RWD, Winter Tyres & The Snow!

Tuesday 30th November, 2010
This is one of numerous in-depth winter tyre articles I wrote over the winter of 2010/2011. Please click here for a summary of my results over the season and links to all the other articles.

Due to some unexpectedly heavy snow in the Spring, many tyre producers and car dealers have been encouraging drivers to switch to winter tyres this winter. Regular readers will know I had them fitted some time ago and have already written up some experiences here, here and here.
Today it snowed. It properly snowed. Despite the rest of the country already being pretty well covered in snow, typically Surrey County Council dragged their feet and the roads around my office failed to be salted sufficiently. As snow began falling heavy throughout the morning, the roads began to get whiter and grip decreased. By the time we hit lunchtime, there was a queue of cars trying to get off the car park onto the main road. Many abandoned the attempt, others realised after they hit the main road - pulling a U-turn to go back from where they had come.

Most people had made it to the office but concern about the return journey was increasing as more snow fell. I suggested to a colleague that he looked into buying some Snow Socks for his car, after the challenge he'd had getting in. Snow Socks have been adopted by Vauxhall as a good solution this winter and, after calling the local dealer, he found they had some in stock. Being the Good Samaritan that I am, I offered to drive him there in our lunch hour...and the experience began.

We left the office to some crazy looks. I drive a Lexus GS-450h. It's a 3.5litre V6 petrol engine mated to the Toyota  Hybrid system. It generates 296bhp, 368Nm of torque to the rear wheels and weighs 1930Kg. Quoted 0-62mph is 5.9secs but this has been measured at 5.3secs in optimum conditions - that isn't today, with compacted snow on the untreated roads.

We drove around the office car park watching other, lighter, front wheel drive cars struggling from lack of traction. We glided past them effortlessly in the snow tire clad RWD Lexus. Turning onto the main road into town, we cautiously followed another vehicle that was slowly going down the steep hill. On the opposite side of the carriageway, numerous vehicles were abandoned with drivers stood alongside them wondering what to do next. As our descent bottomed out and we got to the bottom of a steep climb, we could see numerous vehicles desperately sliding around as they attempted to get up the hill - among them an ASDA home delivery truck. We decided to abandon that route and turn left into a pretty unused side road covered in fresh powder.

The side road worked well with the Wintrac extreme tyres having sure footing on the gentle ascent - in fact, the hardest part was keeping the speed down to an acceptable level; it was very easy to let my confidence take me too far. Reaching the roundabout at the far end, we needed to turn right. A FWD Corsa was reversing back onto the roundabout from the left turn, having abandoned an attempt to get up that road. Ahead of us, a large truck was also reversing back towards us - changing his mind about trying to get up the road ahead.. We waited as he manoeuvred and chose to go up the road we were emerging from. The Corsa then attempted the slope straight ahead. As planned, we turned right towards a steep hill - both full of praise regarding the grip and confidence from the winter tyres.

We moved off up the hill with absolute confidence but then noticed, almost at the crest of the hill, that a front-wheel drive Astra was squirming around searching for grip. He couldn't quite make it to the top. In the end, he admitted defeat and gently applied reverse as he performed a 3-point turn and came back towards us. We gave him plenty of room as he half slid past us. Right...let's see what we can do.

I pulled away and we continued our climb up the hill but, long before we got to the Astra's highest point, traction began to reduce. I steered the car towards the fresher snow, hoping for more grip, but my attempts were futile. Eventually the gradient, weight of the vehicle and RWD started to count against us - the rear end of the car started to fish tail and the traction control started to control the inevitable wheel-spin. I applied the brakes and pulled us to a halt. I confirmed the auto-transmission was in Snow mode - it was. Technically the hybrid isn't an automatic gearbox, it's a CVT transmission which means, in snow, it's likely always in the wrong gear. The full hybrid has the advantage that you can pull away purely on electric power, allowing fantastic levels of control but, every time I did, the wheels just spun and then the safety functions killed the power again to control the skid. I turned to Matt and said that I thought the snow tyres had run out of talent at a rather crucial moment.

