After decades of winter driving experience and numerous vehicles (all varieties), believe we've cracked the code.
Here’s our take on the vehicle attributes that make for the most ideal and safest winter driving experience.
Manual transmission: Collective groan, sigh, jeers…
We hear it grasshoppers, but hear us out. Promise this exercise isn't just a front for an old guy's stubborn promotion of the third pedal. (#savethemanuals btw.)
Safe winter driving is all about maximum vehicle control; full command and discretion over the gearbox included. Choosing if/when to upshift according to the road ahead, and rev matching downshifts to assist with deceleration in slippery conditions are true advantages.
For the most part, but we've found that downshifts and deceleration in slippery conditions can confuse these systems. The BMW dual-clutch (DCT), for example, doesn't respond well to shifts into the lower gears with limited traction. The shifts are sometimes delayed, sloppy, and the rear end will wander as the system tries to sort through how to execute the shift.
Weight focused over the front axle allows for the car to better track straight through snowy, slushy road conditions that push around vehicles with less weight up front. Audis with their 60+% front weight balance are a great example.
We recently tested the Blizzak WS80 on an M Sport BMW 3 series with a very lively back end. Good fun, but not the safest.
All-wheel drive: When fitted with winter tires, front- and rear-wheel drive vehicles can be true winter performers, but nevertheless an all-wheel drive system is optimum through winter.
There are misconceptions about the diversity of advantages delivered by all-wheel drive systems, but there's no doubt available traction at all four corners is a plus on slippery roads, and in deep snow conditions. Especially when accelerating from a standstill.
Winter tires: An absolute imperative regardless of your vehicle. Preferably winter tires of the studless or studdable ice & snow varieties, not “performance.” For more information see Snow tire information & perspective.
Good forward visibility: Maximum visibility of the road conditions ahead permits you to adjust your driving line and avoid deeper snow accumulation areas, tracks where ice has formed, etc.
Within a single lane winter road conditions can vary quite significantly. A few feet right or left can make a very real traction difference. Seeing the road ahead and not your hood will help you place the car into the areas of highest traction.
Much credit is due to our trusty B7 Audi S4 (fitted with Michelin X-Ice Xi3 winter tires) on this subject. We have yet to experience a better car for snowpocalypse events.