Car Performance
April 29, 2004 11:28 AM   Subscribe

What's the biggest factor in a car's performance through different conditions? (more inside)

My 1993 Ford Thunderbird (one of the family sedan, bastard-child-to-the-name versions) can’t handle winter in New Jersey- although huge, it has a light frame and rear-wheel drive, which combined together make the car 100% useless on snowy roads (I have a below-ground garage; it couldn’t get back uphill with even half an inch of snow on the ground) It also has a 160HP V6, which is bigger than most of the engines on the small-to-midsize cars I’m looking at for a replacement (Civics, Corollas, Altimas, Focuses, etc.)

I’m past the macho need-for-speed phase, and just want a reliable car… I could care less about horsepower as long as it can drive through snow. I’m fearful now that my next car will be useless in winter as well; I’m just not sure if it’ll be because my car is too light, or because the engine is too weak.

So is it the engine or the front wheel or weight or something else that determines all-weather performance? All the cars I noted above are front-wheel, but vary in terms of engine size and horsepower… with exception of the Altima, none of them even have a V6, let alone more than about 120HP. How important is that in terms of anything other than acceleration? I’ve always believed that all horsepower determines is how fast the car goes from 0-60… does a bigger/more powerful engine make it easier to drive in snow/rain/mud, etc? Or is that all a factor of weight, tire traction, etc?

I care more about being able to use my car year-round than how fast I can pass another car on the highway… is it worth it to splurge for a V6/150+ HP engine, or does frontwheel and smaller size make a bigger difference?
posted by XQUZYPHYR to Travel & Transportation (10 answers total)
The best thing you can do is get a vehicle with front wheel drive. Putting the weight of the engine on top of the drive wheels improves traction tremendously, and putting the drive wheels in front minimizes the fishtailing effect. A more powerful engine will probably not help much (unless it's really heavy); in fact, the more torque your engine can deliver to the wheels, the more easily they will start to spin instead of grabbing.

A car with a somewhat heavier frame (and thus more inertia) may help to maintain control when plowing through drifts. If you don't have to deal with large quantities of snow, the heavier frame probably won't help you very much.

In the meantime, if you haven't already, throw some sandbags (200-300lb) in the trunk of your current car. Putting more weight over the drive wheels does help.
posted by Galvatron at 12:02 PM on April 29, 2004

I've lived in snowy climates all my life and always driven small, front wheel drive cars and had little problem. The key to a front wheel drive car is that the engine (the heaviest part of the car) is located directly above the front tires, giving you all that added traction. As to whether a more powerful engine is better or worse, I'd say worse. It just makes it easier to spin the tires and lose contact with the road when it's snowy/icy. But, that being said, if you're a little careful and have some clue as to what you're doing on snowy roads, that shouldn't be an issue. Another thing to think about in snow is the braking. I've actually never had a car with anti-lock brakes, but have learned how to pump the brakes and never had much problem. However, I have driven cars with anti-lock brakes, and it makes it much easier to stop in the snow. So I'd certainly recommend something with anti-lock brakes. Finally, the biggest thing I've noticed as far as getting around in the snow is the condition of my tires. When they start getting a bit bare, it makes things much more difficult. So always keep your tires pretty new, especially when you're heading into the winter season. You might even consider snow tires, though I've always had good luck with simple all seasons. If you're really concerned about getting around in the snow, then you might look into an all wheel drive Subaru, though they tend to run a bit pricier than the models you listed.
posted by split atom at 12:11 PM on April 29, 2004

If winter driving is your primary concern, then, yeah, spring for something with all-wheel drive.
posted by sad_otter at 12:21 PM on April 29, 2004

Traction control and ABS make a big difference in any car. But why not consider a Prius - you get the benefit of a clean burning engine with low gas usage. I did a quick search and landed on this guy's site. He lives in Minnesota and reports that the prius has no problems with handling in the snow.
posted by grateful at 12:33 PM on April 29, 2004

So is it the engine or the front wheel or weight or something else that determines all-weather performance?

Ability to get through snow and slush will be mostly determined by traction and tires (which help determine traction, I know).

Front wheel drive helps a lot, because your drive wheels are under the engine, so you get more traction on your drive wheels. All-wheel drive is better, since then all your weight is on the drive wheels, by definition.

For tires, just remember to swap out your tires for winter/snow tires every winter, or at least check your all-seasons carefully in the late fall.

