Here’s a crusty Yankee's tips for winter driving
This morning I walked out of the house to a few inches of snow and ice on the road, and a big-ass Dodge Ram diesel to drive. But my normal ride is a 1996 Buick Roadmaster Wagon, shod with four Glacier Grip snow tires. In 25 years of New England driving and over 30 cars, I’ve only had one front wheel drive car, and one four-wheel drive vehicle. A lot of us grew up with rear drive, and once you get it figured out, it makes driving in the snow something you look forward to, rather than dreading. In short– the notion of FWD and AWD supremacy in the snow is a myth.
All-wheel drive is nice to have, but is by no means mandatory. The most legendary snowstorm around these parts came on February 6, 1978. We know it as the Blizzard of ’78, and it absolutely paralyzed the region for about four days. My dad drove home in the heart of it. He was driving a two-year-old Camaro with bias-belted snow tires.
As an indicator of just how prevalent rear-wheel drive was prior to the 1980s, I always like to look at the “Carspotting” photos on the Hemmings Blog. Occasionally, Dan Strohl picks one out from the Vermont Landscape Change Program archives, showing a photo of a parking lot in mid-winter Vermont. Invariably, the largest percentage of cars in the Green Mountain State – which gets snow from November clear through to April – are rear-drive sedans and coupes. You can pick out a handful of trucks, but most are rear-drive.
So if people managed to get around in the winter in the 1960s, when tire technology was nowhere near what it is now, how come everybody stays home now? The answer is experience. Here’s a crusty Yankee’s tips for winter driving:
"All-Season Tires" are BS. More than anything else, a dedicated set of snow tires will inspire incredible confidence in the snow. Tires like the Bridgestone Blizzaks like on some Porsches are good, but they’re a soft-compound winter tire that’s better suited to icy conditions than snow. There are true “snow” tires with aggressive tread patterns that will cut through the powdery stuff when it gets deep.
For a number of years, my wife owned a BMW 318ti, and then a BMW 528it wagon. Both rear drive, both manual transmissions. We lived about two miles in on an unpaved, infrequently plowed road in the town of Shaftsbury, Vermont. With four snow tires, both of those cars drove through the snow better than either my Saab 900, or the VW Jetta wagon my wife owned between the two BMWs. The only issue she’d occasionally run into is the cars getting hung up on deep ruts once the snow got to beyond eight inches or so.
When you’re picking out snow tires, consider buying a set of wheels while you’re at it. Any tire retailer will be able to set you up with a set of wheels that you can keep your snow tires mounted on. It will help them last longer, and make spring and fall swaps a lot easier. You can also buy a smaller set of tires, both in diameter and width, that will give you added bite in the snow and ice. Narrower is always better. Go easy on the gas
Every old Yankee’s dad gave the same bit of advice: “Drive like there’s an egg under the gas pedal.” Judicious application of the throttle will result in less wheelspin, and therefore, better traction when leaving an intersection. Now that ABS is more or less universal, you can lay on the brake pedal as hard as you like, but if you’re driving something older, you want to remember to brake right to the threshold of slipping and then let off momentarily to regain traction.
People tend to freak out with the slightest wag of the tail on any vehicle in the snow, rear drive or not. You’ve got to learn what the car’s going to do when you step on the gas or the brake, learn how to manage a skid, and correct that errant behavior without even having to think about it. Traction control and stability control is all well and good, but learning to control the car yourself is better. The only way to do it is to put some miles under your belt when it’s actually snowing. You can do it on your own in a snowy parking lot, or you can sign up with the pros for better instruction.
Image Sources: Vermont Landscape Change Program, NissanClub.com