It's that time of year again: temperatures are falling, snow levels are rising, and you're hoping that you and your car will make it through to spring unscathed. Want to give yourself the best chance? Read on for the five tips we wish we'd received before venturing out onto those frozen roads for the first time.
Get the Right Tires
We'll start with a fact that will hopefully be news to nobody: summer tires just don't work in the winter! Shocking, right? But don't worry-you probably don't have summer tires on your car anyway. Summer tires, you see, use special rubber compounds that are meant to extract the best handling response from performance cars. They're a specialty item. The default choice for most cars is so-called "all-season" tires, and as the name suggests, they're a viable option in the winter.
But are they the best tire for winter driving? Well, no, because there are also dedicated snow tires that are designed solely for winter use. Even the best all-season tire can't touch a snow tire's traction in icy conditions. The question is whether they're worth the extra money. Can't you get by with all-seasons? Aren't they good enough?
Honestly, the answer depends on how harsh your winters are. If the roads in your area are generally clear or lightly dusted with snow, all-seasons are just fine. It's worth noting that snow tires are louder and less responsive on dry pavement, so you don't want to subject yourself to that unless you'll consistently reap the benefits. But if you know you'll be driving on snow-covered roads much of the time, snow tires can make a big difference-maybe the difference between having an accident and avoiding one. This is why drivers in snowy Japan are effectively required to install snow tires in the winter. Consider following suit if your winters are long and cold.
First of all, take care of your car. It needs good wipers; if you want to err on the side of caution, grab a new set every fall before the snow hits. It needs a full tank of windshield washer fluid with a winter-mix formulation, because winter windshields can get nasty in a hurry. And it needs to carry around a robust window scraper for when your windows frost up. Those are absolute essentials.
Also, if your vehicle is rear-wheel-drive, you may want to add some weight in the trunk or bed, since the drive wheels have superior traction when there's weight above them-and unless you drive a Porsche 911, there's no engine back there to serve this purpose.
But don't forget to take care of yourself, too. Sunglasses? Need 'em; glare off the snow is about the worst you'll ever encounter. Make sure you've got gloves handy in case you have to use that scraper. Don't wear enormous boots if you can help it, as you want your feet to be nimble on the pedals for changing road conditions. Your margin for error is a lot slimmer than usual when the roads are slick, so this stuff matters more than you might think.
Know Your Conditions
Here's a fun fact from the good folks at GMC's Winter Driving Team, who were kind enough to give us a little seminar recently: ice is actually slipperiest when the temperature is between 28 and 34 degrees. That's right-warm ice is slipperier than cold ice. No matter what the temperature, though, a number of factors can influence how slippery the road is. So don't make assumptions; test it out yourself. Of course, that doesn't mean slamming on the brakes in the middle of traffic, or actually ever, as a major braking event on a slick road can dangerously upset the chassis. But every now and then, especially when the temperature's changing or snow's falling, you should tap the brakes when it's safe to do so, and monitor the vehicle's responses. Better to find out before a treacherous situation than during it.
Know How to Get Yourself Unstuck
In slippery conditions, you might get stuck. Do you know what to do? Well, what you often end up doing is calling a tow truck, but in many cases it's worth trying to help yourself first. The trick here is to avoid flooring the accelerator and hoping that copious wheel spin will get the job done. In fact, it will just dig you into an even deeper hole. No, what you want is the "rocking chair" technique. See if you can get the car to move just an inch in either direction-try going forward first, and if that doesn't work, switch to reverse. Any movement? Good, then you can start up the rocking chair. Rock as far as you can in that initial direction, and then take your foot off the gas and let the car roll back. When the momentum swings back again, give it a little gas, then let up?and so on. With any luck, you'll get a nice rocking chair going, and eventually you'll rock your way right out of being stuck. It's the best option in a bad situation.
Buy a new car?
The reality is that if you take tips 1-4 to heart, you can make it through the winter behind the wheel of virtually anything. But we'd be remiss not to mention two desirable features that your vehicle may not have. The first is stability control, mandatory on all vehicles for the 2012 model year and standard on most even for 2011. Stability control combines traction control, which transfers power from the slipping wheel to the gripping wheel, with a computerized stability program that can even manipulate individual brakes to keep the vehicle heading where you're steering. It's a boon in winter driving, and it's nice to have on dry roads, too. The second is all-wheel drive-nothing new here, but it's no secret that four powered tires are better than two. Now, those of us who grew up in the Snow Belt made it through plenty of winters just fine without these features, but we'd certainly prefer to have them aboard. Something to think about next time you're in the market for a new car.