I recently had the pleasure of attending the inaugural Mazda Ice Academy. Journalists were invited from all over the world to scenic Crested Butte, Colorado, to test drive Mazda vehicles on ice and snow. Spending the majority of my formative driving years in Arizona and Texas hasn’t exactly given me a ton of experience driving in these conditions (like once during an ice storm in Dallas). So, I was taking notes furiously during the presentation (nobody wants to be the guy that buries a brand new Miata MX5 in a snow bank). Fortunately, I avoided that fate and picked up some pointers along the way. Here’s how to drive on ice like a pro.
Technique matters most…
Driver assist technology should be engineered to assist when driver talent fails. While this is confidence instilling, proper technique is still the most important factor in navigating snowy and icy conditions. With that in mind, here a few pointers to help you master the elements:
- Slow and gradual wins the race. This applies to braking, handling and accelerating (channel your inner sloth). As soon as the car starts to slide, a normal reaction is to start spinning the steering wheel like a merry-go-round. This is that last thing you want to do. Quick and jerky movements tend to over or under correct the vehicle. By applying gradual acceleration, handling, and braking, you’re giving yourself the opportunity to see how the vehicle responds and adjust accordingly.
- Brake in straight lines. If you brake while turning, the wheels are going to lock and you’re most likely going to slide with little to no control. Maximize the effectiveness of an ABS system and brake in a straight line. Control your speed during cornering by decelerating, not braking.
- If you must brake while cornering, it’s likely that you’re going to experience either understeer or oversteer. At this point, the brakes are no longer your friend. The best way to maintain control is to modulate your acceleration, ease up on the brakes, and most importantly, turn the wheel in the opposite direction that you’re trying to turn. While this is completely counter-intuitive, it is amazingly effective in regaining control of the vehicle.
All-wheel drive systems are not created equal…
One point of emphasis was to compare and contrast vehicles to delineate the differences between all-wheel drive systems. All-wheel drive equipped vehicles make a huge (and somewhat obvious) difference, but they are not all equally effective.
The buzzword during the presentation was intelligent. The best all-wheel drive systems can independently manage where power is being delivered on a real time basis.
When driving in snowy conditions with a vehicle equipped with all-wheel drive and winters tires, the word that kept coming to mind was confidence. Snow, ice, or a combination of the two didn’t bother the car, and I felt comfortable driving normal speeds despite the conditions.
Those tires are important…
I have to admit, the idea of owning seasonal tires is foreign to me. When you live in a climate that vacillates between summer and mild summer, you don’t have a pressing need for a winter tire. However, talking to some of my fellow journalists who hailed from snowier settings, winter tires were seen as a luxury. Most drove on all-season tires, citing the choice as the perfect balance of value and performance.
A winter tire is specifically formulated with a special compound designed to stay soft in extreme cold (summer and all-season tires are much less pliable in freezing conditions) and have a unique tread system that actually sucks up snow and ice (because snow on snow provides the best traction).
While there is no denying that owning two sets of tires per vehicle is initially expensive, switching them on an annual basis prolongs the life of both sets and many dealerships will store tires free of charge. Despite the cost, I have to admit that I’ve been converted to the church of seasonal tires (assuming you live in a location that has a real winter).
With Our Powers Combined…
While the proper technique, equipment, and technology are all somewhat effective on their own, a driver truly gains control in aversive elements when combining all three. As mentioned, I am anything but an expert in snowy conditions. Despite my lack of experience, by the end of the course I was slaloming with the best of them, and most surprisingly, completely confident while doing so.