After considering our options, and realising the shame I was destined for if we abandoned and walked back to the office, I decided to bite the bullet and give it another go. I put the car in "park" and looked around for all the required buttons. First I turned off the parking sensors which were covered in snow, resulting in the car continually beeping like a dead patient in a hospital. Next I found the traction control (TC) - a warning light appeared on the dash as I disengaged it. With the safe systems disabled, I engaged drive.

The wheels began to spin but, unlike before when the TC would kill all the power, they then began to bite and off we went. Once moving, it felt ok and we continued our ascent. Those little grip pockets in the tread of the snow tyres were working and allowing us to find traction that simply wasn't there before. With TC on, it was a case of spin, spin...stop. Without it engaged it was spin, spin, spin, spin, spin, vroom. The climb up the steep hill was difficult but reasonably controlled and not scary. Finding the throttle balance was the hard part. Too much power and we lost grip, too little and we lost momentum up the hill. To the amazement of a few passers-by, who'd seen the Astra give up, with a bit of sideways squirming and wheels spinning, we made it right to the top of the hill - our confidence in the winter tyres somewhat restored.

We continued further on our journey but, as most routes appeared to be covered in the carnage of abandoned vehicles, we decided we would be unlikely to make our destination and would attempt a return trip to the office. Knowing the difficulties cars were having in the reverse direction, we decided to take the long way, around the block, to approach the office from the top of the hill. This worked fairly well but, sadly, there were cars stuck everywhere on roads covered in a fresh layer of powder. Even when we reached the bus route, which had been gritted sometime earlier, vehicles still couldn't get the hill. A Merc E class estate, a Nissan Micra convertible, one of those ugly Chrysler saloons and a Mercedes minibus were stuck trying to get up this main road. The minibus and the Chrysler were both licensed taxis, presumably with experienced drivers at the wheel - they were going nowhere. We cruised effortlessly past them and then attempted to re-join the main road which descends back to our office.

But the main road wasn't going anywhere, at all. A solid line of traffic blocked the downhill direction we needed and, even worse, no vehicles at all were coming up the hill. Clearly there was something horrid at the bottom of the hill. We sat stationary for 15-20mins and just waited until a phone call came in from my boss informing us that the office was closing at 2pm due to the adverse conditions. It was now 1:55pm so he told me not to bother coming back so, after dropping Matt at the roadside to walk back to the office, I pulled a u-turn and headed back up to the M25 and drove home. By 2.35 I was on the sofa writing this document but, at 3.15, Matt called.

Despite being allowed to go home, he still hadn't even got off the office car park and wasn't going anywhere. Still without his snow socks, he was leafing through the owner's handbook trying to find out how to disable the traction control on his 3rd gen Prius - it seems the button that was available on his 2nd gen is no longer there and the handbook just informs you to not drive in extreme conditions in which the TC is problematic. Looking on-line, it seems there is a way of doing it, but you wouldn't find it by accident.

So, now at about 4.20pm, I still doubt I'd be home by now if I hadn't bought the Winter tyres. Firstly, by my random Samaritan act, I ended up in the right place at the right time - on the quiet side of extreme traffic. Secondly, without them, I doubt I'd have got up the main road from the office.

So, what's the verdict? Well, mixed really. Clearly Winter Tyres aren't miraculous and you aren't going to get up a steep snow covered hill as though it's a warm summer's day but, whilst not a brilliant preventative measure, they do form part of a good cure if you get stuck in a bad situation. They were amazing in the wet slush on the M25 on the way home, a perfect match to the conditions, and they also stop superbly on the compacted snow - much better than the 4WD did last summer. Overall, I say they certainly are an excellent "get me home" tool but not exactly a "hey, lets go for a fun drive in the snow" toy.  

If I had to go to the office tomorrow, which car would I take? If I'm honest, a very cautious drive in the 4WD would probably fill me with most confidence but I would wish it was wearing winter tyres so it would stop as well as it can get going with the diff-locks engaged. I'd certainly choose a winter tyre clad FWD over the 4WD with summer tyres though - no brainer - my car simply wasn't built for these conditions, even though I did successfully make the required journey.

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