set of cross-climate tyres on it would have been amazing.
Case Study #3 2005 Ford Ranger Super Cab on BF Goodrich Mud + Snow (4x4)
My old Ford Ranger
This was basically a poor man's Land Rover Defender. It had suicide doors and little fold-down seats in the back, but also a useful 6' bed. It was a useful vehicle! It had a very mechanical 4x4 system with a 2WD. 4WD and Low ratio box selectable. It was also on BF Goodrich Mud + Snow Tyres. They were awful for normal conditions, noisy and not great for everyday grip, but when the white stuff hit, this thing was unstoppable. I used to go around with towing ropes, rescuing people for fun. I remember driving to a remote farm in Leek to see a customer, over a road covered in 1' thick snow and it even wheelspin. It just ploughed through. I remember towing a Tesco delivery van off a sheet of ice. No problem. The only time it let me down was trying to tow a Class 2 HGV off a snowy carpark. For most of the year, it was a massive compromise - driving this. But in the right conditions it was awesome.
Case Study #4 2013 Toyota Verso on Michelin Cross Climate + (2WD)
Our Toyota Vers
This is our diesel, family wagon. It's great for driving to the continent or taking the dog out for a walk. Some time ago we installed four Michelin Cross Climate + Tyres on the car. These are considered to be the best all-around tyre for regions with a varied climate. They work great in the summer and they seem as good as any winter tyre in the snow. I've driven this in conditions which you'd think would warrant a 4WD. It was fine. Why? The tyres! The right tyres, make more difference than you'd think if you hadn't experienced it yourself!
Case Study #5 2005 Porsche 911 Carrera 4S on Michelin Pilot Sport Cup (AWD)
My Porsche 911
Now the first thing you'd think is 'Oh, 4WD, it must be good in snow?' But that isn't strictly true. The truth is, I've never tried it in snow on 'the right tyre'. I did take it out for a short spin over Christmas, and tried to drive over compacted snow where I knew I could get off easily if things went south. It was awful. I had no grip whatsoever and it basically tried to crab into the curb every time I went to inch forwards. Why? The tyres! They're a focused, stick summer tyre, really designed for sports cars. It probably doesn't help that the rear wheels are 305mm wide! So don't cut into the snow due to the large surface area. I COULD get a spare set of wheels, maybe in 18" with a 295 at the rear instead of the 305 and have a set of Nokians or Pirelli winter tyres on - and it'd be good. Without the tyres though, it's unusable in snow despite the AWD system.
All these things factor into winter driving, but my personal opinion is the tyres are the most important part of the recipe. But what do YOU think?
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Stories and images of supercar crashes, in honour of veteran crasher Hammond