By on December 11, 2008

Ah, the first snow of the year.  The frozen blanket transforms even the ugliest landscapes into crystalline sanctuaries. Crisp air fills the lungs and the inevitable homey smell of a wood fire tells of a distant warming hearth. Earth’s annual metamorphosis triggers a few moments when we get to live a dream stolen from the cover of an old December issue Saturday Evening Post. But for too many, this winter wonderland fantasy is abruptly cut short by the sickening sound of exploding metal, glass and plastic, because the first snow of winter also invites a rash of traffic accidents.

I spent ten winters in northern Utah. Every year, highways ground to a halt from hundreds of traffic accidents on the first day that snow accumulated on road surfaces. I thought, these are Utahans, they should know how to drive on snow. What’s the deal?

Driving on snow and ice requires a recalibration of our timing. By the end of the summer, we don’t think about how long it’s going to take us to brake for an upcoming stop sign on naked pavement; we feel it. Our ingrained habits betray us when water, snow and ice rudely come between us and the road surface. We need practice.

Coming from Texas, I feel disadvantaged driving through white-capped Wasatch Mountains. As George Strait crooned, there’s no Snow in San Antonio. So at the first accumulation of snow, I hop into my old Camry and head for empty parking lots and sparsely traveled back roads for a little automotive me-time.

With no other cars around, I experiment to find out how fast I can corner and stop. I also test to see how steep a road I can safely climb or descend. I re-learn how to finesse both brake and throttle. Back in traffic I’m rightly adjusted to slow-up and allow for proper intervals.

Each year, I repeat this practice ritual at first snow fall. it’s kept me accident-free through rough Rocky Mountain winters.

But despite the drill, getting caught in a blizzard in my trusty old front-wheel drive Toyota still took its toll. I vividly remember white knuckling my way through several snow storms on the road home from grandmother’s house (literally) with my wife and small kids, as I struggled to keep the car on the road and avoid hitting or being hit by other drivers. While the greatest winter driving safety device is the lump of fat and knot of neurons floating between a driver’s ears, equipment also plays a role.

First and foremost are the right tires. On snow and ice, a good pair of snow tires can make even the worst rear wheel-drive (RWD) car a significantly more competent machine. Conversely, the most advanced all wheel-drive systems are rendered impotent with summer meats or worn treads.

Traction control (TC) has emerged as a great equalizer for RWD cars. TC uses either the Anti-lock Brake System or electronically controlled clutches to transfer engine torque to the wheel with the best traction. Last winter I drove a convertible Mustang (top up) through a Chicago snow storm. Despite the superabundance of torque, the pony car’s rear-end stayed safely behind me at all times, without so much as a slip or stall. With the TC off, I turned enough doughnuts to feed the entire Chicago PD.

It would seem that AWD or four-wheel drive cars and trucks are less safe than FWD. Very often we see that the first drivers to slide off the road when the weather turns bad are at the wheel of these “super capable” cars and trucks. But overconfidence is a form of driver error, not equipment failure.

This is an important distinction. When Jack Frost catches a cold, technically the best-equipped cars and truck for safely driving are AWD and 4WDs with appropriate tires.

In low-friction environments, being able to put power to all four wheels can provide up to four times greater traction while acceleration or pulling through a corner over a RWD or FWD car without traction control. To an extent, 4WDs also help in braking due to increased power train drag that allows drivers to moderate their speed without hitting the brakes.

On the down side, these systems add weight and neither improves braking or cornering (except while accelerating). And that’s where lame brain drivers get in trouble. The ability to accelerate on the slippery stuff seems to drain IQ points from drivers.

And so we come full circle. While equipment can help aid drivers, the greatest factor is the man or woman gripping the steering wheel. I love the change in seasons and look forward to winter sports, or just messing around in the snow. But when it gets icy and dicey, nothing beats proper snow tires steered by a calm, practiced, alert and sensible driver.

Get the latest TTAC e-Newsletter!


61 Comments on “Winter Driving Manifesto...”

  • avatar

    Great article. With proper studded tires and a bag of sand in the trunk, an open diff RWD car handles without problems in the worst conditions. Manual transmission also helps a lot, as even new automatics tend to work unfavorably in slippery conditions.

  • avatar
    John R

    I hate this season. Not just because I might make a mistake, but because of the other knuckle heads making a mistake. I can’t control what they do.

    It was some 60 degrees yesterday with rain, its supposed to be below 30 today and its still raining, ice you very much. Man, I left for work like an hour early so I wouldn’t have to deal with the usual rush hour riff-raff. I just got my car in March, I’m trying to come out this winter unscathed.

  • avatar

    Here’s to Richard Burns – who knew how to drive in snow…

    And to Paul Hornung, who said three of the most important words a winter driver can ever hear: “Practice, practice, practice.”

  • avatar

    On the down side, these systems add weight and neither improves braking or cornering (except while accelerating). And that’s where lame brain drivers get in trouble. The ability to accelerate on the slippery stuff seems to drain IQ points from drivers.

    I think I’m quibbling over semantics here, but the problem is that they think they can stop as easily as they can go.

    In bad weather on roads that have snow or may have ice, I constantly touch the brakes to see what the surface is like, much more because I don’t have ABS.

    Tires… Ihate putting the snows on, because they take so much of the fun out of dry pavement. But they really do make a dif, as WM says.

