Does electronic stability control help out in winter driving conditions?
August 18, 2009 7:57 AM   Subscribe

Will I need electronic stability control for winter driving? Please help this California native and recent Texas resident decide on a car to buy before my first "real" winter in northern Illinois begins.

Having been lucky enough to spend my life so far in the warmer areas of the country that don't believe in seasons, we've just moved to the DeKalb area and I'm faced with the daunting prospect of driving in snowy and icy conditions. I've been told that roads are generally quick to be plowed/iced when the snow falls, so I'm wondering if stability and/or traction control are realistically going to add that much benefit during winter if I stick to paved, well-traveled roads and highways (and drive carefully). Sites I've seen on the internet say that both are must-haves, but I'm more interested in your real world experiences with winter driving.

In case you're curious, we're looking to replace our '95 Accord V-6 with a pre-owned 2005-2007 Accord (I've gone this route because of brand loyalty, gas mileage, and budgetary reasons). From what I've gathered, only the trims with a V-6 from these years come equipped with stability control (and NOT traction control). 2008+ Accords come with stability and traction standard on all trims, although they are a bit outside of our budget range. I've also played with the idea of getting a newer CR-V, but again, it's skirting the limits of our budget. The car will be used primarily to get me to and from work; we have an Odyssey to haul the family around in. Other car suggestions are welcome.
posted by puritycontrol to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
Canadian, here. I think you'll be okay without it, people have been driving cars in the winter without fancy technology for years.

That said, as you're new to it, there will be a learning curve to driving regularly in snowy or icy conditions. You'll want to consider getting Winter tires, as they do make a huge difference, however most people just use All-Seasons.

My current vehicle has no traction control or stability management, and it's fine in the snow (although I do always switch to Winter tires from Nov-Mar).
posted by smitt at 8:03 AM on August 18, 2009

I've been told that roads are generally quick to be plowed/iced when the snow falls

It might be beneficial to know now that this sometimes doesn't mean anything -- snow and ice can accumulate, and snow can blow hard enough, that driving will be difficult, even if you're behind a snow plow. Learn about black ice before winter begins.
posted by runningwithscissors at 8:13 AM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

My newer car has stability control and it kicked in exactly once in the two winters I've owned it (I was driving maybe a little faster than advisable in some slush). It was nice to have but you can easily get by without it. Sound like you'll have antilock brakes, which I recommend.

I learned to drive in sunny California and moved back east later in life. Just take it easy on the road your first winter until you get the hang of things, and you should be fine.
posted by exogenous at 8:14 AM on August 18, 2009

I generally turn off my ESC on my cars during inclement weather beacuse I find them intrusive, except during unexpected events (a deer popping out or an obstacle) as your reactions simply cannot cope with those situations. For sloshing around, I trust my stick shift, but if you're in a position to ask this question, it's a bonus safety feature but not necessarily necessary, especially if you get a FWD car (not sure about the 95 Accord though, is it RWD?).
posted by stratastar at 8:14 AM on August 18, 2009

the stability control is nowhere near as useful as all wheel drive.. get a subaru!
posted by HuronBob at 8:18 AM on August 18, 2009

Traction control, also known as EDL (electronic differential lock, or 'poor mans LSD') will not help in some instances of low-speed winter driving. For example, when stuck in a parking spot, trying to reverse over a mound of snow, you actually want the front wheels to spin some to gain some traction.

If I were moving to Illinois, I'd look for a winter tire and wheel package on Driving skills + winter wheels = the best active protection against accidents.
posted by limited slip at 8:23 AM on August 18, 2009

Traction control was extremely useful a few times this winter for getting up a fairly steep hill on the access road to my house; it also helped during a bad storm that I probably shouldn't have been driving in at all. (You might really have to drive somewhere during a storm, though; "quickly" here probably means within 24 hrs). Aside from that it didn't matter. I don't think it would be necessary in new england at least, since I had a car without any of this stuff for 4 years there, and drove in some really bad conditions. Good tires are a must, though.
posted by advil at 8:24 AM on August 18, 2009

I've been told that roads are generally quick to be plowed/iced when the snow falls, so I'm wondering if stability and/or traction control are realistically going to add that much benefit during winter if I stick to paved, well-traveled roads and highways (and drive carefully). Sites I've seen on the internet say that both are must-haves, but I'm more interested in your real world experiences with winter driving.

