Auckland, New Zealand –
Our original intention was to revisit the Southern Hemisphere Proving Grounds with the 2017 edition of BMW’s excellent Alpine xDrive event. CarBuyer has been there before, in 2015, but this year’s iteration promised even more activities as well as the first time seeing M and M Performance Automobiles on the snow.
Sadly though, it rained during the night before we were scheduled to go, which turned the packed snow into undrivable slush and cancelled all the planned activities on the day. So we did the next best thing, and consulted the resident expert on the most important things, bar none, about driving on slimy white stuff.
The event’s chief instructor, Lars Mysliwietz (pictured above, with no hair), was on hand to provide a quick theory lesson. Lars is a four-time German rally champion and has been instructing at BMW driving events for eight years, so we asked him for a crash course in winter driving that will hopefully keep you safe in your travels.
Wait, why are we even talking about this? Well, it pays to be prepared. More and more Singaporeans are vacationing overseas and choosing the freedom of self-driving over package tours.
We’re now well into the second half of the year, which means some of you may be starting to plan for your year-end vacations. Winter holidays to Europe, Japan, Korea and North America are popular, but if you choose to drive yourself around, the same weather conditions that are a winter holiday’s raison d’etre could quickly turn your winter wonderland into a frosty hellhole.
And even if you don’t venture into conditions like those, the lessons to be gained from driving on traction-limited surfaces can help in many situations back here at home, with wet roads, spilled sand from construction and terrible tarmac now becoming the norm.
1. A glacial pace is best
Go forward slowly, or else you’ll suffer the ignominy of being pushed out of a snowbank. Or off a mountain.
The most important rule is to remember that snow and ice offer a lot less grip than tarmac, and hence, you will need to slow down. This should be blindingly obvious, but judging by the number of Singaporean drivers chiong-ing along on the expressways in the heavy rain, we’re not so sure.
Mysliwietz offers this advice, “you must be much slower. Everything will be more difficult. The acceleration is difficult because you can’t get the power on the road; the braking is difficult because the stopping distance is much longer; the steering is difficult because the car is not following your steering inputs like in dry conditions, so all these things will be tougher and the only solution to handle it is to have a slower speed.”
2. Tyres are everything
Studded tyres are the proper shoes for your car to wear when snow frolicking.
The four black rings that your car sits on are the only things keeping you in contact with the ground, so it is absolutely vital to ensure you have the right rubber for the conditions. Compared to regular summer tyres we’re familiar with in Singapore, winter tyres have a much taller, blockier tread pattern as well as a softer compound to help maintain grip when the thermometer dips below zero.
As Mysliwietz puts it, “if you have a rental car, it’s necessary to check that it is equipped with winter tyres, because you are responsible for the vehicle you are driving. For example in Germany we have a rule that says when there are winter conditions, you need winter tyres. If not, there will be a fine.”
3. AWD will not save you
It’s a common misconception that 4WD or AWD gives you more grip. This is true only in the sense that having two extra driven wheels gives you more traction when accelerating, but doesn’t give you extra cornering grip, and will make absolutely no difference under braking.
“For sure AWD or xDrive in BMW cars will help you a lot, that’s absolutely true”, Mysliwietz says. “It helps to create traction, it helps stability if you are driving around a series of corners. But, it’s very important to know that it does not make braking distances shorter. For example you can be going wonderful up a hill, everything’s fine and you feel safe, then when you cross to the other side and you go down the hill, if you have a 4WD car or 2WD car, you have the same problem. So that’s something that you have to respect.”
Ultimately it comes down once again to tyres. A rear wheel drive car with winter tyres will always have more traction and be safer to drive than an all wheel drive car on summer tyres. In this video, check out how much the AWD Subaru Forester struggles on this icy hill compared to the powerful, low slung BMW M3.
4. Traction control might actually be a hindrance
On ice and snow you gotta slip to grip
This is one point that might be counter-intuitive for most drivers. Traction control helps to prevent wheelspin so that all four wheels are rotating at the same rate; large differences in wheel speeds will cause a vehicle to go out of control. In specific situations though, traction control might actually get in the way, as Mysliewitz explains:
“That’s why many modern cars have the option to switch off the DSC (Dynamic Stability Control) – maybe not completely, but going back to a traction mode. This is an under-function of DSC, which means it is still working but to a lesser extent. This allows you to have a bit of wheelspin, and this is important for example if the car is stuck in snow. If DSC is fully activated and you start accelerating, it will recognise the spinning wheels and cut off the power. But the problem is that in this situation you need a bit of wheelspin to get out of the snow, so this is why we have the option to go back to the traction mode, where the system allows a bit of wheelspin and gives you a chance to get out of the snow. So therefore it’s very important that the car has this option. It’s not necessary to activate this traction mode all the time, because it is better to drive with DSC fully activated – only activate traction mode when the car is stuck.”
5.Ice isn’t always white
Underneath the X5’s left wheels is ice, the white friendly sort that you can spot.
One of the greatest dangers of winter driving is a phenomenon known as black ice – so called because you can’t see the thin, invisible film of ice that forms on a road. This often leads to cars pirouetting down the road with all the grace of a figure skater, at least until the inevitable impact with a large, immovable object. While there isn’t much one can do to avoid black ice, Mysliwietz offers this advice to minimise any unfortunate consequences:
“If your speed is too high and you have a black ice situation, you will be in big big trouble. Then, the only solution that makes sense is to brake. So everything, when you are in trouble, as soon as possible, brake and brake as hard as possible. It makes no sense when a car is for example spinning or something, to push the brakes too soft. No, push as hard as you can on the brake pedal until the car has stopped. Because we see very often that people brake, but first it is too soft, and second they release the brake, and then the car may have contact with another object. So if the car is in trouble, whether black ice or anything else, just brake. That’s simple and helps a lot.”