Driving In A Winter Wonderland

Ronnie Schreiber
by Ronnie Schreiber

I’ve never quite understood why snowstorms in winter are news, but I noticed Diane Sawyer talking about it on the evening news today so I guess if you live in the eastern half of North America, you’re probably experiencing some winter weather. Living in Michigan, where we discuss the finer points of materials science when it comes to snow shovels (my personal preference is laminated hardwood but those are no longer imported into America from Austria), dealing with snow is just part of life here. Now there are plenty of people around here who stay indoors when the snow emergency announcements start getting broadcast, lots of people hate driving in winter conditions, and I’ve had more than a couple of white knuckle experiences due to poor traction caused by snow or ice, but to be honest, I flat out love driving in snow. Do you?

Can you have more fun behind the wheel, legally, on the street, than when those streets are snow covered? While I admire the car handling skill of professional drifters, I’ve always thought that it’s a bit silly as a motorsport, but I have to admit that its fun to slide a car around. When else, on public roads, can you set up a corner in a front wheel drive car by getting it sideways, power understeer through the corner, then opposite lock to grab traction and get the car straight? I can think of few things more fun to do behind the wheel than drive a front wheel drive car in snow. Scratch that. Driving any wheel drive in snow is fun. I got my driver’s license when just about the only cars you could buy here with FWD were the Eldorado/Toronado cousins, Austin Minis and Fiat 128s, so I learned to drive in snow with big American rear wheel drive sedans. Since then, I’ve driven FWD, all wheel drive, and even a couple of ass-engined Vee Dubs, and I think that I’ve gotten stuck in the snow exactly three times. Scratch that. I’ve gotten stuck in snow once, when I got caught in a big snow drift driving on a not very snowy but quite windy night on a dirt road out to a friend’s farm in a ’74 Mercury Grand Marquis Brougham I’d borrowed from my dad.

The other two times weren’t really snow. On an Ann Arbor street I managed to park my VW bus with two of the wheels in a deep snow rut that had become solid ice and needed a tow truck to yank me out of the rut. The other time also involved ice, also in Ann Arbor as a matter of fact. I was on my way from the D to the Chicago Auto Show media preview in a Pontiac Bonneville SSE, nice car. I usually drive through the night when I go to the Chicago show and decided to stop at an all-night Kinkos/FedEx in A Squared to see if they had empty paper boxes that I could use for all the press kits and stuff. As I pulled into the lot I realized there was glare ice and had to drive very carefully. There was almost no coefficient of friction. Leaving the store, I went to make the left turn out of the lot onto the driveway and when I cranked the wheel, driving exceptionally slowly, the front wheels lost all traction and the car went on a perfect vector in the direction it had been traveling, which was straight at the curb at the edge of the parking lot, which itself was next to a drainage culvert. The outside front wheel went over the curb. The car came to a stop before the other front wheel went completely over the curb, but when I got out to see why I couldn’t move, I saw that the front right wheel was hanging in mid air over the culvert. Without a limited slip differential, I wasn’t going anywhere. I went back into the store and some people came out to try and help, but nobody had any rope. Then I leaned on the car and noticed that it was so icy the car moved a little. We ended up just sliding the car on the ice back to where the free wheel could get purchase on the edge of the culvert, I put it in reverse, backed up over the curb, thanked them, and got on my way. Down I-94 I kept asking myself, “Did that really happen?”

Other than that, never been stuck in the winter. Maybe it’s because I don’t trust my skills from year to year and every year after the first significant snowfall, I drive over to an empty parking lot and relearn how to drive in snow. Also, my brain, inner ear and tuchas communicate well with each other so I can usually tell when the tires lose traction and the car starts to dance. More than once I’ve backed it down on the interstate in winter conditions only to come across a bunch of cars that had gone off of the road. Can’t those people feel the front or rear end start to dance? Once I sharpen the skills, I have a great time driving in the winter. Heck, I even did a couple of handbrake turns today.

So how do you feel about winter driving? What’s the worst thing that’s happened to you when driving in slippery winter conditions? Do you enjoy it and play rally driver, or do you grit your teeth and white knuckle through it?

Ronnie Schreiber edits Cars In Depth, a realistic perspective on cars & car culture and the original 3D car site. If you found this post worthwhile, you can get a parallax view at Cars In Depth. If the 3D thing freaks you out, don’t worry, all the photo and video players in use at the site have mono options. Thanks for reading – RJS

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3 of 85 comments
  • Indi500fan Indi500fan on Jan 04, 2014

    FWD has certainly taken most of the fun out of winter driving (except possibly for the few who enjoy tire shredding understeer). One of my best winter cars was a Jeep Cherokee with manual t-case. You could drive it like Steve Kinser at Eldora, and if you screwed up and beached it, drop into 4wd and motor out.

    • Chaparral Chaparral on Jan 05, 2014

      If you don't like FWD in the snow, then you haven't discovered the joys of the handbrake.

  • El scotto El scotto on Jan 05, 2014

    -Sighs- Seeing the normal level of SUV drivers are idiots snark. Some SUV drivers completely understand that 4WD go does not mean 4WD stop. Some of us used to drive 4WD pickups. In days of yore we had to come to a complete stop, get out and lock the hubs in, get back in the tuck and shift the transfer case. SUVs are always the 1st vehicles I see in the ditch!!!! Always!!!! Yeah, sure.

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