Article and photos by Justin Pritchard
Originally posted February 5th, 2013
Northern Exposure: Best Winter Highway Cars
Every week, I spend over 2,000 kilometres driving one of the most important new cars on the market through real-life conditions to report back to my viewers and readers on the experience.
I’m likely the Canadian auto writer with the longest regular commute by a landslide. I’m not aware of any colleague who regularly puts the miles on a test-car that I do. Good thing I like driving.
Northern Exposure: Best Winter Highway Cars”. Click image to enlarge
My weekly trips in each test car start at the northernmost point of Highway 69 in Sudbury, Ontario. Then, (after a trip to Timmies) it’s down to the speedy highways of central Ontario in the Greater Toronto Area, and back again to Sudbury for a week of in-town driving in the next tester.
Repeat times about 50 weeks in a year. And for the past 8 years, uninterrupted. Holy cow, that’s a lot of miles.
For many months of the year, part of this weekly travelling often includes several hours of driving in really lousy weather.
One stretch of Highway 69 passes through what’s called the ‘Snow Belt’. Catch this length of road on a bad day, and it’ll treat you to heavy, blowing snow, rampant temperature fluctuations, ice pellets, and some of the most relaxed snow-plowing standards in the province.
The Snow Belt is, additionally, exempt from weather forecasts. You can encounter an hour-long blizzard here on days where the rest of Ontario is clear and sunny.
Recently, a number of cars I’ve taken on this trip stand out for various reasons when the going gets wintry. A great AWD system, for instance, shows itself here—especially when accelerating back up to speed after pulling over for photos. A good lighting system also stands out in these conditions, primarily for keeping me confident that I won’t have a close encounter of the ‘moose’ kind after dark. A nicely calibrated steering system can make a car feel ‘locked-on’ and surefooted on the slippery stuff. The list goes on.
Here’s a look at some of the most noteworthy cars I’ve tackled the Snow Belt with recently. Note that all comments are made of test cars wearing winter tires.
Dodge Charger R/T
The Charger R/T shines in winter driving for a few reasons, but I appreciated the calibration of the rear-wheel-drive tester’s stability and traction assist systems the most. These feel expertly tuned, allowing a just-right amount of wheelspin in any situation, rather than a complete lock-down of the throttle at any sign of traction loss. Translation? Accelerating and driving in deep snow, you feel confidently in control, not like you’re in a fight with a computer. Rear-wheel drive can be great in the snow, and the Charger reminded me why.
Lights were powerful, too. And, with a great stereo, heated steering wheel and seats, and even a heated cupholder for your java, it’s easy to stay comfortable, relaxed and at-ease, even in lousy weather. Automatic lights, high-beams and wipers allow drivers to focus attention on the road more easily.
Even in thick powder, Charger cruises with a heavy, stable feel. Drivers can expect to feel like they’re in a vehicle that’s steady, planted and confidently able to tackle winter driving conditions, primarily because they are. I had no issue with a five-hour, late-night trip between Toronto and Sudbury in heavy snow in this one.
Dodge Charger R/T & Volvo S60. Click image to enlarge
The specifications of the S60 are the sort that get your writer excited to hit the roads when the rest of my Northern Ontario locale takes a “snow day”.
Traction is immense, seamless and drama-free with the ‘Instant Traction’ AWD system. This can shuffle power between and across the axles, and even overpower the outer wheels in corners to make the S60 feel more planted and agile. Driven sensibly (or even spiritedly), S60 spends less time plowing, less time tail-sliding, and more time going exactly where it is pointed.
The stability control system is lenient and helps enable confidently spirited driving—even with snow deep enough to drift over the hood.
Confidence is furthered by a heavy and locked-down steering feel, which eliminates the tendency for thick slush and deep snow ruts passing beneath the tires to ‘pull’ the wheel from the driver’s hands. Cruising at speed in deep snow, the S60 feels like it weighs about nine tons.
