The most intersecting aspect of driving a car in winter weather is how the basic rules haven’t changed in over 100 years. Whether you’re in a skinny-tired 1918 Ford Model T or the latest Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive Acura the laws of physics still apply. Yeah, we’ve bent those laws and increased the safety of driving a car on ice- and snow-packed roads, but we haven’t eliminated them.
I was just given a refresher course on the rules of winter driving in Colorado. As a Colorado native, one who has spent the last 24 years living in Southern California, the refresher course was…refreshing, especially given how far technologies like all-wheel drive, traction control and stability control have come in the quarter century since I lived in a snowy climate.
This experience was made possible by Rocky Mountain Redline, a Denver-based vehicle logistics and fleet company with access to a wide range of new test cars. Rocky Mountain Redline invited a group of journalists out to their namesake region to test 11 new cars in a snow-covered parking lot just outside Winter Park ski resort.
The test cars ranged from an Acura NSX to a Toyota RAV4, with an Acura TLX, Alfa Romeo Guilia and Stelvio, Dodge Challenger GT, Honda CR-V and Pilot, Lexus IS, Mercedes-AMG C 43 and a Porsche Macan thrown in for good measure. We spent about 7 hours with these 11 cars, driving through a variety of road courses in said snow-packed parking lot. The beauty of driving a car on this kind of winter weather is how it allows you to experience the vehicles’ at-the-limit dynamics at a much lower speed with much lower G forces. Translation: you are far less likely to hurt yourself or damage anything.
It took about an hour for the memory banks to access my youth-filed driving experience of sliding a rear-drive muscle car around Golden, Colorado’s snowy parking lots in the 1980s, but I was soon back in my element, enjoying the thrill of steering with the throttle and brakes as much as the wheel. Of course, using this driving style is never the quickest way around a road course, and unlike my 1969 Plymouth GTX, you have to disable a modern’s car’s traction and stability control to do it at all. But it’s as fun today as it was at age 16.
Actually, with two of our test cars, the Giulia and Stelvio, you couldn’t disable the traction or stability control. This made it difficult to drift these vehicles, but also allowed them to navigate the road course more efficiently than the other cars. There really is no upside to sliding a car through a corner, at least with regard to speed/efficiency. The Alfa Romeos’ always-on stability and traction control proved this, as the Giulia and Stelvio nimbly navigated the course with minimal drama. That’s great for safe winter driving, but not so great for snow-based hi-jinx (which, of course, should only be attempted in a controlled environment like we had at Winter Park).
At the opposite end of the spectrum was the Mercedes-AMG C 43. Here’s a car that no-one expected to perform well on a slippery surface. This is a serious performance machine that calls for seriously sticky pavement, right? Right — if your goal is speed. But disable the AMG’s traction and stability control, throw on a set of Bridgestone Blizzaks (which all of our test cars had) and you’ve got a hoon-ready hooligan. The C43 had a near perfect balance of “rotate on demand” and “regain grip when you need it,” making it one of the most entertaining cars to throw into an irresponsible slide, reel in, and repeat. The Mercedes-Benz 4Matic all-wheel-drive system is spectacular, making the German coupe the second most enjoyable car to slide around a snowy parking lot.
What was the one car that outgunned the M-B’s fun? The one I least expected to enjoy: Acura’s race-track-tuned NSX. With its razor-sharp handling and perfect mid-engine balance it almost seemed irresponsible to include it in this cold-weather circus act. Then I drove it, and reveled in the responsive and precise programming of Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD). This technology is engineered as a real-time torque-vectoring system, capable of distributing power between four wheels to deliver rapid and stable vehicle dynamics.
I can confirm SH-AWD works as advertised on a dry race track, where I’ve driven the new Acura NSX and enjoyed its quick turn-in and “just-right” rotation through high-speed sweepers. What I hadn’t considered prior to this event is how readily that same technology would let an NSX traverse snow-packed pavement with ease and confidence. Like the Benz, the Acura NSX was easy to rotate, but unlike the Benz, it never felt in need of “catching” to avert a full spin. The supercar just went where you pointed it, with just enough rotation to keep you giggling the entire time. I’m confident few NSX owners will ever experience their Acura supercars in this kind of environment. Too bad…