Horsepower isn't going to help you much in the snow, slush, or mud (unless you're a race driver with mad racing skillz, yo). It won't really hurt, either, though -- you'll have to be a smidge more careful than you otherwise would when starting from a dead stop, and then just keep your car a gear or two higher than normal (and otherwise be careful) so you're not over-torqueing the wheels.

If you're fighting the Jersey Turnpike on a regular basis outside of winter, you might well want those 150+ horsies back when you're trying to merge, or get out of the way of an idiot in an IROC.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:52 PM on April 29, 2004

Front wheel drive is very important.

Tires make an enormous difference, but you'd never know it by the shite that manufacturers ship with their new cars. For years I considered my front-wheel-drive Passat to be a good car but treacherous in snow. Eventually I consulted and found that ALL Passat drivers felt that way, until they replaced their original Eagle GAs. A girlfriend had the same experience with her Honda CR-V. I'm sure other sites do it as well, but I had a lot of luck comparing owner survey results via tirerack.
posted by coelecanth at 12:57 PM on April 29, 2004

A modern rear wheel drive car with ABS and computer-controlled traction and stability systems is just about as tractable in the snow as a front wheeler. If you're going to be shopping in the price range which allows such ammenities, I would let other concerns guide your decision.

However, if you're looking at Civics and other kin in their price range, any electronic systems other than ABS are not likely to be available. In this case, yes, in snowy/icy conditions, the average driver is better off with front wheel drive, for the reasons already mentioned. (However, since you asked about *all* conditions, you must also consider that FWD gives up alot to RWD in driving dynamics when roads are dry. That may not be a concern to you, but its something you should consider. Also, I'd content that in *all* conditions, with tires appropriate for the road surface, RWD is better if you're willing to learn how to drive it.)

As for the power -- power is useful for more than demonstrating your testosterone. Trying to make it into a break in traffic? That onramp a bit shorter than it should be? The semi you're passing changing into your lane without seeing you? That car coming down the cross street miss the light, and getting ready to t-bone you? The difference between 120 and 160 horsepower could well be meaningful to you.

(Actually, technically, what you'd be more interested in in these situations is torque, not HP. Remember that torque is an instantaneous force, horsepower measures work over time. Accelerating in a hurry is more a funciton of torque; maintaining that speed requires horsepower)

Just some things to consider. The single biggest factor in keeping traction on a snowy road, though, is to put some decent snow tires on a car. All-season tires are a compromise, and not good at dry *or* wet *or* snowy conditions.
posted by jammer at 2:33 PM on April 29, 2004

Thank you to the last two posters. The whole FWD being better than RWD in the snow is crap. RWD cars actually have better weight distribution. They are more likely to fish-tail, but that illustrates a salient point: the most important factor is the driver. Save for situations where the vehicle is stuck in the snow, the biggest thing is knowing how to handle driving in the snow.
posted by yerfatma at 4:54 PM on April 29, 2004

Well, certainly no conflicting opinions on this one.

If you don't know a lot about driving in the snow, you will probably be happier with FWD than RWD. The FWD vehicle will handle similarly in dry and slippery conditions, while the RWD vehicle will handle very differently under different conditions.

IF you are a skilled driver and IF you take the time to practice winter driving, I will agree with some of the other posters that you may be happier with RWD. The biggest factor (in my opinion) is what happens when you lose control. In a RWD vehicle, spinning the drive wheels will cause you to fishtail, but steering is still possible and therefore recovery is possible. In a FWD vehicle, the drive wheels will have more traction, but when they do spin you are more likely to utterly lose control (because you can't steer effectively when the steerable wheels are sliding).

Bottom line: try to objectively consider your driving ability before making a decision.
posted by Galvatron at 7:32 PM on April 29, 2004

Used to drive a Buick Skylark GS (1970) in snow without sandbags in the back.... I couldnt pull out of my driveway. Put 200lbs of sand in the back, much better.

Save your money, put sandbags in the car, maybe in your case 250lbs. It will slightly reduce your gas mileage, but its worth it. Try that before doing anything else, feel the difference. Cheap fix, too.

By the way, last time I will ever, EVER drive drunk was in the skylark. Got in, turned the key, blacked out. Woke up, 3rd party tachometer was at 8 thousand. Let off the gas, blew a rod. Drove it home. Hit two stop signs. Never, ever again.
posted by Keyser Soze at 5:30 AM on April 30, 2004

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