Snow Fooling: What We Learned Playing in the Powder
As a lifelong Snow Belter, I’ve long considered myself a fairly good snow driver – and I’ve long understood the need for winter tires, even over all-seasons in some cases. A recent trip to the ski town of Steamboat Springs, Colorado, courtesy of Bridgestone, confirmed some of what I already knew – and taught me some new things in the process.
For example, one can be a pretty good snow driver, and yet be pretty far from excellent. More on that in a bit.
(Full disclosure: Bridgestone paid for my flight, lodging, and meals. The company offered a very nice winter coat that I declined. This event is completely separate from the tire giveaway we did in January, though some of the same people from both Bridgestone and TTAC worked on both projects.)
Bridgestone has a winter-driving school set up just outside of Steamboat Springs, and you, too, can attend, if you can swing the tuition (airfare and lodging not included). You must, of course, attend during the winter months, for obvious reasons. During the summer, the test track turns into farmland.
Pricing, if you are wondering, starts around $300.
Normally Bridgestone uses Toyotas to train customers – from novice to expert, from Sun Belt resident to Steamboat ski bunny – on how best to drive on ice and snow. Corollas, Camrys, and 4Runners, I was told. For this week, though, we’d be hopping into Acura MDXs and NSXs. Yes, you read that right. Six-figure sports cars with all-wheel drive.
We ran through several exercises in car control. There was a skidpad, to help us play with under- and oversteer. We did a lane-change exercise, and also an exercise that helped us focus on braking in a straight line, before turning, so that we could corner without the brakes or throttle engaged (we’ll get into the “why” further down in this piece).
We also “hot lapped” an 11-turn track (that included part of the skidpad) that had a surface of snow and ice – and hard-packed snowbanks serving as the barrier walls. Goal number one – don’t tag a snowbank.
Thankfully, I did not, though I came close once or twice. Nor did anyone else tag one, that I know of. Though an instructor spun an NSX during demo laps performed at the end of the day – laps that gave us a chance to ride right-seat and see how the pros handled the track.
The whole purpose of our playing in the snow was multi-fold: Improve car-control techniques and also compare all-season tires to winters. As well as see how proper footwear can help even a supercar in the snow. And, of course, all the rubber was from Bridgestone, so if the brand could convince us scribes that its tires are the best, well, so much the better for them.
I won’t go as far as to say that. Not only because we at TTAC are not shills (no matter how much of some of y’all think we are) but also because there was no competing brand on hand for comparison.
What I will say is this – even if you have years of experience driving in snow and think you handle it well, a school like this will help you. It doesn’t have to be Bridgestone’s school – a quick Google shows there are other winter-driving schools out there, including from the famed Skip Barber school. There’s one at the Road America racetrack in Wisconsin, as well. Similarly, I also walked away understanding that while all-season tires can get the job done, winter tires are probably going to be better.
No shit, Sherlock, I know. But it’s one thing to know something, and another to actually experience it.
The biggest thing that I learned when it comes to snow driving is something I already sort of knew but had never really articulated: Road conditions change constantly when there is snow or ice on them, and one must constantly adjust his or her driving line. I’ve done this for years, automatically, without realizing it, and it makes sense when you actually sit down and think it through.
When you get on a track and find that as the sun hits and the temperature changes, and as other cars traverse the ground before you do, the line changes. Completely. You need to change where you place the car, your speed, your braking points, maybe even the turn-in – everything.
I admit that I struggled with this a bit. I went out slow to get a feel for the track and got in a groove, and then things started going a bit sideways (mostly figuratively, a little bit literally). There were two reasons why my later laps weren’t as smooth as my earlier ones.
Reason number one is I got a bit overconfident and started driving faster. This may sound counterintuitive, but slowing down would have led to smoother laps – and if they’d have been timed, ones with faster times. Going too fast and/or braking too late led to slides, and while I was able to rein them in, slides still cost speed (and time). The penalty for going too fast on the straightaway – for those wondering, my drive partner and I saw speeds in the 50s, one journo claimed to hit 60 – was either a slide or a bad line or both through the next corner.
Indeed, the closest I came to stuffing a car occurred in the first turn after the main straight – arguably the easiest turn – because I came in a bit hot, braked late, and started to understeer. Eventually, I slowed enough that the rear end came around as I released the brakes.
