A winter wonderland for drivers can be a nightmare of freezing rain, sleet, ice, and snow, which bravery can only partially reduce. Of course, the worst of winter is when most drivers take to the highways in their vehicles, many of which may have rear-wheel drive, a feature of their powertrains that considers snow and ice to be a traction-reducing, fishtail-inducing mortal enemy.
Fortunately, because of increasingly sophisticated systems like electronic stability control, which is now required on all U.S. automobiles starting with the 2012 model year, RWD isn’t quite as much of a winter driving median magnet as it once was. ESC can apply the brakes to any of the wheels to assist in steering a fishtailing vehicle back on track by monitoring where the driver is aiming the car in relation to what the automobile is actually doing.
Antilock brakes and traction control are also included, and the latter is only designed to stop the wheelspin at the drive wheels. By reducing speed and stopping the drive wheels, it helps with acceleration in low-traction conditions like snow and ice while also preventing fishtailing and spinouts. The better traction-control systems of today can read the road conditions and allow some wheelspin, or “paddling,” which is more effective in loose snow or slippery ice. Older traction-control systems were excessively conservative and impeded forward motion.
In order to assist you to endure the winter with an RWD car or truck, Cars.com editors have provided their firsthand advice honed over years of vast driving experience. Here are some safety precautions you may take before driving as well as some advice on how to drive an RWD car more effectively when it starts to snow.
Fill the trunk with trash
An RWD car can get more traction by shifting excess weight to the back and spreading it evenly among the wheels. Sandbags, cinder blocks, and other heavy items can be used to add weight to the back of the car; it can also serve as an excellent justification for overpacking for a winter road trip.
Winterize your vehicle
For improved traction, get a good pair of tires and make sure they are properly filled. When the weather changes, switching to a pair of winter tires might also be a wise investment.
“I’d say the single most significant item would be to purchase a pair of dedicated winter tires and put them on the car before it gets cold and snowy out,” said Senior Road Test Editor Mike Hanley. “They’ll help you stop better as well as minimize fishtailing when accelerating by delivering more traction.” “Depending on the car, the cost may be around $800, but if they save you once, it would likely be cheaper than an insurance deductible or rate increase for a ruined car.”
In bad weather, all drivers should exercise caution by reducing their speed and extending their following distance, but RWD drivers need to take extra care. If you notice that the vehicle’s tail is slipping, gently countersteer and let off the gas. A smart tip is to maintain a loose grip on the steering wheel rather than squeezing it strongly to avoid unintentionally yanking the car when wheel slip does occur.
News Editor Jennifer Geiger advised, “Do it very gently. Speed quickly makes a dangerous scenario spin out of control.” “If you press the gas pedal too hard while driving in slick conditions, your tires will begin to spin; and without traction, a skid is imminent. Lightly use the gas and brakes while gliding the steering wheel in small, smooth strokes. Keep a good gap between you and the vehicle in front of you, and turn on your hazard lights to let other drivers know that anything is wrong.
Avoid going around in circles
Avoiding acceleration into corners and limiting your braking to straight lines are two proactive steps you can take to prevent wheel spin and course correct if it does occur. It can also be a good idea to start in a higher gear (i.e. skip directly to 2nd gear from a stop).
Geiger recommended, “As the wheels begin to skid, let off the brake and gradually guide the automobile towards the skid.” When the wheels start to grip again, “lightly use the accelerator, and then softly and slowly maneuver the car back on course.”
Trust the Car, But Drive Carefully
Winter driving can be safer with the help of contemporary technologies like traction control, ESC, and antilock brakes, as well as winter tires and defensive driving, especially for drivers of RWD vehicles. Knowing how antilock brakes operate can help you avoid being surprised when the system activates. You should also be aware of potential issues with traction control technology. Avoid driving in doubtful conditions if at all feasible.
Detroit Bureau Director Aaron Bragman’s wry advice: “Stay home and telecommute [or] live somewhere that has no winter, like Madagascar.” Remember to slow down, turn on your headlights and hazards, and leave plenty of distance between your car and the vehicle in front of you if you are caught off guard by a snowstorm while already on the road.