Winterized: The Definitive Guide to Winter Driving

For those of you living below the snow-belt don’t bother reading unless you are curious, or maybe wish to mock those of us who do live in piles of the stuff for a healthy portion of the year. For the rest us who are ‘in the know’, I’ve put together a few topics that are worthy of consideration and even further detail if you wish to obsess further over statistics. The objective here is to just create awareness and provide some general thoughts on things snow and cold.

It always happens. Sometime in late October to Early November you are forced to rummage around for last year’s snow scraper to peel that layer of morning frost off the windshield before heading to work. You might cheat a bit, and use your wipers to clear it off or you may let the car idle a bit longer in the morning. It just means one thing, if I may borrow from the motto of the Starks: Winter Is Coming.
I’m dwelling on winter in August because I recently bought a 2012 Dodge Charger SRT8, and I’m planning to do the unthinkable: drive it in the cold, wet and salt. I managed seven years with a 2008.5 MazdaSpeed 3, I figured, “how hard could this be” with the right forethought. This Charger comes equipped with a heated steering wheel, seats, block heaters and mirrors, so it must be made for it right? I’ll let you know in about seven months how I fared but that doesn’t mean I won’t prepare for it.

Winter is one of the hardest things we can subject our prized vehicles to, and in some instances we have no choice. However, there are things we can do to make up for the fact that not all of us are able to live in California.

 

Option 1: Don’t Drive Your Prized Car In the Winter

This is certainly a very valid option. One could resort to standing out at the bus stop in the cold, car pool, walk, use Uber or not leave the house for half the year. These are things that are decidedly less convenient for your daily life.

A common suggestion is to purchase a winter beater. I’ve often read that you can acquire a winter beater for the cost of snow tires. Granted, yes, you can do that especially in this case where the SRT8 tires and rims will cost about 2000.00 Canadian or more. This is assuming you have a parking spot or this doesn’t force you to put your car in storage at an additional cost; you still have the issue of finding reliable transportation. Nothing would be more irritating than waiting for a tow truck for your winter beater. Plus, in my neck of the woods, it’s still really necessary to at least consider proper snow tires. That means you’re driving a penalty box for a few months potentially and then you have to either store it or get rid of it for the summer before repeating this process.

Since I don’t have the parking capacity, and I enjoy driving the SRT8, I have come to the conclusion that I don’t want to drive a winter beater. Granted, if I had the funds for this and could score a reliable third car, I would be likely to take this route. Since I don’t, I won’t.

Option 2: Reluctant Acceptance (or Possibly Joy) of Pre-Winter Maintenance

Breathing deeply, you’ve realized that you’ve made your decision to drive your car into the oncoming winter. Or maybe you’re excitedly waiting to experience how capable your Toyota 4Runner or Subaru WRX is. Assuming that you are an experienced winter driver, the biggest risk is really other drivers. What can be done? Quite a few things actually, to make the whole process easier before the snow comes down.

wrx pulling cop car
You are indeed seeing that correctly so no need to get your eyes checked. That is a WRX pulling a cop out of the snow in Royal Oak, MI.

First up, we have the basics. The interior of the car won’t require much. Ideally, you should have winter mats installed to collect the salt and the water, doing your best to keep it clean until that spring detailing can happen. Make sure the mats fit properly and do not interfere with the pedals. You can add extra towels to protect the carpet around the edges if you desire. The tip here is to ensure that you and your passengers knock the snow from your boots before entering the car to prevent the moisture from the snow condensing on your windows overnight. For extra safety you can add a small box of supplies which should include: battery jumpers, sand/kitty litter for traction/blanket/candle/tools in case you are ever stranded unexpectedly.

One of the critical pieces of equipment, but often overlooked, is the snow brush. If you have a larger/taller vehicle, ensure that you get one that can reach all parts of it, particularly the roof. Do not be one of those drivers who ‘let’s the snow blow off’ with either chunks of ice flying off, or the snow blinding other drivers. Those who do that, are selfish morons. On the car enthusiast side, you are going to want to ensure that you get a brush that won’t damage the paint by being too stiff. This year, I’m going to try using one of the foam brushes, and couple that with being careful about clearing snow. If there is dirt underneath the snow, and you move it around, it will cause scratches in the clear coat. Something that is not great, especially if you own a black car like I do. I have heard of taking the cheaper two dollar snow brushes and putting a cotton sock on top for a quick and inexpensive snow brush. My tip here is: clean your car entirely. Please, don’t just run the wipers and go. Visibility is important.