    But I swear I remember as a kid in the ’60s that the ’57 Chevy did fine with snows, and the Peugeot did fine in the Boston winters with its regular non-snow radial tires.

  • avatar

    As an addendum to this article, someone should chart the optimal reduction in speed depending on variances in road surface conditions. Or to put it another way, how much extra stopping distance is needed when the road is wet/snowy/icy.

    Practice is the best remedy for adverse conditions but some statistic knowledge may help the less experienced.

    And, God do I love donuts in the snow.

  • avatar

    When I was still in school my friends and I would look for empty snow/ice covered roads and pull the hand brake letting the car slide/spin until it stopped. That was more fun than a roller coaster. Then one day a friend bent a wheel when he hit the curb. We returned to just whipping donuts in the school parking lot after that.

  • avatar

    With proper studded tires and a bag of sand in the trunk, an open diff RWD car handles without problems in the worst conditions.

    Actually, the Tire Rack has shown that the latest studless snow tires are far better on ice and packed snow than studded tires.

    Deep snow traction has nothing to do with the studs either, but rather the tread pattern, siping, and rubber compound. Plus the speed limitations of studless tires are much higher (99+ mph).

  • avatar

    That was probably one of the best posts I’ve read on TTAC. Well done.

  • avatar

    I love driving in the winter, but I hate winter driving (other cars go way too slow). Many seasons driving open-diff RWD cars with bald tires and zero accidents for me. When I got a 4WD truck with good tires it was amazing. Then we got our 2008 Saturn VUE AWD, and that baby feels like it’s held to the road with magnets. My only complaint is the stability control still steps in when “off” and ruins my fishtailing party! AWD donuts are totally doable though.

  • avatar

    . The ability to accelerate on the slippery stuff seems to drain IQ points from drivers.

    This is so incredibly true. The ability to start moving gives an wicked sense of false confidence.

    I’ve seen it happen (and I live central Ontario; people here should know better). I personally know one Subaru driver who insists her Outback doesn’t need snow tires while her husband’s Civic does. No amount of explaining seemed to get it through her head that all-seasons don’t help you stop.

    The traction control in my Saab, simple as it is, does the same. It doesn’t feel nearly as squirrely in snow as my Fit does. The winter throttle program helps, too. I wonder if TCS is such a good thing.

    Now, stability control, that’s another story. I’ve seen that save the paint job of more than a few people. Sure it might give a similar false sense of confidence, but it can actually do something about it (channel power between wheels, selectively brake) when you start to skid.

    The best thing to do is go slower, anticipate (especially at parking-lot entrances, a lot of people brake too hard and then skid right out into traffic) and leave space. I used to commute by bicycle in the winter (in Toronto) and it really did give me lot of perspective on how compromised one is in winter.

  • avatar

    Great article.

    This will inevitably attract those people who feel as though winter tires are unnecessary (just slow down and use your brain), but they are necessary if you live somewhere where snow in the winter is the norm.

    Slow down, get the proper equipment and know how your vehicle handles in winter conditions.

  • avatar

    Ahhh. Winter driving, now that is close to home. Allow me to ramble…

    I find an often overlooked factor I have experienced with 20 winters of driving under my belt in Canada (Split between Ottawa and the Maritimes).

    Heavy cars are more stable in the snow, lighter ones ‘float’ at lower speeds and become unstable sooner. This is no fun for me because I like lightweight efficient cars and make winter pilgrimages from Ottawa to the Maritimes (1000kms +).

    I have only ditched and become stuck once. I was driving a small used hatchbacks with worn all seaons. I was in poor student mode then. Since then I always put on real snow tires in the winter. But still with a light car your start floating well before highway speed in a small light car.

    Each winter after a first significant snow, I head to a an empty parking lot and re-tune my winter reflexes. I push turns until the car is about to lose it and balance the car with throttle (I have a manual) to try and catch it. I test my brakes for threshold where they slip (I don’t have ABS) and pull under full stops.

    Contrary to this article I think there is a handling advantage and even slowing advantage for a true AWD (as opposed to slip-catch systems most use) car with a manual like a Subaru. Where you can engine brake with all 4 wheels and not unbalance the car so much or break one end free.

    All in all I enjoy it around town, but I still find it nerve racking on the highway in poor conditions as speeds tend to push beyond the limit of recovery if something unexpected were to happen (moose crossing).

    If you are doing any serious winter driving, ,practice, winter tires are a must, a heavier car tends to be more stable, a long wheelbase is handy.

    I would like to get opinions on good/bad winter cars and personal experiences. My take on the Best is a Subaru with manual transmission. Weighty enough, AWD for acceleration, and engine breaking, low center of gravity for better handling. But I never owned one.

    The best I have driven was my Families 74 Malibu classic with studded tires. A stable tank in the snow. Worse was again a Family car. An 84′ mustang with 3.8L. That would spin out on wet pavement.

    My Mazda 323 was also pretty bad with it’s light weight and short wheelbase. My Miata couldn’t make it around the block on all seasons.

  • avatar

    Another point, and one I’ve see on many enthusiast posts on this topic: don’t think you’re a rock star just because you’ve had no accidents, even though you commuted every day an mid-60s pickup truck with racing slicks on all four wheels.

