ROYAL OAK, Michigan — As soon as the roadways are slickened by snow and smartphone apps begin reporting traffic backups caused by crashes, car enthusiasts sing the familiar chorus. “If only everyone used proper winter tires,” we say, “none of these accidents would happen.”
The editors of AUTOMOBILE heartily endorse winter tires because they improve a car’s braking, handling, and acceleration on snow and ice. We like to regale one another with tales of past heroics made possible by winter tires, including a drive into snowbound northern Michigan in a Chevy Corvette, a near-blizzard in a Jaguar F-Type, and sweet parking-lot drifting in a Subaru WRX. You can drive any car in winter with the right rubber.
With this bravado in mind, I decided to go all-in on the proposition that appropriate tires make any vehicle usable in adverse weather. With winter tires at all four corners, surely I could drive through a February snowstorm in a 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat?
Maybe this is just a dumb idea
The odds are clearly stacked against driving the mighty Hellcat through a winter squall. As I hold the Hellcat’s keys in my hand and walk toward the parking lot where the snow is coming down, everyone in the office smiles politely and says, “Be careful.”
They’re right to be skeptical. The Challenger Hellcat’s lowered suspension and large front air dam afford only 4.5 inches of ground clearance, and the car has 4,439 pounds of inertia working against any change in velocity, whether this means acceleration or braking. Plus the Hellcat’s supercharged V-8 can overwhelm the rear tires with absolutely brutal levels of power to the rear tires — 707 hp and 650 lb-ft of torque. For anyone not versed in the gospel of supercharging, this sort of power can give you wheelspin at freeway speeds even on a summer day, never mind in snow and ice.
To my advantage, this particular 2015 Hellcat wears Pirelli Scorpion Winter tires on its 20-by-9.5-inch wheels, though this rubber choice is customarily marketed as more appropriate for SUVs and crossovers than this wild-ass pony car. To give myself a fighting chance for traction, I’ve also tweaked the car’s driving mode settings to give me “only” 500 hp, with the adaptive suspension set to full soft and the paddle shifters enabled in case I need to pre-emptively upshift and dilute the V-8’s onrush of power.
Slowly, slowly is my mantra
I double-click the Dodge key fob to remotely start up the Challenger from inside the warmth of our office. This also turns on the heated seats and heated steering wheel, so when I finally venture outside and sweep the wet snow off the car, the Hellcat’s cabin is balmy and welcoming. Once the custom driving mode is set, I click the transmission into Drive, take my foot off the brake, and … nothing. The tires are already slowly spinning uselessly and the car is motionless. Another editor is laughing at my predicament, so I feather the brake pedal until I get the tires to grip and then gingerly make my way out of the parking lot.
The snow isn’t too deep on the main roads, but the pavement is definitely icy and slick. I’m relieved to find that the Challenger will stop with authority even on slick surfaces, as the tires dig into the slush as the ABS chatters. It’s when I accelerate with more than just a hint of throttle that things get a little more exciting, especially as I take a right turn onto Woodward Avenue and find myself counter-steering wildly as the Hellcat’s rear end slowly, deliberately, and yet remorselessly steps out sideways. The stability control crunches away and helps straighten things out, but it’s a good reminder for me to be more prudent.
Traffic is creeping slowly along the wide boulevard, so I decide to pull into a parking lot to snap some dramatic photos of our black car against a snowy white background. A store owner wanders out in amazement at my obvious stupidity to inquire: Am I really driving that car in this weather? He asks if he can take a photo. His caption on Instagram: “How do we plow the streets in the Motor City? With 707 hp!”
As I leave the parking lot, I’m embarrassed to find the car is indeed stuck in the deep snow. Reverse, then inch backward; Drive, then creep forward. The car is free. I spot a gap in traffic and squirt the throttle to power through the buildup of snow at the curb, and I’m on my way again.
And then (surprise!) it all went wrong
I make the foolish decision to cut through a residential neighborhood to get to my apartment. The roads here haven’t been plowed and have seen so little traffic that the snow is pretty deep in places. I experiment with driving the Dodge with the traction control on, then off, and then in Sport mode. No matter which option I try, the car still tacks back and forth down the street, the rear tires never quite in line with the fronts. Nonetheless, I’m making slow, steady, and careful progress.
All of a sudden, a Jeep driver decides stop signs don’t apply during snowstorms and comes hurtling through an intersection toward me. I stand on the Dodge’s brakes and slither to a stop, avoiding the collision. Unfortunately now I’m stuck in the drifting snow – really stuck. I try feathering the gas and brake pedals in second gear. I rock back and forth between Reverse and Drive. Doesn’t matter, because the Challenger isn’t going anywhere.
I briefly ponder whether I should get out and push or try the age-old trick of putting floor mats under the tires. Fortunately a nearby resident stops shoveling his driveway to lend a hand. We dig the slushy ice away from the Challenger’s rear tires, and he pushes on the nose of the car as I gingerly feather the brakes in Reverse. Soon enough, the car is free, and I’m thanking the stranger for his help.
“You need to get home right now,” he advises. “This thing … it just isn’t meant for winter.”
He’s not wrong. I cut back toward the main road, slipping and sliding through deep snow thrown onto the road by the snowblowers that the neighborhood residents have been contentiously running in their driveways, and make a beeline to my apartment complex. The parking lot has already been plowed, so I back the Dodge into an open spot, raise the wipers, and take the snow brush inside.
The lessons of winter driving
As it turns out, the storm abates. We get a few inches more heavy, wet snow but not nearly as much as had been feared. In the morning, it takes only a few minutes to clear the accumulation from the Challenger Hellcat while its V-8 rumbles away and wakes my neighbors. Ensconced in the car’s now-toasty cabin, I venture back out onto the roads and find them no worse than the night before.
It’s not really fair to say I have totally proved my hypothesis. Yes, I got around in a serious snowstorm without too much trouble thanks to winter tires. But the storm wasn’t as bad as predicted (for Michigan, anyway), the journey was a short, and the snowplows in this metro-style area were able to keep the main roads relatively clear. Of course, even with all this, I could barely touch the throttle of the 2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat without kicking the rear sideways. And I got totally, completely stuck only two miles from home simply because I came to a panic stop at an intersection.
The lesson is simple: You can drive pretty much any car in winter with the right snow tires. But if your experience is anything like mine, you probably don’t want to.
When I reach our office parking lot, though, I’m intrigued to see that no plow has cleared snow here. There’s no one around, so a smirk plays across my face as I hold the ESC OFF button. Lots of steering lock, a dab of throttle, steer back the other way, and pull into a parking spot with a perfect pair of circles in the snow behind me.
Maybe driving a rear-wheel-drive 707-hp car through winter isn’t so bad after all.
2015 Dodge Challenger Hellcat Specifications
|Engine:||6.2L OHV supercharged 16-valve V-8/707 hp @ 6,000 rpm, 650 lb-ft @ 4,000 rpm|
|Layout:||2-door, 5-passenger, front-engine, RWD coupe|
|EPA Mileage:||13/22 mpg (city/hwy)|
|L x W x H:||197.5 x 75.7 x 55.7 in|
|Top Speed:||199 mph|