Winter's Cold Lessons

David Zenlea Patrick M Hoey
David Zenlea Winter Driving Column

My friend wanted to know my impressions of the 2014 BMW X5 I’d briefly driven the night before. Did it have enough power? How did it handle?

“The steering wheel’s heating element didn’t work,” I responded.

Ah, winter. It’s a trying time for car enthusiasts and reviewers, not to mention the cars themselves. It means months without full-throttle acceleration or hard cornering, frost heaves that pound wheels and spines, grime and ice that renders a shiny new car Rust Belt brown, and freezing temperatures that turn tires and suspension bushings rock hard.

My winter has been an especially long and snowy one. It started back in early November, driving a 2014 Subaru XV Crosstrek Hybrid in Iceland, and then continued with a Thanksgiving trip through Canada in a 2013 Cadillac ATS. I hate scraping windshields (as my boss once discovered), and I hate fumbling for my keys with gloved hands. Waiting for the cabin to warm in the morning is, quite possibly, the most miserable five minutes of my pampered, white-collar life. I’m ready for spring.

That said, winter ultimately makes us better, more knowledgeable car enthusiasts. Here are a few of its lessons:

Washing a car isn’t just for you; it’s also for your car.

Everyone likes washing the car during the spring and summer. You get to spend an hour or so outside in the sun and then get to drive a sparkling clean car for the next week. Washing a car in winter, in contrast, seems a futile if not masochistic act—risk getting frozen like Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic in order for your car to get filthy again in about five minutes.

The irony is that now is the time when washing matters most. Salt, ice, and sand creep into every crevice and slowly but surely eat your car. “By spring, sometimes, it’s almost too late,” says Mike Pennington, director of training and consumer relations at Meguiar’s. Pennington recommends visiting self-serve car washes during the winter. Stay away from brushes, which can scratch your paint. “You’re not washing it for beautification,” Pennington notes. Instead, use the spray wand to clear off the grime, focusing on the wheel wells and undercarriage, where salt and snow build up and do the most long-term damage.

All-season tires are kind of a scam.

The Rubber Manufacturers Association says a tire wearing a mud-and-snow designation, as most all-season tires do, must have notches on the shoulder and voids (gaps between tread blocks) comprising at least 25 percent of the tread. And that’s basically it. “There is no criteria based on capability,” says Woody Rogers, a product information specialist at Tire Rack. There’s also no criteria for tire compound, which, according to Rogers, has a huge impact on cold-weather traction. In the subzero temperatures that much of the country is experiencing this week, many all-season tires are reaching their “glass transition point.”

The vague nature of “all-season” becomes even more of an issue as tire manufacturers, at automakers’ request, look for ways to improve fuel economy and dry-weather handling of original-equipment tires. “A couple of those [strategies] come in direct conflict to snow performance,” says Rogers, pointing, for instance, at the shallow tread depth of many low-rolling-resistance tires. Performance all-seasons, like the Goodyear RS-As on the 2014 Chevrolet Malibu I drove this week, likewise trade off all-weather capability in the name of dry-weather handling.

But summer tires are even worse.

Even in the dead of winter, we occasionally get test cars wearing summer performance tires, like this 2014 BMW 428i. They generally don’t go very far.

There’s no surface that should not be heated.

“In my ten winters of driving test cars, BMWs have had hottest heated seats,” says copy editor Rusty Blackwell, our resident seat-heater savant. (He once bought a special heat-sensing gun in an effort to measure the temperature of various seats.) Mazda Miatas also have scorching seats. Best of all,but somewhat rare, are heated cloth seats, like those offered in the Volkswagen GTI.

Almost as important as the temperature of heated seats are the controls. Hard switches will stay on rather than resetting with every vehicle start.Two settings are a must; three or more are even better. General Motors pickups remain the gold standard—they have separate buttons for the seat bottom and the seat back, each with multiple heat settings. Cursed be cars that bury such controls in a touchscreen. Chrysler vehicles equipped with touchscreens thoughtfully flash the heated-seat icons upon startup.

One must also consider the number of surfaces that are heated.

Mercedes-Benz, probably the industry leader in heating things you never thought needed heating, offers heated armrests (both center and door) on the 2014 S-class. All of the brand’s convertibles can be purchased with a headrest ventilation system, “Airscarf,” that warms your neck. But even the rest of us can attain heated front and rear seats, as offered in the Kia Forte.Steering-wheel heat is also critical. Just make sure the whole rim gets warm rather than just a few spots.

Traction control keeps your wheels from spinning. Stability control keeps your car from spinning.

Many drivers and even some manufacturers conflate traction control and stability control. The former keeps your wheels from spinning under power. Stability control, also working through the brakes, limits understeer and oversteer.

This difference becomes critical on cold, snowy days like the ones we’ve been having. Traction control can hinder rather than help in snow, bogging down the drive wheels. If you’re driving in snow and are having trouble getting moving, you might turn off traction control. Stability control will save your car a dozen times without you even realizing it. You almost never want to turn that off (unless you’re in an empty parking lot, in which case, have fun.) In some cars, like Hondas, it isn’t possible to turn off traction control without also disabling stability control. BMW and others do it better, turning off traction control with one press of a button but requiring a second press and/or a press-and-hold to disable stability control.

We can all be better drivers.

In everyday driving, there’s a margin of error—or rather, the appearance of a margin of error—that lulls us into braking while steering, following drivers too closely, and reacting rather than looking ahead. That margin disappears when snow falls. You constantly feel the tires approaching the limits of adhesion, the chassis twitching under throttle, the brakes chattering to avoid lockup. This is basically how a car feels and reacts on a racetrack. Some drivers find it terrifying. The best drivers treat it like a refresher course.

Power isn’t everything.

And just like a racetrack, winter can remind us what really makes a car great to drive. Raw power becomes less important than balance and control. Fancy adjustable suspensions are less important than the small, simple pleasures of a slick manual gearbox and communicative steering. That’s why our Four Seasons 2013 Subaru BRZ, wearing winter tires, kept us entertained all through the snowy season. The best winter cars—just like the best summer cars—talk to the operator and respond predictably to driver inputs.

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