    Overconfidence is the chief problem: you may not be as good as you think you are. And you have no idea if the guy in the next lane is. Drive like a granny on public roads.

  • avatar

    I am from Europe. However, I worked for four winters (2000-04) with an automotive supplier based in Michigan.

    I only drove a FWD coupe with low ground clearance and M+S tires, but never failed to get to work (even on “snow days”!).

    I could not believe the number of Jeeps, SUVs & Pick-ups you would see in ditches, up snow banks, or generally skidded of the road. Far more 4WD & AWD light trucks seemed to come to harm than FWD cars.

    The people who drive SUVs & Pick-ups seem to believe that they can defy the general laws of physics in slippery situations. Unfortunately, they have weight & the high center of gravity against them!!!!

    My main problem was with ground clearance on un-plowed roads, where the light truck tires would carve deep ruts creating the risk of “bottoming-out” in a car.

  • avatar

    I’m from Chicago area and had to commute 15 miles to school in the winter with several on back roads – I live in the rural suburbs. My trusty steed was an 1985 Predule DX (first import – funny thing was I didn’t want to buy this car but the Mustang and Shelby Charger I had choosen ahead of it both broke down on test drives – it was an omen). In Chicago schools don’t close b/c of snow and sometimes ice – you had to go. I also had a work permit so could drive as a junior which was nice as it made one more popular b/c they could hitch a ride home.

    When we’d get our first snow I and several friends would b line it over to the new unfinished subdivisions with wide lanes and huge cul de sacs where we’d have synchronized drifting – it winds up that a FWD car with a good easy to operate handbrake is a blast in this weather. I also recall ramming a snow drift one night in order to get home – it stuffed the entire front end with snow which then froze overnight to ice. I also was able to use that car from high school all the way thru grad school – Chicago to Michigan winters – 285k miles and only one time it ever broke down.

    We recently picked up a 2008 WRX on the cheap (great deals on these cars used and if you want the 2009 performance – get firmer springs, a rear sway bar, and a legacy GT turbo all for under $800 and you immediately have 2009 WRX performance) – and might I say that this is the ultimate winter car. First snow we had 2 days ago I was out having a blast. Found a nice huge parking lot and had a great time.

    A lot of people don’t understand driving in slippery conditions. As I race often and during rain races – your inputs must be smoother, more deliberate and happen sooner. I think I may attend my first ice race with the local Audi club. Should be a blast.

  • avatar

    Anybody have any experience with Audi Quattro in winter driving?

  • avatar

    I don’t know about you guys but my driving habits get considerably more conservative AUTOMATICALLY, even in my STi with dedicated winter snow tires (Dunlop winter sport with sub 5k miles on them).

  • avatar

    That tire rack study is aimed at selling more expensive studless “ice” tires.

    I have been driving on studded tires and on the Blizzak WS-50. No contest studs are better on ice.

    When someone beats a studded car at Ice Racing with studless “ice” tires, then I might pay attention.

    But in the real world studs are incredible on ICE. Studless “ice” tires are mediocre.

    If studs were legal here, I would use them over studless ice tires.

  • avatar

    Aren’t studded tires illegal in most places ?

  • avatar

    Heavy cars are more stable in the snow, lighter ones ‘float’ at lower speeds and become unstable sooner.

    This the old American theory that “heavy cars hold the road better”. As an ex rally driver living in Quebec,I can tell you that I would much prefer a MINI to a Grand Marquis and a Honda Civic Si to a Buick anything, any day of the week.

  • avatar

    I had an old Quattro in Maine. No snows, but the car was pretty unstoppable. It was heavy for the time, and pretty underpowered as well, which helps. Really 4wd is for getting out of snow rather than driving.

  • avatar

    “First and foremost are the right tires.”

    I have equal concern for the left tires, also.

    /runs off evading sundry thrown rocks, etc.

    Likely “preaching the the choir” at this particular message board so this goes out to the masses of bleating sheep, the ones decent aware-of-their-environment drivers fear so much (and rightly so).

    That layer of damp fallen leaves upon the road… a pre-winter hazard, can be as slick as ice in some circumstances!!! I’ve seen more than one conveyances slide through the stop sign or stop light gliding atop those slick leaves.

    Ice. SCARY stuff!!!!! Eeeeeek!!!!!!!!

    Gimme’ snow any day vice ICE!!!! Eeeeeeek.

    Oh if only folks would slow down when the roads get slick. And, get off my bumper!!!!! Leave room to stop, please!!!!!

    Hopefully there is a special place in Heck for those brainless tumors who motorvate down the snowy and/or icy road with baldish tires.

    At the slightest upgrade and traction is lost all following traffic comes to a stop as the bald one sits there, tires spinning. Acckkkkkk!!!!!!

    Dreaded the white-outs on I-80 around Elk Mountain, Wyoming, whether in the 18-wheeler or my 4-wheeler. (((((((shudder))))))).

  • avatar

    Good article WM.

    Virtually any car is drivable in winter – just with varying levels of capability.

    Winter accidents can be grouped into two categories, directly tied to grey matter. In priority order:

    1. Poor Decision Making: People do not allow adequate time or space to drive within the stopping or steering capabilities of their vehicle. This includes “too fast for conditions.”

