Lifestyle  >  When driving is snow joke

Submitted by: Danny Cobbs Posted: 01/01/2012

when driving is snow jokeFOR MOST OF the year, 4x4s are vilified as the scourge of the highways and byways. Humungous, gas-guzzling, Chelsea tractors, they are deemed to have no place on our roads and are seen as the sole culprit for global warming, world recession, toast landing butter-side down and any other world atrocity. And then the snow arrives and these automotive scapegoats become the savours of the universe. Aging farmers' Land Rovers and plumbers' Mitsubishi pick-up trucks are summoned in the spirit of Dunkirk to help deliver the Telegraph and quails eggs to the elderly and infirm.

That said, with the best will in the world we are a bit rubbish in the UK when it comes to keeping the traffic moving in cold weather. So even with a handy 4x4 at your behest, you still might find yourself stuck in your driveway if the gritter hasn't been round.

Of course this doesn't apply to the rest of Europe. They know what weather winter brings and are ready to handle it. The Scandinavians, who spend from November until April in a near post-apocalyptic climate, still manage to get about their daily business, and not all of them own cars with four wheel drive. The reason? In their country it's compulsory for all cars to be fitted with either winter tyres or snow chains. Their highways agencies are better equipped too, with an army of snowploughs and gritters working around the clock. More importantly, European drivers are taught how to drive in these adverse conditions, a skill UK drivers lack.

Winter wheels

I mention this all because it reinforces the fact that driving in winter weather doesn't have to entail the great expense of buying a new 4x4. Six years ago I took part in the Croisière Blanche challenge, which is set around the French valleys of Campsaur and Valgaudemar in January when the temperature rarely creeps above -20C. There were hundreds of entrants from around the world and not all of them had tricked-up off-roaders. Snow-chained Mini Mokes and Citroën 2CVs competed equally well in the thigh-deep snowdrifts as the new Jeep Grand Cherokee I happened to be driving.

Now, clearly a Fiat Panda 4x4 is not going to be too high on Sir Ranulph Fiennes wishlist for an Arctic expedition, but for us lesser adventurers with a few inches of snow blocking our path, this Panda has a surprising ability to cope with most problems thrown in its path.

And there are plenty of other cars that perform surprisingly well in the snow. For example, the Audi A6 All Road appears to the outside world like any other medium size estate car, yet under its skin there is a competent Quattro all-wheel drive system that, just like the Fiat Panda, remains defiant in the face of a blizzard. Fit it with winter tyres – at the time of writing, Audi are offering a set free on all new A6 All Roads – and there are very few places in a whiteout Europe it won't rise to the challenge and get you through.

Believe it or not, Bentley uses a similar type of four-wheel drive system in their cars too, as does Lamborghini and Porsche. So, in theory then, the Porsche 911 4S should be equally at home ploughing a snowy path to a chateaux in Gstaad as it is setting a lap record around the Nurburgring circuit, shouldn't it?

Not quite. Having power to all four wheels is one thing, but ground clearance is another. Supercars are designed to have ultra-low drag factors so they can cut through the air cleanly and with the least amount of resistance as possible. To achieve this, the distance between the cars underside and the road is kept to a minimum. This is also their Achilles heel, and driving on compacted snow can cause as much damage to these cars as driving over a traffic-calming hump at more than 10mph.

Unchained malady

So then, if you happen to be planning to drive to the slopes of your favourite ski resort, the first thing to consider is whether your car is up to the job. If in any doubt, members of recovery services such as the AA are best advised to give them a call and get an expert opinion. While most motors are going to be able to handle average weather conditions, if you do decide to take your own car, winter tyres and/or snow chains are a legal requirement for most European countries. Snow chains are a bit of a faff to fit, so it's worth practicing when the weather conditions are more mild.

If you don't reckon your car is up for the job, there's always the option to rent a car. There are plenty of vehicles available for hire and they vary in price as much as they do in body form. Use the internet to compare rental prices and book the car specific to your needs before departing – squashing a family of six, plus luggage, into the-only-car-we-have-available-is-a-Fiat-500 is not the best start to any holiday. A recognised rental firm will ensure the car will conform to that particular country's winter road laws, too. Winter tyres should be fitted as standard, and although the hire of snow chains will normally carry a small charge, it may be worth paying if the route you're planning is taking you away from the main roads.

As previously mentioned, the Europeans are better equipped at keeping the traffic flowing in the white stuff than we are. However, even the most efficient countries will struggle if there's a relentless fall of snow or an avalanche decides to block the way. Irrespective of whether you hire or take your own vehicle it's also worth remembering that however much grip the tyres have, how competent the cars off-road system is, or how high it sits off the ground, these things are merely there to assist the person behind the steering wheel. None of the above will stop ice being a danger, neither will they dig a car out of snowdrift you've managed to plant the bonnet nose deep in to (I know this from personal experience). The best advice for driving in the snow is just do it slowly.

Tips for driving in the snow

• Keep your speed down. However experienced a driver you are, Mother Nature has a nasty streak.
• Drive with dipped headlights. Always keep yourself visible to other drivers
• Take care when driving down a steep, ice-covered hill. It needs to be taken very slowly. Never stomp on the brakes – just feather them gently. Watch for escape routes: if the car begins to slide it's less painful to come to a halt in a snowdrift than sideways-on to another car.
• If you're stuck going uphill, try turning off the traction control system. This may seem crazy, but all the time it's engaged it is stopping the wheels from spinning freely. It may not always work but it's worth a try before you leave the warmth of the car to dig it out. Don't forget to turn it back on again.

And if you get into trouble…

• If your vehicle does become immobilised, stay inside until help arrives. There should only be one exception, and that is to clear the exhaust pipe to prevent carbon monoxide poisoning.
• Tie something bright to the top of the vehicle (ideally to the antenna, although not all modern cars have them).
• Run the engine 10 to 15 minutes out of every hour for heat, and open a window slightly for ventilation.
• Exercise arms, legs, fingers and toes to keep the blood circulating.

A few items you may consider taking when driving in the snow, just in case…

• A fully charged mobile phone – and tell someone where you're going and the route you're planning. Don't forget to let them know when you arrive at the destination.
• A Thermos of hot drink. Always useful, irrespective of the weather.
• Don't underestimate the analogue technology of a shovel. This medieval tool is much better than an iPod when it comes to digging a car out of snowdrift

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