For the exterior, in the early fall, that a coat of hand applied wax is added to the car. This will serve to protect the paint, preventing dirt and grime from sticking. It also makes snow removal a bit easier. This is quite different than the liquid wax that is applied at the local car wash. It is far more durable and will work in conjunction with regular cleaning, which I will talk about further on.

Ensuring your windshield wipers are ready for the harsh winters is another sometimes overlooked feature. I recommend using reflex type blades with no hinges. This prevents the blades from freezing and lifting off the window in some condition. The ones with the covers on them can accomplish this task as well, but I find aesthetically much less pleasing. Also, ensure that your windshield wiper fluid is up to the task for winter. The last thing you want is to be caught with frozen fluid lines or smearing ice all over your windshield. There are some fluids that are available that are anti-stick. My experience has been that they leave a bit of residue on the paint at times. They do work well, but just be aware of that possibility.

Rust proofing is another common tactic to help your car survive multiple winters. They run the gamut from wax to oil based applications to complete seals. The controversy for me is the effectiveness of allowing your car to have holes drilled in them or not. I lean towards not, preferring not to expose any metal to the elements where I can help it. In the past, I’ve actually just relied on car washes regularly throughout the winter months (on a Mazda that I kept rust free doing this), but this time around I am going to see how effective this is.

Touchless car washes are your friend, and stay away from the cloth based ones. They horribly scratch your paint. Salt is the enemy. Anytime you see water on the road, you know salt is going to work on your chassis. Thus it is important to regularly clean this off your car, including the under carriage. Just the simple act of doing this on a regular basis will help preserve your car in the long term. This is especially important if you park your car in a garage (or even heated one). If the temperature goes above freezing even when it is cold outside, you are creating a situation where salt begins to corrode regularly.

If you park your car outdoors, then a block heater would be a worthy addition to the fleet. This has the added benefit of keeping oil liquid when you start the car, thus limiting metal on metal wear inside the combustion chamber. This will also allow your car to warm up faster. Synthetic oil will further add to these qualities, and will help if you do not have access to an outdoor electrical outlet. Synthetic oil has artificial molecules that spread better and don’t clump as easily as traditional dino-oil does. This takes the stress off the battery as well, which has to work harder in the winter months. Speaking of batteries, there are some that provide extra cranking power, which is something to look into when you are replacing your car batteries. Your car will thank you for it.

What are you doing to your car when you peek out through a frosted window first thing in the morning, point your fob and let it run for 15 minutes before getting in? A few things. Gas is being wasted, air is being polluted for no reason, and worst of all you are causing additional wear and tear on your engine by idling as it takes much longer to warm up and get the oil circulating properly. Your best bet is to idle for a minute or two, and then drive sedately keeping the revs low until the engine warms up. Winter gas that is already affecting your fuel economy, why make it worse?

Winter Tires

This is a topic that deserves an entire article on its own. I will touch on various reasons why you should use winter tires. Yes, you can survive with all-season tires. However, tires are the one thing that touches the road and affects everything else about the car. You have great brakes? They are useless without traction. You have all-wheel drive? This is enhanced further with winter tires. Remember all cars have four wheel brakes, which means stopping and turning are of paramount importance when the white stuff falls. Tires are something to consider year round, and if you have a dedicated winter set, you can also have a dedicated summer set (especially in the rain) that will more than out perform any so called ‘all season’ tires.

Snow isn’t the only danger. Ice can form at various points in the winter and is often hidden. Snow actually has friction to it, but snow on top of ice becomes a tricky exercise in maintaining control. Snow tires are basically designed to remain soft during cooler temperatures, along with more aggressive tread and siping that helps remove water. This means ‘all-season’ tires begin to get compromised when the roads are perfectly clear but the temperatures become cold. Think of a hockey puck, which is slightly malleable in warm temperatures, but become rock hard in the cold (and slides easier). This is the same principle. No, you should not run snow tires year round as they become very soft when they warm up.