Remember how I referenced the exercise that focused on braking before turning and being off the brakes while cornering (which we actually did near the day’s end)? It’s a reminder that asking the car to turn while under braking or throttle can end up asking too much of it. Yes, there are exceptions for trail-braking and for accelerating out of corners, but some of that stuff is best suited for dry pavement. Slick surfaces are different.
In this case, releasing the brakes helped the car turn. Indeed, at times, a judicious application of throttle could induce oversteer and help bring the car – these MDXs had Acura’s SH-AWD all-wheel-drive system – around.
The other thing that killed my lapping is that I let myself get locked into a mentality of trying to brake and turn-in at the same spot each lap. This is ideal on a dry track, but not in the snow and ice. Indeed, early on, I was doing fairly well as I moved the car over a foot or two to get more grip. But for whatever reason (probably just lack of familiarity with the track), I let myself lock in on certain markers for braking and turn in, staying with them even as the surface changed. This caused me to slide around more and to lose speed. Lesson learned – be flexible with car placement when driving on curvy roads covered in snow and ice. And slow down. And brake earlier.
The point of the previous few paragraphs isn’t to point out what I did or didn’t do well, but rather to show how doing X can lead to result Y. Slow down, adjust your line, brake earlier, be smooth on the controls and you’ll be a better winter driver, whether just commuting on a snow-covered back road or doing some winter racing on a closed course.
Drive like it’s dry, and you’ll be sliding – or worse.
Snow Tires Vs. All-Seasons
After lunch, I took the Acura NSX around with a right-side rider. Shod with Bridgestone Potenzas (RE980AS+, to be exact), the AWD NSX handled the snow just fine, and it was fun getting the rear end to step out into controlled slides with the right application of the throttle on corner exit.
Just a reminder – the NSX uses two electric motors at the front, motors that independently drive the left and right wheels, as part of its Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) system.
It was pretty easy to drive the NSX in the snow – just brake at the right time, let off, turn in, then slowly get on the gas, and use a little extra throttle to summon oversteer if need be.
Fun, but not the instructive part of the day. What I found most useful was the comparison of MDXs shod with Alenza AS Ultras versus those shoed with Blizzak DM-V2s. It wasn’t hard to predict that the Blizzaks would offer a lot more grip, which resulted in shorter braking distances, easier cornering, and less sliding. Yet it was still illustrative to see the difference between true snow tires and all-seasons. The vehicles shed with the Alenzas were just more of a handful during braking and cornering, and there was a lot more sliding around.
Again, this isn’t to suggest the Bridgestone tires are better or worse than the competition – there was no competitive set on hand for comparison. I can’t tell you if the Blizzaks are better or worse than what Michelin or Goodyear offers. I can tell you that if you plan on driving on snowy surfaces a lot, you probably should consider investing in snows from someone. Though all-seasons will still be better than summers or three-seasons.
On the way home, I kept thinking about what I truly learned. I knew how understeer and oversteer worked already – I learned that before I ever drove a car. I already knew that asking your car to do 100 percent of any one thing at any one time – be it braking, turning, or accelerating – tends to lead to trouble. And I understood intuitively, even if I’d never thought too deeply about it before, that one must adjust for driving in the snow and ice.
I also knew a correctly timed gentle application of oversteer can sometimes help you get around a turn, and snow tires are better suited for this kind of surface than all-seasons.
Yet I still learned some things. Or, at least, I gained real-world experience that confirmed what I knew intellectually. It’s still instructive to spend time working on wheel placement/braking point/turn-in point in a controlled setting like this. It’s still instructive to actually see and feel the difference between snow tires and all-season rubber instead of looking at specs on a chart.
If you can, take a winter driving class, whether through Bridgestone or someone else. And if your commute and/or vehicle type demands you consider snow tires, definitely do so.
Playing in the snow is fun. Knowing how to keep safe when driving in it is even better.
[Images © 2022 Tim Healey/TTAC]
Tele Vision on Feb 09, 2022
I run the General Grabber AT2s on my truck. They're seven years old and only now need rotating. They are utter pucks on hard pack and ice but great on snowy gravel and loose pack. I occasionally need to punch through 2' foot drifts on the way to work ( to plow said drifts with a 160M ) and they perform admirably. CDN$1150 all in seven years ago and they're not even half-worn yet. A burning issue around here is the use of 4X4 in trucks. Some guys use 4X4 to get out of trouble. Other guys use 4X4 to stay out of trouble. I'm in the latter camp.
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