February 7, 2012
A car on the Mecaglisse ice course. Click image to enlarge
Article and photos by Jil McIntosh
Winter withers away…
Notre-Dame-de-la-Merci, Quebec – On far more than one occasion, I’ve had nervous drivers tell me that it’s almost impossible to drive in nasty winter conditions. You can’t control the car on ice, they say, and you’ll never get through the snow unless you have four-wheel drive.
So how is it that I stood in the snow at Quebec’s Mécaglisse race course, watching instructors confidently taking front- and rear-wheel drive cars around sharp turns in snow and on glare ice without ending up in the snowbank? It’s not magic, just training: these guys know how to drive in winter.
The event was the launch of the all-new Michelin X-Ice Xi3 winter tire, a successor and improvement to the current X-Ice Xi2 tire. The Xi3 will be available for next winter, but this “sneak preview” gave an idea of what drivers can expect from it, along with a chance to pick up some winter driving tips from the pros.
Ice peeks out from under the snow. Click image to enlarge
My day at Mécaglisse – a mild day for the area at just six degrees below zero, although far too cold for my liking – involved individual driving modules including hard-packed snow, medium-depth snow, glare ice and a road course that included all of those, along with sharp turns, hard stops and swerving to avoid an obstacle. The experts guiding us through it were all professional instructors, with most of them also race drivers, and the team led by Canadian champion Richard Spénard.
Naturally, all of our driving was on dedicated winter tires, and not just because they’re mandated during the sloppy season in Quebec. They make a difference in just about every corner of Canada, since their compounds remain sticky in cold weather. Once the temperature drops to just 7C – that’s 7 on the plus side – winter tire performance is superior to that of all-seasons for acceleration, braking and handling.
Ice peeks out from under the snow (top); a Cadillac CTS on the handling course. Click image to enlarge
Our first driving experience was on new tires from several brands, over a course of medium snow that included a couple of tight turns. There was ice under it, and as the cars rolled over it, one turn got pretty slick. Tires primarily do one thing well, whether it’s braking or turning. When you start doing both there are compromises, and that is why you should brake before you reach a corner instead of hitting the pedal halfway through it. Still, even when I did this, the car ploughed to the right although I had the steering wheel turned to the left. When a car understeers like this, many drivers turn the wheel even further in the desired direction. The fix may seem counterintuitive, but it works like a charm: unwind the steering wheel a little, which gives the tires a chance to get their grip.
It’s also important to know where your efforts will lead you once you work to get out of a slide. Even though I know the drill, I slipped up, staring at the snowbank that was quickly getting bigger. “Look where you want to go,” my instructor said. “I can’t see Florida from here,” I quipped, but joking aside, once I was looking at my intended course, my hands on the steering wheel naturally followed. Between the judicious braking, unwinding the wheel when I started to slide, and looking for my clear path, I was able to get my car back on track in spite of the ice.