One of the most challenging situations a motorist can face is driving in snowy and icy conditions yet according to the Gov.UK website: ‘Driving tests are not carried out in dangerous weather conditions, such as when the roads are icy or if there’s flooding, thick fog or high winds.’ Then they wonder why there are so many accidents on our roads during winter.
Unless you enrol for an advanced driving course (or do your driving test in Finland) you may not know how your vehicle will respond in these conditions until it is too late.
It is true that the modern motor car is far safer than vehicles from a decade or two ago but when all is said and done, you still have four patches of rubber connecting you to the road and when the limits of grip are exceeded it is a good idea to know a little bit about what will happen next.
While these limits can vary from car to car, regardless of whether you are in a budget hatchback or the latest supercar, the same rules apply. In this feature, we take a look at the factors that affect a car’s behavior when it is accelerating, braking or turning in inclement weather conditions. You may still need to attend an advanced drivers’ course to hone your skills but at least you will have a better idea of how your car will respond when the roads get treacherous.
Sending power to the front wheels is the cheapest and hence the most common layout you will find. It allows for a more spacious cabin seeing as there is no need for a driveshaft to run down the centre of the car and the transverse engine layout most commonly used with FWD vehicles also allows for a shorter engine bay.
A slippery surface can have the steering wheel pulling to one side as individual wheels scrabble for grip, accelerating through a corner too quickly will also have the nose of the car heading to the outside of the bend. Both situations can be remedied by easing off the throttle, something most drivers do by instinct. It is worth noting though that modern performance FWD cars tend to be far more polished than their predecessors.
Snow Fun Factor: Low but at least you will get there in one piece
The enthusiast’s choice when the skies and roads are clear is also the most challenging layout when the weather sets in.
Sliding around sideways at every junction may look cool on TV but it is less appealing in morning traffic with your kids in the back.
Thanks to advances in chassis and suspension technology, modern RWD cars are far less tail happy than their predecessors but if you tramp down on the loud pedal in the snow you better know what you are doing.
Snow Fun Factor: High with a good chance of ending up in a muddy ditch
Accelerating on slippery surfaces in an all-wheel-drive vehicle will result in the least amount of slip compared to FWD and RWD cars. However, despite what Audi and Subaru fans will tell you, cornering and braking performance is no better in AWD vehicles.
That depends purely on the grip available from the tyres, if you are attempting to accelerate through a corner then that is a different story. In that case an AWD vehicle will scrabble around a slippery bend at higher speeds than a comparable FWD or RWD vehicle.
For the average motorist, the benefit of being able to pull off without setting the wheels spinning in adverse weather conditions is what matters most.
Snow Fun Factor: High, but don’t get too overconfident
ABS: Stopping in time
Driver assist systems all try to keep a car heading in the driver’s intended direction, ABS was the first such device to be fitted to mass production cars and it essentially applies and releases the brake pads electronically just below the limits of grip to keep the car stable under braking.
You have to really step on the pedal to activate it, which few motorists do and that is why most manufacturers offer a brake assist system that detects your intentions and adds additional pressure to the brake pedal.
Not many people know this but you can also steer your vehicle out of harm’s way while the ABS is active.
Traction control: Getting off the line
Traction control systems attempt to apply the brakes or limit engine power to stop individual wheels from spinning, this will help you retain traction when pulling off from a set of lights, but the intervention of the system can feel unnatural depending on how advanced it is and how slippery the road surface is.
Stability Control: Go where you point it
Stability control is essentially traction control for when the vehicle is in motion. If you attempt to accelerate or turn too aggressively for the prevailing road conditions, the system will cut the power to avoid a skid or slide from occurring.
None of these devices can overcome the laws of nature so driving sensibly is still the best way to avoid ending up in a tree.
Tyres: tread and width
In dry conditions on smooth tar the wider your tyre the more grip you will have. This is not necessarily true when driving in thick snow or on ice.
In snow you want a narrower tyre that will more easily sink down through to the road instead of compressing the snow underneath it.
A deep tyre tread is also crucial in maintaining traction in snow or mud, snow tyres offer much-improved grip when the going gets tough.
In extreme weather conditions the best thing is to slow right down or equip your car with snow chains or tyres that have studs embedded into the tread pattern.
Whereas on dry roads you would have to push beyond legal speeds to get anywhere near your car’s limits, snowy and icy roads can drastically lower the velocities where you start to slip and slide about.
Knowing what drivetrain layout and safety systems your car has is the first step in knowing what will happen and how to stay in control when things start getting hairy. Of course, not even the most advanced vehicle on the planet can overcome reckless driving or a complete disregard for the prevailing road conditions.
That is why the driver remains the most important component in the equation.