How To Survive Winter With Rear-Wheel Drive

Skid

The Christmas travel season is again upon us, and while the weather across much of the nation is expected to be relatively tame for the holiday itself, much of the country has experienced freezing rain, sleet, ice and snow in advance of the big day. That is, of course, when a majority of travelers hit the interstates in their cars — many of which may possess an aspect of their powertrains that counts snow and ice as a traction-reducing, fishtail-inducing mortal enemy: rear-wheel drive.

For owners of newer vehicles, Cars.com Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder said, rear-drive isn't nearly the median magnet it used to be, thanks to increasingly sophisticated traction-control systems as well as electronic stability control systems, required on all U.S. cars starting with the 2012 model year. ESC monitors where the driver is pointing the car versus what the car is actually doing and can apply the brakes to any of the wheels to help steer a fishtailing vehicle back on course, Wiesenfelder explained.

Traction control, meanwhile, is exclusively intended to prevent wheel spin at the drive wheels and assists acceleration on low-traction surfaces by limiting throttle and braking the drive wheels, which as a side effect also helps prevent fishtailing and spinouts. Earlier traction-control systems were too conservative and hindered forward movement, but today's improved systems can read the conditions and allow some wheel spin, or "paddling," which is more effective at getting going in loose snow.

"Rear-wheel-drive cars aren't unusable in winter, especially nowadays," Wiesenfelder said. "All cars were once rear-wheel drive, riding on unsophisticated bias-ply tires, and we survived — as do law-enforcement officers and cab drivers, most of whom have been in rear-drive sedans for decades.

"You just have to combine the right equipment with appropriate driving practices."

To that end, Cars.com editors have offered their personal tips developed over their years of extensive driving experience to help you survive the winter with rear-wheel drive.

Robby DeGraff, associate editor

I drove a rear-wheel-drive Camaro in the snow every day back in high school. A few tips I have:

  • Put weight in the back, bags of sand, cinder blocks, etc.
  • Go easy on the gas; start in a higher gear to avoid wheel spin.
  • Don't "death grip" the wheel: If you're holding on to the steering wheel tightly when your back end slips out you might panic and jerk the whole car rapidly in a different direction.

Kelsey Mays, consumer affairs editor

  • Have a sense of how planted your car is. If you feel the tail getting squirrely, get off the gas and gently counter steer — but don't overdo it. The key is to be gentle with your inputs.
  • Limit your braking to a straight line. Avoid braking and cornering at the same time.
  • Keep it slow, increase following distances and use your lights whenever it's snowing, even during the daytime.

Mike Hanley, research editor

I'd say the single most important thing would be to get a set of dedicated winter tires and swap them on the car before it gets cold and snowy out. In addition to helping prevent fishtailing when accelerating by offering more traction, they'll also help you stop better. The cost could be $800 or so, depending on the car, but if they save you once that's probably less than an insurance deductible/rate hike would be for a wrecked car.

Jennifer Geiger, news editor

A few common sense tips go a long way here (and managed to save my bacon!):

  • Take it very slow. Speed quickly makes a dangerous situation spin out of control. If you're too hot on the gas in slippery weather, your tires will start to spin and without traction, a skid is inevitable.
  • Feather the brakes and gas lightly and use small, gentle movements with the steering wheel.
  • Leave plenty of distance between you and the car ahead of you and turn on your hazard lights to warn others that you're having a problem.
  • When the wheels start slipping, take your foot off the brake and gently steer the car toward the skid. Lightly apply the accelerator and when the wheels start gripping again, gently and slowly maneuver the car back on course.

Evan Sears, photo editor

  • From a dead stop, skip directly to 2nd gear to avoid spinning wheels.
  • Avoid accelerating through turns.
  • Understand what antilocks are, what they do, how they work, etc. I've heard stories of people freaking out the first time they hear the pump motor turn on when they're engaging. An emergency ice situation is not exactly the optimum time to be surprised by a noise your car is making.
  • If you don't have antilock brakes, know how to manually pump brakes while keeping your cool in a slide.

Jennifer Burklow, copy editor

  • Have extra weight in the back of the vehicle and have it evenly distributed over the wheels (provides traction).
  • Have good tires and make sure they're properly inflated for better grip.
  • After the first winter snow, find an empty parking lot and practice accelerating, braking, skidding so you know how the vehicle handles before you do a lot of driving in the snow.

Aaron D. Bragman, Detroit bureau chief

  • Stay home and telecommute.
  • Live somewhere that has no winter. Like Saudi Arabia.
  • SLOW. DOWN.

Truthfully, now that every modern car has traction control and stability programs, rear-wheel drive isn't much of a challenge. Just slow down. SLOW. DOWN.

Seriously, slow down.

Related
NHTSA Bids You Safe Travels With Winter Driving Tips
AAA: Make Holiday Travel Safety List, Check It Twice
More Advice on Cars.com

By Matt Schmitz | December 24, 2013 | Comments (9)
Tags: Safety

Comments 

responder

All good tips, but Mr. Hanley nailed it: get a good set of winter tires. I would add that folks should get narrower tires if possible than what they run in the summer. A narrower tire cuts through the snow easier, concentrating the cars weight over a smaller area. It would amplify the effect of the other good suggestion to put weight in the trunk too. To get the narrower tire you might need to get a dedicated set of winter tire wheels which are minus one or even two, to preserve the stock circumference of the tire.

JJJR

I agree, with rear wheel drive snow tires are a better bet over all seasons. Worth knowing... traction control may be a hindrance under slippery conditions negotiating hills. It might become necessary to turn it off as both rear wheels can lock causing the vehicle to slow and or stop even as you apply more power. Why, because the system automatically applies brakes when it records wheel slippage. Be prepared by knowing how to turn it off when and if you sense this happening. It's a simple push button usually dash mounted.

Tony

Best times of my life - 240SX in the winter

The important thing to keep in mind is to understand the limitations of your vehicle in the winter weather and adjust your driving accordingly. While its not ideal to have rear wheel drive, you can add winter tires to improve traction.

The most important is to drive slow

Steve

I grew up on rear wheel drive, carbed engines and stick shift. I made me more in touch with the truck I drove compared to all the computerized systems on the cars today. Don't rush, give yourself plenty of space, triple stopping distances atleast and have good tires on the vehicle. Driving on fresh snow isn't bad, but the slush from using salt is a major pain if you ask me.

Its best to just slow down in the winter but if you have rear wheel drive, these are great tips as I use to have a rear wheel drive car and each of these tips is what I found to work. Be safe out there.

The best advice is to slow down, it's amazing how many people you see flying down the highway just to see them on the side of the road 15 minutes later. I would have to disagree with the weight in the back though, that is just more for engine to move when it's already having problems moving what the car already weighs.

eedo

I got my G35 coupe in November, meaning I learned the mechanics of my car during winter time. Best tips I can give: get the BEST set of winter tires possible, add salt bags in the bag and have them tied to the sides if you can, if possible know the exact route you will be taking every time and make sure there aren't any hills. Now to be even more careful, simply holdout on driving the car immediately after its snowed heavy; driving through heavy snow in this car is the only time i ever felt that there was no control. Either than that, its a surprisingly nice car in the winter time if all the advice is followed.

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