    2. Ignorance: People do not understand or take the time to get comfortable with the physics of how their vehicles work. They do not understand the basics of weight transfer which can mean the difference of stopping in a straight line or spinning uncontrollably. They also take for granted the physics of momentum (mass), and often forget that braking is the great equalizer between All, Front, and Rear-wheel drive.

    Taking the “me-time” to sharpen your decision making skills and reduce your ignorance is something everybody should do. Find a wide-open parking lot or back road that you can play in without risk of injury or damage. Understand the limits of your car – cornering, braking, accelerating (many of us hooligans will go past the limits into hoonery – which while fun, is not what’s important). Learn how to drive within them – and how counteract the motions when you cross the limits. Understand that transients (moving from throttle to brake, or even just releasing the throttle) can cause unexpected (yet completely logical) motion – get familiar with these. These will help save your bacon (and mine when I’m in front of you!)

  • avatar

    Well my experience is on road, and the condition that I consider the absolute worse (that I encounter regularly), is fresh accumulation on the highway.

    In my experience lighter cars tend to float on this accumulation sooner. Heavier cars tend to better displace the snow and make road contact.

    On hard pack,ice or wet, I wouldn’t make this claim, it is just the float on fresh snow that floats lighter cars, that makes me prefer something with more weight in that particular condition.

    I would like to hear more opinions on this from others who do winter highway driving.

  • avatar
    Ken Strumpf

    On snow and ice, a good pair of snow tires can make even the worst rear wheel-drive (RWD) car a significantly more competent machine.

    Not sure about RWD but for FWD and AWD vehicles I was always taught that having only two snow tires was an invitation to fishtailing and that a full set of four was needed. Certainly here in the snow country of upstate NY I won’t go without four.

    Also, some people where I live have the mistaken idea that AWD means you don’t have to invest in snow tires. I’m glad you pointed out how wrong this is.

  • avatar

    @david holzman,

    Snow tires don’t have to end dry weather fun. Winter performance is a tire category that performs like a performance summer tire on dry and wet pavement, but has the traction of a winter tire.

    My Michelin Pilot Alpin PA2’s (discontinued) handle better than the all-season MXV4+ I use during the summer, without any noise or ride penalty.

    Of course, you do give up some ice traction compared to a regular winter tire, but it’s a good compromise when the roads are clear.

  • avatar

    Nice article, I like the practice, practice, practice part of it. Technically, heavier vehicles stick longer before you lose them but once you’ve lost them, good luck!

    I think the basic thing we have to remember is, that snow is soft, and so should our driving on snow be. Brake early and gently, steer gently, don’t hurt the snow.

    Give lots of room to yourself and others. Always look where you want to go, not at the obstacle.

    To get out of a parking spot in the snow: be gentle. In a manual, start in 2nd, if you have an automatic with 4WD/ AWD, put one foot on the brake, give it some gas (not too much) while gently releasing the brake.

    Advanced driving on snow: Controlled slipping can be more stable around corners, because a little wall of snow builds up on the sides of the tires and acts like a snowplough. Some cars require a jab on the brakes after turn-in to get them into a nice sideways slide, or use the handbrake. Many cars are more ‘honest’ and easier to predict with the traction control off.

    Needless to say, I love driving on the snow.

  • avatar

    Good concise write up.

    My favorite thing is to see piles of overly confident SUV’s and trucks in the ditch at the beginning of any snow storm. Or at least that was when the SUV craze was abound.

  • avatar

    I have to admit my Civic spun out a few times last winter here in Michigan. Once, I drifted into oncoming traffic and had the good sense to gun it and jump the curb into a parking lot rather than get T-boned by an oncoming F150.

  • avatar

    I have lived and driven in the Colorado mountains for thirty years.

    My observations . . . .

    The number one hazard is other drivers. When there is snow in the air and on the road, I absolutely count on, and am never disappointed, to have drivers do the stupidest, rudest things they would never do in normal, far safer conditions, primarily pulling right out in front of me. Snow accentuates (extremely) other driver’s quirks, aggressiveness, anger, inconsistency, over cautiousness, overall stupidity . . . you name it, snowy driving amplifies it.

    The number two hazard is visibility, when the wind blows dry powdery cold snow in intense concentrations such that the end of the hood of the car is not visible, that is a problem. Fortunately it is rare around here. Snow whipped up into the air by the vehicle ahead is another problem that is far more common, usually made worse by the fact the drivers will often speed up as much as 20 mph to keep you behind them.

    The third hazard is then the surface condition of the road, which for me is pretty much a non issue. The scariest is variable rutted slush. It destroys straight line stability with a combination of hydroplaning water and ice crystal content. Polished glare ice near the 32 degree range is the slickest of all possible conditions, and that deserves some serious slowing down, and again . . . winter tires are a huge advantage here.

    When I first got here in ’77 most vehicles were rear drive. Front drive Saabs and Subarus were the hip cars to have, some even had Jeeps with 4wd, the AMC Eagle 4wd was way ahead of its time, the Subie outback of its day. I got along just fine with RWD and FWD for 25 years. I’ll admit to 4WD superiority, but FWD with winter tires is a very close second. Rational skilled drivers adjust to their limitations.

    The fun of winter driving is that it is nearly always driving in the realm of 7/10ths to 11/10ths of the vehicle’s performance envelope, as compared to summer driving being consistently in the 1/10ths to 7/10ths range.

