Originally published January 20, 2015 on autoTRADER.ca
I was about 19, changing the front brakes on my new-to-me 93 Nissan 240sx in the driveway one September Sunday while dad was BBQing some supper nearby. I was nearly done, but after spinning the new rotor by hand and wondering about the higher-than-expected resistance, I figured I’d ask dad to come over and take a look.
“It’s going to resist you spinning it a little,” he said, turning the front rotor.
“Plus, you’re spinning the driveshaft and transmission and all that.”
“No, this is rear-wheel drive, dad,” I said.
I thought dad knew. I expected a happy dad-smirk on account of how I’d recently bought a badass rear-drive car, not a front-drive grocery-getter. The 240sx is still the best car I’ve ever owned. Tough as nails, never broke a thing, and started reliably at 30 below with no plugging in. I miss her.
But I didn’t get a happy dad-smirk. I got the dad-look, instead. The dad-stare. The eyes and nod and crinkled forehead that had said “Chris Pritchard is not impressed” since I was a kid.
“How are you planning to get around in winter?!” he asked, one eyebrow up. Oh, that forehead. It was really, really crinkled.
Shortly after I was born, Dad and Mom lived in northern Manitoba and drove a nineteen-seventy-some-odd Dodge Aspen R/T. With skinny bias-ply tires and rear-wheel drive and 107 percent of its weight on the front axle. We’re all still alive.
I asked dad how he and mom did it, answering his question with a question. He insisted that it wasn’t safe then, and it isn’t safe now.
Dad didn’t believe that, of course. I think it was some sort of parental instinct thing kicking in, combined with dad realizing that in some way, front wheel drive was safer, more stable, more consistent and a better thing for his offspring to be driving around in a Northern Ontario winter.
The argument went on for some time.
“Well, just get some goddamn winter tires on this stupid thing. You’ve never driven a rear-wheel drive in the snow.” Dad didn’t like the 240sx. Especially without winter tires. But I was in university. I often returned beer empties for fuel money. I had no money for winter tires, so I didn’t get any.
Driving all winter (and in six winters after that) in a light, rear-wheel drive Nissan sports car with no traction aids, no winter tires and nothing but hopes and dreams keeping you on the road revealed plenty – including that today, I’d rather a rear-drive vehicle in the snow than a front-drive, if I had to pick only one or the other.
And though today many shoppers think driving a rear-drive in the snow means they’ll skid and crash and burn and cause a multi-car pile-up the first time they pull out of a stop-sign there are those in the know who know that rear-drive can be beautiful in the snow, or even preferable, depending on your tastes.
Here are a few tips and notes and thoughts on driving a rear-drive in the snow, formed over numerous winters in my 240sx, and even more winters in today’s most advanced rear-drive new car models.
Winter Tires: Read this not once, not twice, but thrice: the most important feature in the entirety of the universe of winter driving is winter tires. You can have locking differentials and traction assist and stability control programmed by Jack Frost himself – but there’s only one way to increase the physical grip between your car and the road used by all of these other systems—and that’s with four good-quality winter tires. That’s once.