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Top Features for Winter Driving

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author photo by Jeffrey Archer November 2012

With temperatures dropping and days getting shorter, car owners in cold climates will soon be driving in inclement weather. Our latest list examines some of the top automotive technology that will make winter driving a breeze, from comfort options that keep occupants warm to safety features that will help keep drivers going in the right direction.

All-Season or Winter Tires

While many drivers don't pay much attention to tires, they can be among the most important items installed on a vehicle to ensure a safe driving experience in winter weather. The best choice for snow and ice is purpose-designed winter tires, which are created specifically for use in the white stuff--but for drivers who don't live in an area that gets enough snow to justify keeping a set of winter tires in the garage, we also recommend high-quality all-seasons. Either way, drivers with worn tires or high-performance summer tires will wish they had better rubber with winter on its way.

All-Wheel Drive

It may seem obvious, but all- or 4-wheel drive is a tremendous feature for keeping drivers safe in the winter. While front- or rear-wheel drive cars only have the benefit of two drive wheels, all-wheel drive vehicles distribute power to each wheel, improving traction and stability. Sophisticated systems even cut power from wheels that are slipping and transfer it to wheels with traction, allowing drivers to continue safely even on the iciest of roads. Our only caution is that all-wheel drive provides no extra help when braking, meaning that even drivers of the most capable SUVs must exercise caution when slowing down in inclement weather.

Anti-Lock Braking System

Even budget-minded drivers looking for a new car that can tackle snow and ice should make sure their next purchase contains anti-lock brakes. While traditional braking systems will lock tires in wet or icy conditions, thus causing dangerous skids, anti-lock braking technology instead quickly pumps the brakes. This means that the brakes won't lock up even on the iciest roads. While it's rare that most drivers will ever need to use anti-lock brakes, the technology can save lives when drivers really need to stop. We especially suggest searching for a car with electronic brake force distribution, which can determine exactly which wheels are slipping and which are on dry pavement.

Engine Block Heater

Although most drivers will never use it--or even know what it is--an engine block heater is a virtual requirement in some of today's colder northern climates. In those areas, drivers can plug in their block heater overnight to keep their engines warm. That keeps oil thin and ensures it won't turn to sludge when the car is started the next morning. If you live in a cold climate and could use an engine block heater, we strongly recommend asking your dealership about it before your next purchase. Many automakers offer it as an inexpensive option on their vehicles.

Heated Seats

They won't save your life or keep you on the road, but heated seats are a must-have feature for drivers in cold climates. Once available solely on high-end luxury cars, heated seats are now rapidly expanding in availability. Today, dozens of different car models have them--and some even offer the feature for rear passengers, providing all vehicle occupants with a reprieve from the cold. Northern drivers will also want heated seats for future resale value, as both dealers and used-car shoppers will insist on having them when it comes time for a new car.

Remote Starter

Like heated seats, a remote starter won't help drivers stay on the road during the worst of the winter - but it will sure do its part to enhance comfort. While it can be difficult to get in a cold car on a winter morning, a remote engine starter can begin the warming process--and turn on the heated seats--sooner than ever before. Best of all, many automakers offer the option from the factory, meaning it can be fitted by the automaker and warrantied if it breaks. But we strongly suggest drivers don't use the feature if they can't keep an eye on their car, since it becomes an easy target for thieves if left unattended.

Stability Control

We highly recommend traction control for winter driving, but we have even greater faith in stability control. While traction control monitors driven wheels to ensure none are slipping, stability control adds yaw sensors to detect sideways motion. That means the system will kick in when drivers start sliding in difficult icy conditions, bringing them back to a straight heading. Our only caveat is this: Drivers who do find themselves stuck may consider turning off traction control, since the system is designed to prevent wheels from spinning. With traction control on, a stuck vehicle is likely to transmit no power to its wheels, thus failing to aid drivers trying to rock their vehicle back and forth to gain momentum.

What it means to you: Although winter driving may seem daunting, shoppers who choose a vehicle with some of the features and options we recommend will have an easier time cruising through the snow.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
Top Features for Winter Driving - Autotrader