  • avatar

    Robstar :

    I know that in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland they are legal. I’ve always had studded winter tires.

  • avatar


    My only question would be, when were you there? I lived in Park City for about a year. Went down the hill to SLC and back up every day about 6 years ago. Seemingly everyone had at least one Subaru. There were almost never any accidents.

    The only thing that sucked about 6″ of snow/slush was climbing Parley’s Summit in a Porsche with 275 summer performance tires. (This was definatively NO fun)

    Install snow tires – boom. Easy livin’.

  • avatar
    Mirko Reinhardt

    If you have a crash in snow conditions with summer tires, will your insurance pay? Because where I live they sure as hell wouldn’t.

  • avatar

    A fine article. Only enhancement would have been links to a few youtube videos showing the skidding and sliding that can occur during winter driving.

    shows what happens in Portland OR. in 2007

  • avatar

    Oregon allows studded tires between November 1 and April 1 (unless the period is extended by the DMV). However, they encourage the use of chains or non-studded traction tires.

    Regarding the incidents in the Youtube video above: I know that particular intersection and what is not so apparent in the video is that those streets are quite steep. Those drivers should have known better. At least one of them was parked on that street and still got into his car and attempted to drive.

  • avatar

    Nice informative article. I used to practice yearly in parking lots to “readjust” but was hounded by a deputy sheriff last time. I was by no means being reckless, but I reckon I was lucky to be given a verbal warning after 3 other units showed up, a Highway Patrol unit and two city police officers. Granted, I’m in Ohio…

    I agree with the observation 4wd’s seem to be off in the ditches and ravines the most. I guess this makes sense because they seem to be the ones doing most of the passing or tailgating when roads are snowy/icy. I’ve only “ditched” my car once, it was more like “shouldering”. I got over for a dually on my lane and half country road and didn’t maintain enough speed. This is something I’d done many times, but this time the snow was especially wet and heavy. At least he pulled me out and wouldn’t accept any money!

    As true when driving anytime of the year, your biggest safety hazard is other drivers when the weather gets rough.

  • avatar

    I live in southern Maine, but I typically don’t bother with snow tires because I don’t drive very far. I usually test the road surface on my quiet street before I get out into busy traffic and have never had an accident in the winter. In my experience, just slowing down for the conditions and using engine braking along with actual brakes to stop works fairly well. I drive an A4 Jetta, and it’s pretty capable in snow. And yes, it’s always people in SUVs or 4×4 pickups that end up in the ditches first. Someone slid off the road in a Nissan Morono yesterday and now they’re in critical condition. Everyone is in a rush all the time, but people need to realize that you have to drive for the conditions! I speed when the roads are clear and dry, but when winter comes, I turn into grandpa.

  • avatar

    Ah winter driving, one of my favourite things to do. I grew up in a major snow belt (Southern New Brunswick) and learned to drive with a manual Subaru in the dead of winter. I’ve gone through many winters with a variety of vehicles, 4 wheel drive, all wheel drive, RWD with open diff, RWD with LSD, and a couple of front drivers. Here are some of my insights.

    No surprise, I too have seen the invincibility complex manifested among SUV and truck drivers. In fact I had a very sad conversation with a certain family member who drove an SUV. And was a soccer mom (shock!). I could not convince her, no matter how hard I tried, that 4 wheel drive makes no difference when it comes to stopping. I’m serious. She thought that somehow 4 wheel drive made a vehicle easier to stop in bad weather. This is what scares me most about winter driving, knowing that there are people out there who are oblivious to the dangers around them, and who could easily wipe me off the road with their hulking, unstoppable (literally) behemoth of a vehicle. There is a certain friend of mine who I will not ride shotgun with again during a blizzard for the same reason. Driving 60mph in white out conditions at night with ONLY the foglamps lit. I thought I was going to die that evening.

    Ignorance of safe driving extends to that other camp – dopey people in front drive econoboxes. The last time I hit a stretch of real, honest to goodness, neverending black ice, I was driving a rear-drive car with no TC. Within seconds of rolling over the ice, I knew what was happening. I immediately slowed to a crawl, eventually driving on the snowy shoulder because I had MORE GRIP IN THE SNOW than I did on the icy highway. But, surprise surprise, people in front drivers went whizzing by at normal speeds (60mph+). Without any real feedback (as in fishtailing) to tell them they were flirting with disaster, they kept on, blithly unaware. I soon overtook about a half dozen of them, driving 20mph on the snowy shoulder. Most had spun out and butted into the snowbanks, no harm done aside from a hard lesson learned. One, however (a Civic) had hit the snowbank at speed, done a barrel roll, and landed on its roof about 100 feet into a field. Within a few minutes a police escort arrive, blocked traffic and did a 20 mph rolling blockade until conditions improved (which was quite a while, for some reason that stretch of Quebec highway is especially prone to black ice along its entire length.)

    All season tires are the biggest scam ever put forward by tire companies. As we like to say up north, they sure do work for all four seasons – in Florida. DO NOT skimp on tires. Buy the best dang winter/ice grips you can afford. If you can’t, buy them used. If you can’t do that, park the car. Not only do winter tires help with traction and grip in cornering, they make a huge difference in stopping ability on snow (but not ice, on ice you are boned no matter what), which is their most important feature.