I've lived and driven in Northern Illinois for a long time, and I've had no winter-related accidents. I've never had a car with stability or traction control, so for me at least they are not must-haves, but ABS brakes have certainly helped. Also, even in areas that are plowed constantly there will still be times when there is a lot of snow and ice, especially if it's been snowing all night and you're going to work before the plows have gotten to everything. The first big snow of the year will generally be one of the worst, because they usually don't get salt down before that and the plows aren't always ready to go. A few tips:

- Don't be afraid to drive slow. Illinois drivers can be pretty pushy but in bad conditions they'll just have to deal with you driving at the speed you are comfortable with.
- Accelerate slowly when starting from a complete stop. If you accelerate too quickly, your tires will just spin or you'll fishtail before you get going.
- Be extra careful about braking when you're going down a hill. If there is ice at the bottom, you could skid right through a stop sign or stoplight.
- Watch out when switching lanes, especially to rarely-used lanes like turn lanes, because the often used part of the road will generally be in better condition.
- Buy a small snow shovel and keep it in your trunk, in case your parking spot turns into a snow drift while you're not around. Also, invest in a good ice scraper, because if you park your car outside very often you'll be using it a lot.
- A few days a year there will be huge snowstorms that will make most roads completely undriveable. Depending on your job it makes sense to take a sick day or work from home if possible on those days.
posted by burnmp3s at 8:31 AM on August 18, 2009

We moved from Texas to Buffalo, which as you've probably heard does get some snowfall. Out here in the suburbs, the only time I drive in the snow is while it's falling. It's cleaned up inside a couple-few hours.

99% of the time, I get around fine in my 97 Prelude with no traction control, no stability control, just ABS. I don't feel like I'm ever in real danger, especially because most of the other drivers drive pretty well in the snow.

But it's still annoying to slip sometimes, or to have some trouble getting going from a stop with the wheels spinning furiously to little effect, and to generally feel just not very sure-footed. When it gets replaced next year, it's probably going to be with a Subaru or other 4WD car. Or, fuck it, a Miata.

Why not just keep your current car through this winter, or at least part of the winter, to see how you deal with driving in a car that similarly lacks stability and traction control and all that?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:38 AM on August 18, 2009

Another Canadian here.

Traction control I've found is useless on ice (freezing rain), or deep snow. I always had to turn it off on my mustang to get moving. That was RWD though.

My old Jeep Cherokee 4x4 which was my last vehicle, went through 2 winters with no traction problems at all. It just plowed through everything where everyone else was struggling. Didn't even need winter tires, just good all-season ones.
posted by hungrysquirrels at 8:44 AM on August 18, 2009

I drive a 2003 Accord (V-6) which comes with traction control and ABS, but not stability control. Same "generation" as the used ones you're looking at, but a Canadian model so the standard features might be different. Canadian ones all come with heated mirrors and a HUGE windshield-washer tank, for instance.

The traction control system is generally useful but not essential in the snow, in that you can be a bit lazy hitting the gas when starting up from a stop. Without it you can get into crazy amounts of wheel-spin unless you go really light on the gas, with it you can just let the traction control sort it out.

The one situation where it does something the driver couldn't do is when you have one wheel on dry pavement and the other wheel on ice, which happens a lot at intersections where water has pooled at the side of the road and frozen. The TC system can apply the brake on just the wheel that is spinning, giving you some traction with the other. Poor-man's limited-slip differential, like another commenter said.

When you get stuck in deep snow, you have to turn the traction control off to get out. It allows a little bit of wheel-spin, but you just end up with the front wheels stuck in two round holes in the snow, slowly going around and around. There's a handy button on the dashboard to turn it off, for just situations like that.

I don't have stability control, so it's hard to say how useful it would be. I find the Accord in general to be pretty stable in the snow, and it's a big car so it takes a little longer to swap ends than a smaller vehicle. Gives you a little more time to react and keep it under control. In low-speed turns I've occasionally felt the back end starting to come around but it was easy to control. However I've been driving in the winter here (Toronto) for about 20 years, so that might help. ;)

Where people often get in trouble in the winter is trying to change lanes or drive through a deep line of snow at highway speeds. You really have to be on top of this sometimes, in terms of keeping the car pointed in the direction it's moving, or you can find yourself going sideways down the highway very fast. I would think this is the kind of situation that stability control addresses.

Nthing the recommendation to buy winter tires. I did this for the first time this winter and the difference in traction and safety over all-season tires was enormous. This, to me, seems like your best bet to make up for lack of winter driving experience.
posted by FishBike at 8:59 AM on August 18, 2009

Why not just keep your current car through this winter, or at least part of the winter, to see how you deal with driving in a car that similarly lacks stability and traction control and all that?

I agree.