Once you have decided to acquire snow tires, there are a few things to consider. You can simply pull the tires off the rims and put on winter tires of the same size. This is less effective for a few reasons. You will then subject your stock rims to winter, which will brutalize them. It’s also not terribly healthy for the tires to be pulled off and remounted all the time. You end up paying more to rebalance them frequently.

Which brings us to the optimal solution. Purchase rims that are a size down. This has the benefit of adding tire wall to your wheels, providing a bit more cushion in icy/chunky snow conditions. You can get inexpensive steel rims or alloys if sizing doesn’t permit anything else. It’s better to put these through the rigors of snow and ice. For the tire itself, you can not only add the tire wall height, you can get a skinnier tire. This has the advantage of focusing and increasing the ability of the tire to cut through the snow. Side tip: Always buy four matching tires. Don’t just put them on the drive wheels, as you can then run the risk of spinning out. All the tires work at keeping the vehicle going straight, and if this is unbalanced, you can run into serious issues.

I suggest that you do some research on your own to see how effective winter tires actually are in terms of stopping distance, turning capability and traction. I know from personal experience, I won’t drive winter months without them again. If you avoid a single accident, they have more than paid for themselves.

Drive-Trains

Common wisdom holds that for snowy climates, Four Wheel Drive comes first, then All Wheel Drive, then Front Wheel Drive and then Rear Wheel Drive in terms of performance. There are pros and cons for each type, proving they are a compromise in one form or another.

Four Wheel Drive: These types of vehicles usually have selectable control and low gears for truly getting through some noxious stuff. They are good for kind of snow that you rarely encounter on the streets, unless it is a full out blizzard. Most of the time you would be in a rear wheel drive mode, and have to stop to select either 4-LOW or 4-HI depending on conditions. These vehicles usually have stellar ground clearance, moveable axles, big beefy tires and are very heavy. Being really heavy can be good for traction which is how snow plows work, but handling and stopping is less than stellar. This setup is overkill for most conditions, and during the summer months unless you use such a rig for off-roading or mudding, you probably don’t need to go this route. They are not particularly sporting vehicles but have a whole realm of amazing performance on their own (such as the Baja 1000 or the Jeep Moab trek).

All Wheel Drive: In addition to also compromising braking distances with additional weight and complexity, not all of these drive systems are created equal. Many of them are barely better than front wheel drive applications and can frequently be tricked depending on the conditions and differentials. You can believe that a Subaru WRX STI drive train setup will be superior to one you would find on a Toyota RAV4. Yet they are marketed the same way. It is buyer beware, so do your research. There are many different kinds out there, so don’t be taken in by marketing hype.

Front Wheel Drive: This drive train exists as it is the most efficient one. This is one of the easiest to drive in the winter because the drive wheels are also the turning wheels. If you add in a limited-slip differential, you begin to have some pretty decent snow performance almost as good as the AWD setup (and better in some cases). The weight of the engine is over the wheels, helping traction. The disadvantage is the front wheels end up doing all the work.

Rear Wheel Drive: This configuration demands snow tires most of all. The weight of the engine is not over the drive wheels. Some people try to mitigate this by placing extra weight in the bed or trunk of the vehicle. Bear in mind, for many decades, we survived the winter months in Rear Wheel Drive vehicles. It just requires a particular skill set and traction. In cities and towns, they will do just fine. Police officers and Taxi drivers often handle winters this way.

At the end of the day, ground clearance, balance, and snow tires are really the things to consider, particularly if you live in an area that is well plowed. Necessity should dictate the type, not the want.

Preservation

The infamous driver mod is probably the greatest factor when determining the effectiveness of a car. Yes, everyone thinks they are a great driver. There is always room for improvement. It can be as simple as learning how your own vehicle responds in certain conditions in an empty parking lot. You can learn how it slides, reacts and performs in snowy conditions. Or, you can take it a step further and enjoy a winter driving school and channel your inner rally driver.

Phew! After all of that, you can see that if the right choices are made, then you can enjoy winter just as much as summer without beating up on your car too much. Good luck! I hope you wish the same for my SRT8.

Jason Mischke
Ottawa, Canada