It’s a car engineered and designed in a country where folks go cross-country skiing on their lunch-breaks and relish being active outside in wintertime, and it shows. For a feeling of pure confidence and being backed up by winter-busting equipment, it’s also one of the most beautiful cars I’ve ever driven in the snow.
Acura TL SH-AWD. Click image to enlarge
Acura TL SH-AWD
A slick, fast-acting AWD system and plenty of laid-back quiet in the cabin make this another noteworthy model when used on a snowy highway drive. Acceleration over surfaces with uneven traction is smooth and very seamless, and the AWD system allows plenty of throttle-steering when drivers request it. When they don’t, SH-AWD can even recalibrate its power split to help the car turn or stay straight, depending on the driver’s requests.
What most impresses me about the TL SH-AWD in winter is how seamless the AWD system is about moving drive power between the axles and wheels. It does this free of the gentle squirms and tugs you’ll notice with other systems.
A thick, chunky steering wheel and direct steering communicates what’s happening between the tires and the road to the driver’s fingertips. Steering wheel–mounted controls and voice command make it easy to keep attention focused on the road, and the lights are fantastic, too.
On a recent test drive of this rig during a nearly province-wide heavy snowfall alert, me and my photographer took an hour detour off of Highway 69 to try out the TL SH-AWD on Southwoods Drive—which is considered one of the best (and least travelled) driving roads in Ontario. We got to the road ahead of the plows (and all other traffic), and appreciated the sporty and stable dynamic of the TL’s driving experience—even in up to a foot of snow on a tightly winding stretch of pavement.
Subaru XV Crosstrek. Click image to enlarge
Subaru XV Crosstrek
This is the only crossover on my list, mainly because it’s little and feels more like a small car. A few simple attributes got it here.
First? As a Subaru, Crosstrek’s AWD system is among the best out there. Even stopped on an icy hill, my tester found enough traction to get going again, and it never feels like it’s spinning a wheel wastefully.
Second? You can get a five-speed manual—which ups driver control and entertainment value. Third? Despite a commanding forward view of the road ahead and a small-SUV stance, Crosstrek feels compact, sporty and agile while blasting through the snow. It’s a refreshing bit of athleticism compared to so many crossovers that feel big, heavy and clumsy.
Subaru XV Crosstrek. Click image to enlarge
Mitsubishi Lancer Evolution
Sure it’s bad on gas and has a rough ride, but the Lancer Evolution is one of the most purely entertaining cars I’ve ever used in a blizzard. Heated seats and automatic climate control add a comfortable edge, and the factory xenon projector lights are powerful. But it’s the AWD system that really shines here. Drivers can select ‘Snow’ from one of three drive modes, altering centre-differential lockup calibrations and stability control intervention points to fine-tune the drive. In any drive mode, all four wheels get equal portions of the engine’s available torque, so maximum traction is delivered with every rotation of the wheel.
Though confidently able to extract maximum grip from slippery surfaces, the S-AWC system also turns up entertainment value when drivers find an empty back-road to play on. You’ll feel the system working to make you grin at every stab of the throttle. Oh, and the Rockford Fosgate stereo is a welcome companion when weather forces you to relax and enjoy the ride.
Porsche 911. Click image to enlarge
The radio was advertising a massive snowstorm that would hit later in the day, and me and a basic, barebones 911 sat at a coffee shop for hours waiting for it to hit. The storm was as advertised: cold, windy, and very generous with accumulations.
Numerous folks this week asked how ‘scary’ the 911 was to drive in the snow, but it wasn’t. The rear-wheel-drive tester has its engine sitting on top of the drive wheels—just like the front-wheel-drive cars most Canadians drive in the snow. It gets up to speed just fine. Steers just fine too, since the front wheels don’t also have to drive the car. A nicely calibrated PSM allows enough wheel-slippage to keep moving in the deep stuff without tail-sliding all over the place, too. Of course, the rear-heavy design also helps things feel planted and stable.