It really has everything to do with how good a driver you are. If you are talented and can judge when grip is about to leave you- and how to correct when it does- you don't need electronic aids. It really is a talent- a knowing. It can't really be learned.

If you know you are just an average or "too careful" driver, go with traction control and buy some nice, grippy foul weather tires (like Gislaveds). Who knows? Maybe you will discover that you have the talent and the right stuff to drive in foul weather and you can stick with regular tires and no electronic aids.
posted by Zambrano at 9:02 AM on August 18, 2009

Snow tires on your FWD accord should suffice.

Tires make a phenomenal amount of difference in all situations. There's quite a bit of engineering that goes into tire design- materials, tread pattern, etc. They are the part that makes contact with the road, after all. However, with engineering there's always a tradeoff. With tires, it's generally price and longevity vs grippiness vs specialization vs noise. A cheap, long-life tire will add 15 feet to your 70-0 braking distance and howl all the way down the road and be just ok in most situations. A snow tire might wear quickly and be kind-of loud, but they're not that pricey and really, they make a huge difference in your ability to go, stop, and turn in the powder. A good spring, summer, fall tire will do well in the rain, improve road feel, shorten stopping distance, and stay silent. But it won't last as long and it won't go in the snow. I guess my takehome point is that all the electronic wizardry in the world can't overcome a crappy set of house-brand high mileage walmart tires.
posted by everythings_interrelated at 9:05 AM on August 18, 2009 [1 favorite]

Snow tires! Spent a winter here in Montreal with tires from LA on my Mustang. Disaster. Next year, got winter tires. Never had a problem again.
posted by musofire at 9:12 AM on August 18, 2009

Response by poster: Thanks for the great advice so far, gang! The ABS computer on our current Accord is dead: about $1000 to replace, plus a few hundred dollars worth of other fixes that we've put off with the knowledge that we'd be looking for a new car soon. My wife isn't confident that the car will start reliably after sitting in the open while I'm at work (we have a garage at home), which prompted me to start the search for a replacement. Overall, though, the car works great, so maybe keeping it is in the cards.
posted by puritycontrol at 9:49 AM on August 18, 2009

Driving in the snow and ice does not require any fancy traction control or stability control system. I have traction control and have found it essentially worthless. ABS brakes and perhaps some snow tires will make a real difference though. I grew up driving in the snow and I think that is a benefit. We did all the stupid stuff you shouldn't do like donuts in icy intersections but it did teach us how to handle the car when it starts to slip. Hitting a deserted parking lot and practicing recovery from slipping in a turn could be of use. You just turn your wheels in the direction of the slide so they start rolling instead of sliding. With ABS you can do this with your foot on the brake. Without ABS it is better to try and recover without braking. Most people are not very good at pumping the brakes especially in the panic of sliding around a corner.
posted by caddis at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2009

Snow tires on all four wheels. I drive a Miata, in Maine, in the winter. No traction control. No ABS. Rear-wheel drive.

Learn how to drive in the snow & ice by practicing in an empty parking lot after a good storm. Do not trust technology. That said, of all the technological wonderfulness available on cars these days, I would definately appreciate ABS. It's one of those things that's just better than the old way. Kinda like limited-slip differentials, or windshields... .
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 10:39 AM on August 18, 2009

One piece of advice, whatever car you end up driving. Go to empty parking lots and practice driving on snow, ice, etc.
posted by Good Brain at 10:53 AM on August 18, 2009

Goodbrain is right: Go to an empty parking lot and practice. Don't just practice normal driving, practice skidding, turning while skidding, braking fast, etc., I am an intrepid driver in Maine weather, and I attribute it to "doing donuts" in the Mall parking lot in snowstorms when I was a teenager. I grew up in Boringville, this was the height of fun.
posted by theora55 at 10:59 AM on August 18, 2009

As a Floridian who has been living in New England for the past three years and LOVES to drive, the combination of snow tires, All Wheel Drive & ABS are fantastic.

Snow tires are a must. I run Hakkapeliitta RSIs, but there are other good ones too. If you get a top quality tire, studs are unnecessary. Picking up a spare set of rims to keep your winter tires mounted on can save you some money in the long run and help keep you nice rims in good shape.

ABS would be my number two because it can make a huge difference in an emergency.

AWD is fantastic. Less of a requirement than the others, but I will NEVER be without it on my primary car. I drive an '01 Subaru Forester and regularly drive around cars, trucks, jeeps, etc. that are stuck on hills. I start from a dead stop in the worst conditions and never lose traction. During the winter I amuse myself by stopping next to cars that are stuck trying to go up a hill, asking if they are ok, and when they say yes, driving up the hill an issue. AWD with winter tires are that good.