    Traction control is both a blessing and a curse in winter. It’s a blessing because it can save your bacon when you hit an unexpected patch of ice or snow (particularly in a rear driver) where otherwise you may have lost control. It’s a curse when you are trying to get traction off the line in really bad conditions. My technique is to shut off the TC when I start, feathering the throttle with quick jabs of varying speed. It’s not elegant, but it will get me through just about anything short of sheer ice. With the TC on, however, the car will simply cut back the power until it is not moving at all. When getting through bad patches of slush and snow, momentum is key, and TC slows you to a crawl at best, a dead stop at worst. When I say momentum, I mean within the conditions – obviously if there is a car or corner within a block of you, you don’t want to go plowing through the snow at speed.

    Practice is indeed the key to controlling a spinning car. If you drive, it will happen. If you drive in winter, it will happen weekly. Go to the parking lot, turn off the TC and stability control, and go nuts. You’ll soon learn the art of getting off the line with minimal wheelspin, opposite lock drifting, where your car’s snap oversteer point is, the dangers of off-throttle oversteer and on-throttle oversteer, understeer plowing and how to correct it, the magic of the handbrake when all else fails, and most importantly how to make a controlled stop when you start sliding (the secret is to learn how to turn and avoid obstacles while sliding to a stop – most of the time it’s easier to avoid than it is to stop in time). One of my favourite exercises is to do a rotating drift (not a donut) around a light pole, keeping the nose pointed towards the pole. With practice you can do it with a front driver, using the handbrake and left foor braking. It gives you a good sense of car control, with a goal in mind (rotate around the pole without hitting it) rather than aimless sliding. Always practice with the electonic aids OFF so you can get a feel for how the car actually behaves, without the screen of electronic safety nets (but leave them on when you are on the road, don’t be a hero). If you never practice, you will never know what to do when the shite hits the fan.

  • avatar

    Actually, the Tire Rack has shown that the latest studless snow tires are far better on ice and packed snow than studded tires.

    Or you could check out a more thorough test by people who actually know about winter traction (the Swedes) to see how the “studless” tires compare:

    The non-studded tires didn’t stand a chance. As for the Blizzaks, farligt means dangerous.

  • avatar

    To the studded tire fans out there – studs work GREAT on actual ice, but how often is the road actually icy? Even here on the coast of Maine, actual icy conditions are pretty rare. We usually have slushy, snowy conditions where studs have no advantage. Studs are awful on bare (wet or dry pavement, however! Scary bad in fact. Modern studless snowtires like Blizzaks or Graspics are just soo much better as all conditions winter tires. And the studded tires used in ice-racing would never, ever be driven on a paved road – they are more like 12″ spikes than studs.

    Personally, I prefer a well-balanced low-powered RWD car in the snow. Gives both a better feel for road conditions, and more options for controlling direction. I have a ’94 Volvo 945 and a ’95 Saab 900SE 3dr as daily drivers. On the same tires (Dunlop Graspics), I prefer the Volvo in the snow, though I will readily admit that the Saab could probably get through deeper snow without getting stuck.

  • avatar

    To the studded tire fans out there – studs work GREAT on actual ice, but how often is the road actually icy? Even here on the coast of Maine, actual icy conditions are pretty rare. We usually have slushy, snowy conditions where studs have no advantage. Studs are awful on bare (wet or dry pavement, however! Scary bad in fact.

    Most of my winter driving is on ice and snow. I don’t think you’ve ever driven on studded tires. If you had, you’d know they work fine on dry or wet pavement. Check out the link I provided. On the chart, the red lines indicate studded tires. Notice how well the studded tires perform in braking tests on wet asphalt (vat asfalt). Eight of the top ten tires in the wet asphalt braking test are studded versions. Tire Rack’s test of the cheapest studded tire they could find on one ice condition is not indicative of the performance of studded tires.

    I can understand why people in some warmer regions would prefer to run studless tires in the winter – there is some compromise involved with any type of tire – but don’t believe the exclusively North American marketing that they’re actually better in true winter conditions.

  • avatar

    Screw studs (no pun intended), we need to bring back chains.

  • avatar

    I love winter driving, it turns my FWD into a RWD in the corners. I can pretend anyways.

  • avatar

    Can anyone read the Swedish report. I wonder what made the Blizzak WS-50s so bad. I have these, while I don’t think they are as good as studs on ice, they are pretty good winter tire.

  • avatar

    I love storming through dry twisty roads, but I don’t understand the appeal of donuts and crazy oversteer. I hate winter driving. I just can’t stand the feeling of losing control. It all just feels really dangerous to me to play around in icy conditions.

  • avatar

    The Blizzaks WS-50’s winter performance was actually decent; middle of the pack for non-studded tires on most of the charts. The reason it was rated so low was that it did very poorly on dry asphalt during the stability test, scoring a 4/10 on the “moose test”.

    Here’s the translation from my somewhat Swedish friend:
    “The Blizzak column that is labelled Farligt! Says that Blizzak is so dangerous on asphalt that it was disqualified from the test. I’m missing too many words to get the rest of the column but the green arrow says Grip on snow and ice. For the red arrow – koregenskaper is how the car behaves in different situations.”

