How to Survive Winter With Rear-Wheel Drive

rwd snow dynamic exterior wheel jpg Genesis G70 | photo by Christian Lantry

For drivers, a winter wonderland can mean a nightmare of freezing rain, sleet, ice and snow that bravery can only mitigate so much. Of course, the depths of winter are 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.

Related: Winter Is Coming; Is Your Car Ready?

Luckily, RWD isn’t nearly the winter driving median magnet it used to be thanks to increasingly sophisticated systems like electronic stability control, 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.

ESC is accompanied by antilock brakes and traction control, which is exclusively intended to prevent wheelspin at the drive wheels. It assists acceleration on low-traction surfaces, like snow and ice, by limiting throttle and braking the drive wheels, which 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 wheelspin, or “paddling,” which is more effective in loose snow or slippery ice.

To that end, editors have offered their personal tips developed over years of extensive driving experience to help you survive the winter with a RWD car or truck. Here are some protective measures you can take before hitting the road, as well as some tips to better control a RWD vehicle when winter weather strikes.

Add Junk to the Trunk

Adding extra weight to the back and distributing it evenly over the wheels can provide added traction for a RWD car. You can add weight in the back with sandbags, cinder blocks or other heavy objects; it can also be a good excuse to overpack for a winter road trip.

Winterize Your Car

Have a good set of tires and make sure they’re properly inflated for better grip. Swapping to a set of winter tires when the weather turns can also be a worthy investment.

chevrolet colorado zr2 bison 2019 31 exterior  tire pressure  wheel jpg 2019 Chevrolet Colorado ZR2 Bison tire pressure check | photo by Christian Lantry

“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,” said Senior Road Test Editor Mike Hanley. “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 or rate hike would be for a wrecked car.”

Tread Lightly

All drivers should take precautions like limiting their speed and increasing their following distance in inclement weather conditions, but it’s especially important for RWD vehicles. If you feel the tail of the vehicle slipping, let off the gas and countersteer gently. Additionally, it’s a good idea to keep a light grip on the steering wheel instead of clutching it tightly to prevent accidentally jerking the vehicle when wheel slip does occur.

“Take it very slowly — speed quickly makes a dangerous situation spin out of control,” said News Editor Jennifer Geiger. “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, using 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.”

Don’t Spin Your Wheels

There are several proactive measures you can take to reduce wheel spin and course correct if it occurs, including avoiding accelerating into turns and limiting braking to a straight line; it can also be a good idea to start in a higher gear (i.e. skip directly to 2nd gear from a stop).

“When the wheels start slipping, take your foot off the brake and gently steer the car toward the skid,” advised Geiger. “Lightly apply the accelerator and when the wheels start gripping again, gently and slowly maneuver the car back on course.”

Trust the Vehicle But Proceed With Caution

Modern technology like traction control, ESC and antilock brakes, paired with winter tires and defensive driving, can make winter driving safer, especially for RWD car owners. It’s important to familiarize yourself with how antilock brakes work so you’re not startled when the system engages, and understand the problems that can arise with traction control technology. If possible, stay off the roads when conditions are questionable.

“Stay home and telecommute [or] live somewhere that has no winter, like Madagascar,” is Detroit Bureau Chief Aaron Bragman’s tongue-in-cheek advice. And if you’re surprised by a blizzard while already out and about, remember to slow down, turn on your headlights and hazards, and leave plenty of space between your car and the vehicle in front of you.

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