The downside to AWD is the fuel economy. It's not terrible, but it's not as good as two wheel drive cars.

If you are willing to look beyond Honda, check out some Subarus (start with the Forester, Outback & Impreza). They are by far the most popular brand among my friends who are fellow gear heads (followed by Saabs which also have excellent AWD) because of their reliability and winter performance.

One more thing, make sure your car has a defroster on the rear windshield & mirrors.

Good luck with the move, & enjoy the snow!
posted by thekiltedwonder at 11:16 AM on August 18, 2009

Bahh... I've always lived in central IL, and had mid to late 80's junkers since I started driving ('97). No ABS, traction control, stability, or 4WD. And I've never had an accident because of the snow.

That being said, if I had to choose one I'd go with 4WD. The couple times I've driven an SUV in snow, popping it into 4WD made a huge difference. One minute my wheels would be slipping and the next, I was crawling by all the other suckers trying to get up the hill. Hell on the gas milage though, so don't overuse it.

My mom's guiding philosophy when I was a kid was, "If the school is open, the kids are going!" We lived about 15/20 minutes from school on country roads and rural routes. I swear to God, one day we drove down a 10 mile stretch where the road was covered in a solid sheet of ice. Mom's choice of car was always the Chevy Blazer (this was in the 90's) with 4WD and it never got stuck in the snow or ice. Much to my dismay, we always made it to school.

Maybe I'm weird, but I always enjoy driving in snow and slush. Adds some challenge to what's become a pretty boring and routine activity. The worst time is always the first snowfall. Not because of the conditions, but because every idiot on the road forgets that it's time to use your winter skills (and Chicago has a lot of idiots).
posted by sbutler at 11:21 AM on August 18, 2009

I'm a (northern) canadian driver, and all you really need is good winter tires and ABS.

It's more of a "knowing how to drive" thing. Speed works differently in winter. You have to slow down sooner (and softer). You need to be more careful when accelerating, because that's an easy way to lose contact with the road. Just get to know how fast the ice will let you accelerate, slow down, and turn. Once you've experienced that, it shouldn't be too hard.

You might also find yourself wishing for colder weather too. 20F is a pain to drive in, because the snow/ice will melt as you drive over it making it very slippery. -40F is much nicer to drive in, because there's almost no melting and packed snow has great traction when it's packed hard (and not polished).

Winter time driving can be very fun as well. Once you figure it out, you can start turning much much sharper than you would be able to on pavement in summer by using your hand-brake, or anticipating turns. A little bit of ice and an empty street makes high-speed parallel parking pretty exciting.

Oh, having the roads plowed doesn't do anything for your driving experience, they only lower the height of the snow so that you can actually drive on them.

You'll probably also want an AAA membership for stalls, dead batteries, and getting stuck in snow drifts. Always use your seatbelt, and keep a sandbag(s) and a blanket in the car. If you get stuck in a bit of snow or ice, use your car floormats under the wheels to get out (or cardboard if you have some extra).
posted by blue_beetle at 12:17 PM on August 18, 2009

Hondas are awesome, I currently have one, have had a few in the past, my next car will also be one, but if I were moving to a place where I had to regularly drive in "real" winter, I'd buy another Subaru in a heartbeat.
posted by sageleaf at 1:47 PM on August 18, 2009

The downside to AWD is the fuel economy.

Well, that and the inability to deliberately lose traction around corners to pull slide-turns.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 4:37 PM on August 18, 2009

I have a 2001 saturn, which by no means, has any fancy-shmancy stuff. I have had this car since I was 18, and I have had no problems with it driving in the snow. When I first got my license, I was forced to drive my fathers s10 chevy pickup, which was HORRIBLE in the snow. Pickup trucks fishtail in the snow at any given chance, especially if you dont have counterweights like sandbags to offset the uneven weight distribution. Rear wheel drive cars are awful in the snow, so as long as you go for a front wheel drive car, youre good! Just dont follow close behind people who dont know how to drive, because its no fun having to jam on the brakes when driving on ice :)

I have lived in Chicago all my life and I am 26.
posted by shannie-bananie at 4:48 PM on August 18, 2009

Oh and my boyfriend has a Jeep Grand Cherroke with 4x4, which is awesome in the snow and ice, but it's so horrible on gas... BUT its also fun for doing donuts in empty lots ;)
posted by shannie-bananie at 4:50 PM on August 18, 2009

« Older How do I create a "fill in form" on Adobe?   |   Looking for a farm-related gift for my father's... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.