If the thermometer in your car reads 7-degrees Celsius, you are driving in winter conditions. At anything below 3-degrees, you should expect ice. Daylight is in short supply during the winter months, road surfaces are 60% more likely to be wet and, as the cold weather sets in, the chances of ice or snow grow by 35 per cent. The sun’s arc tracks 30-degrees lower across the sky and the grime from salted roads and condensation reduces visibility to a submarine opacity.
The vital ingredient is preparation and five minutes is all it takes to have your car and mindset sorted. Muscle memory, the reason you never forget how to ride a bike, lets you down with driving on snow and ice because we do it so infrequently.
At the lowest end of the scale you have ice, which is practically a frictionless surface at temperatures close to zero. Ironically as ice gets colder it offers more grip.
Snow passes through various states depending on the temperature and how much traffic has compacted it. If it looks hard and polished, it will behave like ice. Fresh, deep snow provides better grip and as it melts away you approach something closer to a wet road.
The easiest way to transform yourself into a winter driving god is to buy a set of winter tyres. En route to Top Gear’s Winter Olympics, our testosterone-charged convoy ventured across a snow-covered Norway to Lillehammer, until we ran into a little local difficulty: a steep, frozen hill at the base of a giant ski jump. Cars in ditches as far as the eye could see, followed by much tyre-kicking and ego-deflation. Then our 24-year old production assistant drove past the lot of us in her Saab Aero, the only vehicle properly decked out for the prevailing weather conditions.
Getting your car as ready as that Saab starts with warming the engine and cranking up the air conditioning and demister. Unless you’re a tank driver, you need front, rear and side vision through the windows, so clear the snow or ice from these areas. Clear the bonnet too, otherwise you get a faceful of snow as soon as you depart. Boiling water can crack the windscreen, but a warm kettle is a quick way to clear ice and be on your way smartly with less misting up.
Replace knackered windscreen wipers. Don’t use wipers straight away because, if they are frozen to the screen in the morning, the brittle rubber can snap. If there’s time, use freeze-resistant windscreen washer fluid, which works like Kryptonite on freezing fog and sleet.
You need a 50/50 mix of antifreeze and water in the engine’s cooling system. It needs refilling roughly every two years and should be a part of your car’s regular service. If your car runs out and it freezes overnight, there’s a fair chance that vital parts of the engine, like the water pump and the block, will freeze too and then break.
Leave tyre pressures alone. Reducing them does not improve traction on ice, it reduces stability. Unloaded vans and pick-ups are tricky in the snow, so it’s better to add weight to help the tyres bite into the surface. For rear-wheel-drive cars with a front engine and low-profile tyres, try something heavy in the boot.
Unless you love stationary traffic, you want to avoid hills at all costs as they will be littered with crashed lemmings. The higher the road, the colder the weather. Assuming the roads are open, aim for major roads that will have been gritted, avoiding the tiddly lanes that won’t. Allow extra time to get there, and so what if you’re late.
Icy conditions make it easy for the wheels to spin when you accelerate. During a big freeze even the slightest camber or gulley can make leaving a parking space a major extraction.
I prefer to feel the conditions and always use first gear to pull away on ice, but if you find my way too complicated use second gear to reduce the wheelspin. Using very low revs and hardly any throttle, close to stalling, let the engine torque ease the car forward by gradually releasing the clutch to the biting point so that the car barely moves. As soon as you get some momentum, the worst is over and you can feather the throttle until you’re clear. Keep your front wheels as straight as possible, otherwise they will spin.