The extreme cold weather kicking vast lumps of North America in the teeth right now has put winter driving on our minds. Or, more specifically, how to beat that annoying sucker into submission.
The first thing we’ll admit is that no amount of clever in-car technology will help you if your street has flooded around your pride and joy and then frozen, leaving your wheels encased in ice like a woolly mammoth. But, if you’re just blasted with icy temperatures and the tricky roads that come with them, there’s a whole lot of modern medicine for the winter driver suffering with a (the) cold. Your weapons don’t just stop at climate control…
Hands up who enjoys scraping the ice off their windscreen in the morning? That’ right: no one. The air’s frigid grip on your sleep-stiff knuckles is an everyday enemy in colder climates, and even in the UK it’s frequent enough in some parts of the island to be really annoying. Heated windscreens not only clear the exterior ice, but help to shift any interior condensation, too.
You can get different kinds. There’s a basic type that has been around for decades and still sees service on most mid-range and high-spec Fords. Using zig-zag filaments inside the windscreen glass it heats up quickly and gets the job done. On the other hand the filaments are visible and can get annoying in headlight glare or with a low sun.
The better solution comes from the likes of Volkswagen; a thin but conductive layer of silver within the glass transmits current and melts the ice with no visible elements – or compromises. In Germany the system is a €340-ish option, and we’d pay it every time.
No one likes cold cheeks, whether they’re upstairs or downstairs. The former is a job for a scarf or snood, maybe, but the latter can be left to your car. Heated seats are a common sight on most high-end versions of even the smallest cars, these days. Skoda Citigo? Yep, heated seats. The Smart ForTwo? Also yes.
But while you’re toasting your own personal cushions, how about going a step further? Cold fingers are bad news, but executive cars and SUVs can often be specced with heated steering wheels. Ditch your thick, numbing gloves and tick this box instead. You’ll wonder how you ever managed without.
The only drawback is that most heated wheels only warm the ‘ten-to-two’ and/or ‘quarter-to-three- positions on the rim, so if you like to hold the top, ricer-style, or bottom, lazy-style, you’ll have to change your habits.
While we’re on the subject of heating stuff, it’s not just the interior that gets attention from the boffins in car makers’ labs. It’s no use having a clear windscreen if, three miles down the road, you realise that you can’t clean the dirty road spray off because your washer nozzles are frozen.
Some systems are engineered so that the warming engine heats the washer fluid system naturally, but they’re slow to defrost the nozzles themselves. Heated nozzles are the better solution, guaranteeing the flow of washer fluid – as long as you remembered to use freeze-resistant fluid. Heated nozzles are even available to retro-fit.
On a few cars you’ll also find a small concentration of heating elements underneath the resting positions of the front wipers, which defrost the blades. Combine them with heated nozzles and winter’s worst conditions can jog on.
You probably wouldn’t believe the frustration that car journalists feel about the fact that we’re still having to bang on about winter tyres. It’s one area where incredibly few people seem to listen to us, and it drives us bonkers. Modern cold-weather rubber is astonishing in really bad winter weather.
Recently I drove a heavy four-wheel drive pickup and a much lighter front-wheel drive estate in the same conditions, back-to-back. The Michelin CrossClimate tyres on the latter made the pickup look silly, and they don’t fall to pieces in the summer, either, so you don’t need to keep swapping them on and off every year. For all of us who drive fairly ordinary cars with modest power and torque, they make so much sense that not having them suddenly seems a bit silly.
Proper winter-capable tyres can be the difference between being stranded on your driveway and completing your journey as normal. Surely it’s a no-brainer next time you’re replacing them anyway.
Even though we prefer the emotion of finely-tuned internal combustion, and probably always will, we admit that EVs have a few perks. Most conventional cars lack a separate Webasto-type heater that can get the cabin up to temperature before you even turn the engine on. There’s nothing better in winter, though, and most electric cars can deliver it.
Within the menus of a good electric car you’ll find the option to pre-heat it with your choice of temperature and time. When you can roll out of bed and into a driver’s seat cocooned by 22-degree warmth, with clear windows all around, you know you’re doing it right. Make sure the car is plugged in for the duration of the warming process and you won’t even lose any driving range.
While fitting the right tyres is the best thing you could possibly do for your grip levels, all-wheel drive makes a huge difference to traction. We find Haldex-based part-time four-wheel drive systems a bit dim-witted at times when it’s really slippery. They just don’t react quickly enough, leaving the main drive wheels floundering.
When the winter weather really starts smacking you around, permanent all-wheel drive is just better. It responds instantly, is more predictable and more stable. Sure, it’s less efficient, but anyone who’s ever driven a Subaru, especially a quick one, in dicey conditions will tell you how much traction they seem to pull out of their backsides. Add those winter tyres and you’ll be (almost) unstoppable. The council will be calling you and asking you to recover its stranded snow ploughs…
Finally, as anyone who does much snow driving will tell you, it’s easy for a novice to overcook it in slippery conditions. They just go at it with their normal applications of throttle and brake, and they’re lucky if they don’t hit anything within the first mile. Snow modes are designed to cuddle the mildly ignorant and whisper gently that everything is okay.
You’ll find a prime example in Jaguar’s JaguarDrive Control, adapted from Land Rover’s Terrain Response. In snow mode it reins in the power, makes standing starts smoother and slower, and tells the gearbox to do everything it can to shift early and avoid kicking down. That makes it harder to find your way into a hedge, wall or bus stop. A few JLR cars will even switch to their Rain/Ice/Snow mode automatically if the temperature drops below zero.
Are there any more winter winners you know of? Tell us about them in the comments!