How To Survive Winter With Rear-Wheel Drive

The Christmas travel season is again upon us, and while the weather across much of the nation is expected to be relatively tame for the holiday itself, much of the country has experienced freezing rain, sleet, ice and snow in advance of the big day. That is, of course, when a majority of travelers hit the interstates in their cars — many of which may possess an aspect of their powertrains that counts snow and ice as a traction-reducing, fishtail-inducing mortal enemy: rear-wheel drive.

For owners of newer vehicles, Executive Editor Joe Wiesenfelder said, rear-drive isn't nearly the median magnet it used to be, thanks to increasingly sophisticated traction-control systems as well as electronic stability control systems, required on all U.S. cars starting with the 2012 model year. ESC monitors where the driver is pointing the car versus what the car is actually doing and can apply the brakes to any of the wheels to help steer a fishtailing vehicle back on course, Wiesenfelder explained.

Traction control, meanwhile, is exclusively intended to prevent wheel spin at the drive wheels and assists acceleration on low-traction surfaces by limiting throttle and braking the drive wheels, which as a side effect also helps prevent fishtailing and spinouts. Earlier traction-control systems were too conservative and hindered forward movement, but today's improved systems can read the conditions and allow some wheel spin, or "paddling," which is more effective at getting going in loose snow.

"Rear-wheel-drive cars aren't unusable in winter, especially nowadays," Wiesenfelder said. "All cars were once rear-wheel drive, riding on unsophisticated bias-ply tires, and we survived — as do law-enforcement officers and cab drivers, most of whom have been in rear-drive sedans for decades.

"You just have to combine the right equipment with appropriate driving practices."

To that end, editors have offered their personal tips developed over their years of extensive driving experience to help you survive the winter with rear-wheel drive.

Robby DeGraff, associate editor

I drove a rear-wheel-drive Camaro in the snow every day back in high school. A few tips I have:

  • Put weight in the back, bags of sand, cinder blocks, etc.
  • Go easy on the gas; start in a higher gear to avoid wheel spin.
  • Don't "death grip" the wheel: If you're holding on to the steering wheel tightly when your back end slips out you might panic and jerk the whole car rapidly in a different direction.

Kelsey Mays, consumer affairs editor

  • Have a sense of how planted your car is. If you feel the tail getting squirrely, get off the gas and gently counter steer — but don't overdo it. The key is to be gentle with your inputs.
  • Limit your braking to a straight line. Avoid braking and cornering at the same time.
  • Keep it slow, increase following distances and use your lights whenever it's snowing, even during the daytime.

Mike Hanley, research editor

I'd say the single most important thing would be to get a set of dedicated winter tires and swap them on the car before it gets cold and snowy out. In addition to helping prevent fishtailing when accelerating by offering more traction, they'll also help you stop better. The cost could be $800 or so, depending on the car, but if they save you once that's probably less than an insurance deductible/rate hike would be for a wrecked car.

Jennifer Geiger, news editor

A few common sense tips go a long way here (and managed to save my bacon!):

  • Take it very slow. Speed quickly makes a dangerous situation spin out of control. If you're too hot on the gas in slippery weather, your tires will start to spin and without traction, a skid is inevitable.
  • Feather the brakes and gas lightly and use small, gentle movements with the steering wheel.
  • Leave plenty of distance between you and the car ahead of you and turn on your hazard lights to warn others that you're having a problem.
  • When the wheels start slipping, take your foot off the brake and gently steer the car toward the skid. Lightly apply the accelerator and when the wheels start gripping again, gently and slowly maneuver the car back on course.

Evan Sears, photo editor

  • From a dead stop, skip directly to 2nd gear to avoid spinning wheels.
  • Avoid accelerating through turns.
  • Understand what antilocks are, what they do, how they work, etc. I've heard stories of people freaking out the first time they hear the pump motor turn on when they're engaging. An emergency ice situation is not exactly the optimum time to be surprised by a noise your car is making.
  • If you don't have antilock brakes, know how to manually pump brakes while keeping your cool in a slide.

Jennifer Burklow, copy editor

  • Have extra weight in the back of the vehicle and have it evenly distributed over the wheels (provides traction).
  • Have good tires and make sure they're properly inflated for better grip.
  • After the first winter snow, find an empty parking lot and practice accelerating, braking, skidding so you know how the vehicle handles before you do a lot of driving in the snow.

Aaron D. Bragman, Detroit bureau chief

  • Stay home and telecommute.
  • Live somewhere that has no winter. Like Saudi Arabia.

Truthfully, now that every modern car has traction control and stability programs, rear-wheel drive isn't much of a challenge. Just slow down. SLOW. DOWN.

Seriously, slow down.

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News Editor Matt Schmitz is a veteran Chicago journalist indulging his curiosity for all things auto while helping to inform car shoppers.  Email Matt