  • avatar

    That Swedish test really looks like we have been sold a load of marketing. I never bought the good as studs BS because I drove on studs and I have WS-50s and they are not as good as studs.

    But I at least thought they were the tops in unstudded winter tires (studs not legal here). But after getting them, they didn’t seem any better that Canadian Tire cheapies I had before.

    I have to try things once anyway. Next time I will look for some studies like this one or just get the cheapies again.

  • avatar
    Phil Ressler

    I started out winter driving in Pennsylvania piloting my Dad’s vast GM sedans, which were of course rear wheel drive, automatic, bias-plied, and powered by steamship torque. I did manage to get where I had to go without mishap by developing an acute sense of the car’s actual direction of travel relative to my steering input, and soft-shoeing every dynamic change.

    I then had some adventures regularly crossing the Alleghenies in avariety of vintage Jeeps, MGs and Triumph Spitfires, which were all highly controllable by virtue of the dynamic inputs from the chassis to my body’s sensors, otherwise known as the balls of my feet, my butt, my palms, my fingertips, and the scilia in my ears. I could sense a problem with my eyes closed and react, which was about the situation I was in more than once when snow came down too fast for wipers to clear, and no safe place to pull over. Noise, lack of sound insulation, the overall *immediacy* of those cars’ office environments encouraged alertness and fed a steady stream of analog data into my brain. I still don’t like my cars too insulating.

    Thousands of miles in dastardly, banana-oil-like, east coast cement falling from the sky failed to result in a mishap. I continued driving lightweight British sports cars through bitter winters in New England into the middle 1980s, often with the top down. A manual transmission and ability to find the right gear for every traction condition helped immensely. My Spitfires had electronic overdrive on a 4-speed stick. The O/D could be switched in for 3rd and 4th gears, for 6 distinct ratios, closely spaced. 3rd O/D was a dead-on perfect match for cruising in the slipperiest snow at a sustainably safe speed.

    I returned to powerful, V8, rear-drive cars after moving to California, with very little exposure to winter snows. But several years of being co-located in SoCal and NorCal, with regular drives up and down the state, put me in jeopardy on the Grapevine (traversing the Tehachapis via I-5) during intense winter storms over the Hump. All the old skills for sensory alertness, dynamic soft-shoeing and knowing my machine stood me in good stead, but one new weapon upped my game: While electronic traction control was welcome, the stellar addition was wrenching a Torsen differential into my modified SVT Cobras. If you have a car into which a Torsen fits, I give it highest recommedation for improving low-traction performance, and your car will feel more planted on dry pavement too. For anyone unfamiliar with it, a Torsen is an all-gear, purely-mechanical, torque-sensing, power distribution differential that sharply improves upon clutch-based limited slip. Best $500 I spent on each of those cars.


  • avatar

    Yea Winter !

    Sliding is fun for some, terror for others. I have a set of real winter tires on my RWD car and have no issues. (unlike the 4wd FX45 with all seasons that could NOT get up the driveway in Vermont).

    If you live where it snows, do yourself a huge enthusiast favor. Ditch the All seasons, buy a set of summer and a set of winter tires.

    You will never go back to “no seasons” again.

  • avatar

    Actually, the Tire Rack has shown that the latest studless snow tires are far better on ice and packed snow than studded tires.

    Cheap, badly designed or just obsolete tires usually perform poorly compared to more expensive or modern ones, studs or no studs.

    Proper studded tires such as Nokia Hakkapeliitta or Gislaved Nord Frost combine modern tire technology with studs. They have good performance in all conditions.

    Modern studless tires work usually at least as well in show, but ice is another thing: tests in Finnish Tekniikan Maailma magazine showed that stopping from 50 km/h with studded tires on ice takes approximately 50 meters, and studless tires take about 60 meters. The worst performers were Chinese tires with an incredible 190 meter stopping distance.

  • avatar
    Cyril Sneer

    “Lain brain”??

    For the record, if I never drive a FWD vehicle in the winter (or ever) again it will be too soon. The ONLY advantage they have over RWD is initial traction. The rest is disadvantage, all the way.

  • avatar

    To Garak. Yeah all the Scandinavian studies show the same thing. Studs rule on ice. This shouldn’t even enter into the discussion. If studs are legal where you are and you want the best, this is the way to go.

    The tirerack study is a farce. Using a straw man of a studded tire guaranteed to fail, to sell more expensive studless “ice” tires. Tirerack doesn’t even carry the best winter tires from Nokian or Gislaved.

    If I move back to a studs allowed region, I would get a good studded winter like a Hakka 5. They can’t be beat.

    As to fun versus terror. I get both. When I am driving around town in no hurry in no traffic, the sliding is fun. Speeds are low, recovery is easy.

    When I am on the highway trying to drive 1000kms before nightfall, it is terror. Speeds are higher, errors can be fatal.

  • avatar
    Chopper man

    I know your pain. I grew up in Utah and learned snow driving at 16. Then I moved to Seattle and experienced less snow. A move to Delaware got me used to freezing rain. Now I live in Port Aransas, Texas so forget about it! We had snow 4 years ago (they called it the Christmas Miracle around here but palm trees and snow don’t mix). I stayed home till it melted because Corpus Christians don’t have a clue about snow driving. At least the cosmos is balanced. One Texan to Utah, one Utahn to Texas. I’ve got the better end of the deal as you well know. As a bonus my snow driving is transferrable to sand driving on the beach. Good luck driving I-15 and Fruit Heights. The hill heading into Ogden is always fun too.

