Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge


Story and photos by Laurance Yap

Toronto, Ontario – I must admit I have an ulterior motive for suggesting that you drive your sports car all year. It’s not to help sales of sports cars, which traditionally go flat when the snow starts. And it’s not to boost sales of winter tires or -40 degrees washer fluid. It’s simply to liven up the automotive landscape a bit. For a couple of months now, all that I seem to see out on the roads are dirty, grime-covered sedans and SUVs with dissatisfied drivers behind the wheels.
Time, I think, to liven things up a bit. To have some candy-coloured two-seaters out there dicing it up in the snow alongside all the winter beaters and snowploughs. To bring smiles to the faces of small children trapped in the back of minivans, staring at all the automotive average-ness driving by.

I get a lot of e-mail from readers asking about what they should do to store their sports cars in the Winter: whether they should buy trickle-chargers for their batteries, fill the gas tanks (or not), and how best to preserve them for when the summer comes. My answer to them is always the same: the best thing you can do for your sports car – and more importantly, for you – is drive it during the winter.

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

Why deprive yourself of the pleasures of driving a satisfyingly quick and responsive vehicle simply because the weather’s turned ugly? With a little bit of preparation (and a little bit more money), you can enjoy your car’s treasured performance and handling all year round.

Thing is, all of the characteristics that make a sports car entertaining on dry pavement – their stability in corners, the sensitivity of their controls, the road feel that their suspensions provide, the grip generated by their low centre of gravity and big footprint – actually make them safer cars to drive in the winter than, say, a big SUV. So long as you drive sensibly (which you do, right?), powerful engines, rear-wheel drive, manual transmissions, sporty suspensions, and lightning-quick reactions can all work to your advantage when driving in the winter.

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

If your sports car has a mid- or rear-mounted engine – particularly when coupled with all-wheel-drive – traction in the snow is also superior compared to other cars. I drove a Porsche Cayman to Montreal and back in a weekend during the Christmas holidays, and even with 295 hp and rear-wheel drive, it was unstoppable in the snow, accelerating up hills that thwarted some SUVs.

A sports car is definitely a busier drive than a regular car in the winter. The steering wheel will writhe and jiggle in your hands, your butt and spine will be rattled by the constant movement of the suspension, and there’ll be a lot of road noise. The upside of all this is that not only are you much more aware of what the car and its four contact patches are doing all of the time, but that you become aware of dangerous situations developing a lot earlier than you would in a softer, more insulated machine. Listen to the messages coming up through the wheel, pedal, and seats and a sports car is actually a safer drive, thanks to its ability to more quickly communicate changes on the road surface.

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

The second or two between when you feel ice on the road in a sports car compared to, say, a sedan, could literally mean the difference between having to make a small movement of steering, brakes, or throttle, and having a full-on barrier-whacking spin. And when you do feel something’s going wrong, a sports car’s quick, precise controls make dialing in the appropriate corrections easier, quicker, and safer. The easier it is to make evasive actions with precision – as opposed to having to haul at the wheel this way and that until the car comes back under your control – means you’re more likely to escape a dangerous situation, and restore stability, more quickly.

One of the reasons you can legitimately use a sports car all year now is the huge advance that tire technology has made over the last few years. Unlike old-fashioned knobby snow tires, high-performance winter radials are now able to deliver decent grip on ice and snow while retaining the low profiles, stiff sidewalls, and tread-block stability for when the roads are dry but cold. Pirelli offers winter SnowSports that are rated to 240 km/h, and the set of Michelin Arctic Alpins fitted to my Cayman tester worked very well in conditions ranging from high-speed cruising along a dry 401 to 15 cm of snow on Montreal’s poorly maintained urban streets.

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

A number of car manufacturers – BMW and Porsche among them – now offer factory-approved winter tire packages for their vehicles with rubber that has been designated specifically for the vehicles they’re fitted to. The sizes of the wheels and tires are set up to match the car’s summer set-up, meaning not only no speedometer error, but also ensuring proper function of the cars’ ABS and stability-control systems. Those systems, of course, are fitted to most modern sports cars and provide an extra level of safety and security beyond the winter tires’ added traction.

Driving your sports car in the winter isn’t always going to be a perfect experience, however. The primary drawback seems to be visibility. While most sports cars’ dynamics on the right rubber are great in the snow, their low-slung seating positions, small glass area, and generally poorer visibility make them more difficult to thread through traffic, and you can’t see as far ahead to anticipate road conditions.

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

Some vehicles’ HVAC systems and windshield wipers aren’t up to the task of dealing with winter muck, and because they sit lower, sports cars are more easily drenched in slush from passing eighteen-wheelers.

A bit of preparation, though, and you’ll be just fine. To help lessen the damage from flying chunks of road salt, several companies now offer custom-fit clear plastic “bras” that conform exactly to the contours of your car. Your snow brush will handily double as a stick to poke at the chunks of ice that form on your alloy wheels when snow melts (thanks to the heat radiated off the brakes) and then freezes again (thanks to the season’s low temperatures).

A good set of chunky wiper blades will cost you less than $50, and a jug of winter washer fluid less than $5. Don’t forget to drain what residual summer washer fluid is in your car’s system, too, as it will freeze during long drives – especially if you have a car, like the Cayman, whose engine isn’t up front and thus doesn’t radiate any heat towards the washer-fluid tank. (Thanks to this, “making great time” quickly became “stopping every half-hour to clean the windshield” before I was able to park the car overnight indoors and drain the tank.)

Feature: Why you should drive your sports car in the Winter winter driving
2006 Porsche Cayman S. Click image to enlarge

There will be days, of course, where there’s simply too much snow on the roads, and your car’s ground clearance will simply be too low for you to drive it. But, at least in Toronto, those days are few and far between. Our roads get cleared quickly after even major storms, and if there’s a foot of snow on the ground, it’s not likely going to be a day when you’re going to need to get anywhere fast anyway. Other than that, though, you’ll be treated to the pleasure of driving a fast, responsive, entertaining car all year, rather than just part of it.

Look at it this way: if you’re finding it hard to justify to yourself the cost of a sports car as a summer toy, think of how much easier it would be to consider your potential purchase as something you can use and enjoy no matter what the weather. All of a sudden, it makes that decision a little bit easier, doesn’t it?