Here in Southwestern Ontario we have experienced some serious winter weather, including tons of snow, minus 20+ degree temperatures and all of the resulting complications. Being hearty Canadians though, we throw on our parkas, lace up our insulated boots, cover as much exposed skin as possible and venture out into these wild winter conditions for work, food and, of course, shoveling. Luckily, as people, we can bundle up to cope with the severe cold and generally miserable environment the Great White North throws at us from October to April. But what can we do for our cars?
Preparing for winter driving can be quite daunting, especially if you're typically faced with a long winter season. However, it is probably the most crucial thing you can do, especially if you have to drive a lot. It may help to break it down into a few main areas:
1. Maintenance - Make sure you're car is running in tip top shape, including keeping your fluids topped up!
2. Fuel - Try to always have at least a half tank of gas before you go anywhere, never go under a quarter.
3. Phone - Keep it charged, you never know when you may need to call for help!
4. First Aid - Include extra blankets and anything else to keep you warm... also some emergency rations!
5. Snow tires - Get them, end of story! (more on this below)
For more in-depth information on preparing for winter driving, check out this How Stuff Works article.
It amazes me, and hopefully it amazes you, that some people still think that all-season tires are a perfectly suitable substitute for winter tires. Ok, I'll admit if you are living in an area that experiences very limited amounts of snow and ice, sure you'd probably be totally fine with some good quality all-seasons. However, for those of us that experience proper snow and cold, winter tires are the only way to go.
The typical excuse I hear from people that have yet to succumb to the snow tire Kool-Aid is that as long as their all-seasons have decent tread, they'll be just as good as snows. I'm afraid that tread, although good for grip in most driving situations, isn't the whole story when it comes to winter tire design. Snow tires are designed to provide maximum grip on snow and ice, this includes deeper treads and increased numbers of sipes (those squiggly creases in the tread block). They also typically have squared off tread edges where the tread meets the wall, as opposed to rounded edges on other tires, which allows for more uniform grip.
Most importantly though, winter tires use special rubber compounds that are designed to stay softer in colder climates. As the temperature drops, rubber hardens. The harder the rubber, the less grip your tire has. Snow tires are designed to resist this, and therefore provide superior grip when the mercury drops.
Check out these links for some more winter tire info:
Automobile Journalists Association of Canada article on Winter Tires vs All-Seasons by Richard Russell.
Tire Rack tire test showing the superior traction of winter tires.
Auto123.com primer on winter tires.
Road and Track supporting my arguments in this article about why you need winter tires.
Some cars handle better in winter conditions than others because of what wheels are used to put power to the pavement. Most people consider rear-wheel-drive (RWD) cars the worst in winter conditions. This is because the rear-end can kick out if traction is lost, especially if there is a disproportionate lack of weight over the rear wheels, especially during increases in speed or when driving up slippery hills. This doesn't mean that RWD is impossible in the snow, it just means some extra care needs to be taken when accelerating.
Front-wheel-drive (FWD) cars typically offer more traction than RWD because the engine, and therefore most of the weight, sits over the drive wheels. Also, the car is essentially pulled along as you drive rather than being pushed. This effectively reduces the risk of spinning-out because the drive wheels are already in front of the car. Therefore, they wont whip the car around when they break loose.
All-wheel-drive (AWD) cars are usually favoured when having to drive in winter weather. In this configuration power goes to all wheels and is often adjusted by computers to put spin on the wheels that need it the most (the ones with grip) in slippery situations. Of course, these cars are typically heavier and get worse fuel economy than their FWD or RWD counterparts, but that is usually outweighed by superior traction and improved handling.
Here is a Yahoo Autos article and video comparing FWD and AWD systems. It provides a more detailed explanation of what I'm talking about.
Drive Type vs Tires
If you had to choose one thing for winter driving, AWD or snow tires, I would suggest going the snow tire route. Although AWD can provide superior handling in winter conditions, it wont do any good if your tires can't get any grip to take advantage of that superior handling. You'll still just be spinning your tires. An illustration of what I mean can be found in this video produced by the good folks at TFLCar. It's important that you don't look at this video as a comparison of the two vehicles showcased! In that respect, the video falls a little flat. But as an illustration of how the different types of tires can provide different amounts of grip in snow and ice, it's perfect.
There are lots of things you can do to make sure you're as safe as possible when driving in the snow. Make sure your car is adequately prepared, get some snow tires and, if possible, choose a drive configuration that will optimize traction and handling in the cold, terrible winter weather. Obviously, we can't all go out and get that perfect winter driver, but doing some of the things listed in this post is better than doing none of them. It could just save your life!
And a final link: this is quite possibly the only vehicle that can reasonably forgo an air conditioning option.