Are we really safer in an AWD SUV when weather turns wicked?
I always thought so. But of course I never push my SUV to the limit; when there is snow in the air and ice on the road (and soon, Spring’s blessing of mud and rain!), I just want to get where I’m going safely. I had the chance to test drive a fleet of SUVs and put them to the test, courtesy of Fiat Chrsyler Automobiles (FCA, the company formerly known as Chrysler), and I learned how an AWD car does what it does for you and what you need to do yourself to be safe in challenging road conditions.
First of all, don’t let this be you:
Our test drive took place on a winter track at the Montreal campus of Bombardier, the Canadian aircraft maker. The track allowed us three types of winter drive tests: a skid pad course that lets us slalom through orange cones and around tight circles, a road course that took us on a short route through curves and straightaway (so we could test the muscle of each SUV), and an off-road course that let us climb hills and gullies. The entire course was covered by a thick blanket of ice and snow.
Each of the tracks allowed me to feel the all wheel drive kick in, and the traction and stability control systems at work; it’s not until you put it to the test that you can really tell how hard your car is working in tough conditions.
Know this: If conditions are tough and your drive experience is boring, that’s your AWD system at work for you: it transfers power and traction control to the wheels that need it, keeping your car on course.
I tested out 4 SUVs on the skid and road track: Dodge Durango, which was my overall favorite for handing and confidence, the Jeep Renegade, a small SUV, the Dodge Journey, a family SUV (with a third row and seating for 7) and the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the grown-up luxury edition of the 4 wheel drive flagship brand. Here is what the cars looked like driving on all three tracks:
It was a lot of fun, and I got to do something I never thought possible: Drive 80 MPH on the snow. In an SUV.
Some eye-opening things I learned:
If you’re in the market for an AWD car or SUV, not all are created equal. Many of the Chrysler and Dodge models have “Active AWD:” basically, they drive in 2-wheel drive until AWD is needed; when it is, it kicks in. This allows the cars to get better gas mileage and still offer the safety and capability of AWD. Almost any Chrysler and Dodge can be built with AWD.
The difference between an AWD sedan and SUV can be minimal; the biggest issue is ground clearance. The higher off the ground the car is, the easier it is go over snow and ice. But a lower stance works in your favor, too: sedans have a lower center of gravity, allowing you to drive faster.
AWD and 4WD are not the same. AWD basically transfers traction control to the wheels that need it when they need it. Essentially, all wheels drive the car. With 4 wheel drive, once you set the drive mode (2 wheel drive and 4 wheel low gear are among the settings) the car’s wheels work together to get you across your terrain. All time 4WD can be gas-consuming, but allowing the car to drive in 2WD (usually it’s the front wheels that do the driving) when 4WD isn’t needed will save fuel.
What to do when conditions are challenging
In snow and ice— or mud and rain— roads can be a challenge, particularly driveways, dirt roads or places that aren’t heavily traveled. Even if you don’t have AWD, there are still things you can do:
- Use low gear—even if you are in a front or rear wheel drive car with no AWD. Low gear will keep the engine power low and steady, which will give you better traction
- Don’t spin out. You’re just making it more difficult—polishing the track and making it slicker.
- Stick to the places in the road where you’ll get more traction. Look for fresh, un-driven-on snow, roughed-up ice, gravel or pavement. If just one wheel can get traction, the car will move.
- If you really get stuck, put cardboard or even floor mats under the wheels that are spinning. This will propel you past the slick spot.
- Use winter tires during cold months. It’s the law in Quebec to have winter tires on cars during winter, and for good reason: even without AWD or 4WD, cars with winter tires have much better traction (and stop more quickly) in poor road conditions.
Disclosure: I was a guest of FCA for this drive event; FCA provided my travel and accommodations. Opinions expressed here are all my own.