  • avatar

    When I was in my mid-late teens, my father worked at a facility that, for much of the year, had a mall-sized empty parking lot. Living in Eastern Canada, there was never a lack of snow and ice in winter. My Dad’s excellent driving advice, and his willingness to let me go nuts on that parking lot have provided me with invaluable driving winter driving experience. I know how to catch a slide, hold a drift, 360’s, etc, because of my time on that lot.

    If possible, when the snow is on the ground, take your car out to an industrial park, or any vacant lot, turn off all the electronic help, and learn how the car handles. It’ll pay off in spades.

  • avatar

    I have to disagree with part of your editorial William. “First and foremost are the right tires. On snow and ice, a good pair of snow tires can make even the worst rear wheel-drive (RWD) car a significantly more competent machine. Conversely, the most advanced all wheel-drive systems are rendered impotent with summer meats or worn treads”

    For the most part I agree, howeveer if you think any FWD, RWD or AWD vehicle should be just fine with only a pair of winter tires as opposed to four of the same….I suggest the following experiment: On a nice slippery, snow covered & icy evening – Put one winter boot on one foot & a plain running shoe on the other….then run. Just sayin.

  • avatar

    But at least a pair of winter tires on the rear of a RWD is an improvement in acceleration, braking, and stability compared to four all-seasons. A pair of winter tires only on the front of a FWD provides the same advantages, plus a few bonus spins for extra exciting winter driving!

  • avatar
    Michael Ayoub

    What’s snow?

  • avatar

    To rpn453 :

    Yes, I most assuredly have driven on studs, in fact at one point I owned two BMW e28 sedans. One was on studded snow tires because they came with the car when I bought it. The other on studless Dunlop Graspics. I will completely agree that studs are the bee’s knees on ICE. But they were DANGEROUS on dry pavement! No grip, ABS activating all the time, etc. And here (Portland Maine), 90%+ of the time in winter the roads are bare or just wet. We get a bunch of snow, they dump a ton of salt and and sand and they plow. Within a day or two the roads are bare. The advantage of studs on ice are far outwieghed by the disadvantage on dry pavement. I found that in non-icy loose or somewhat packed snow there was very little difference between the two. If I lived on top of a mountain I might have different priorities, but I still contend that studs have a very narrow band of usefulness. If it is so icy that studs really make a difference, get off the road. Some idiot in a 5000lb SUV with summer tires on dubs is just going to slide into you.

  • avatar

    It sounds like you did have some bad tires, krhodes1. Do you remember what brand they were? I wouldn’t blame the studs themselves for the poor performance.

    It’s too cold here (Saskatchewan) for salt to be effective, so they rarely use it (yay, no rust!). If I didn’t want to drive on ice, I’d have to park my car for the entire winter. Even my winter bicycle has studded tires (Continental SpikeClaw 240). I saw more dubs in one day in Houston than I’ve seen around here in my entire life!

  • avatar

    My 2008 Wrangler with brand-spanking new Bridgestone snow-tires and 4WD-Low will STILL spin out of control on icy patches in Montreal.

    It’s a fine line between getting to work and landing in a ditch, or worse. How the millions of FWD Echos and Cobalts do it everyday with worn-out snow tires is a mystery.

  • avatar

    Um…you’ll want to stay out of 4WD-Low. The idea of driving well on low-friction surfaces is to keep the torque way down. The “Lo” increases the torque at a given speed. For example, in “Hi” you may be running 1,000 revs at 5 mph in first gear (below the peak torque of the typical, long-stroke, OHV domestic engine). In “Lo” however, you may be running 2,500 rpm at 5mph and have a lot more torque, ergo, propensity to spin. Leave “Lo” for low-speed, high-torque applications…like stump pulling.

    Little FWD cars have it easy. Their engines don’t make a whole lot of torque, nor do they have transfer cases to increase torque at low operating speeds. Additionally their weight is generally concentrated over their driven wheels and their center of gravity is lower. That – and putting it “Lo” is why you see Jeeps, Blazers, Durangos…in the ditch as you motor by in your fwd econobox.

    Me, I’ll take my Subaru with Pirelli Sotto Zero ZR-rated snows.

Back to TopLeave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Recent Comments

  • Cactuar: Where else can you find misaligned trim pieces and panels? On a $50k 2018 Honda Odyssey. The Odyclub forum...
  • rudiger: A great article but there are a few minor corrections: -The 1968 Road Runner’s price was closer to...
  • rudiger: The 1968 black and white decals were really more of the fault of Dick Macadam. Macadam hated the whole idea...
  • rudiger: The whole “the Road Runner was Brock Yates idea” originated in a Car and Driver article (where,...
  • rudiger: Not really. Chrysler tried to keep the Road Runner’s price low, but it was tough with competition from...

New Car Research

Get a Free Dealer Quote


  • Contributors

  • Matthew Guy, Canada
  • Ronnie Schreiber, United States
  • Bozi Tatarevic, United States
  • Chris Tonn, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States
  • Mark Baruth, United States
  • Moderators

  • Adam Tonge, United States
  • Corey Lewis, United States