All-wheel drive may be biggest challenge to safe winter driving

Drivers may get overconfident and don’t effectively judge available traction

Published: January 8, 2020, 5:30 PM
Updated: November 17, 2021, 3:44 PM

Winter driving challenges

The biggest challenge to safe winter driving is not necessarily tires and their influence on traction, but all- and 4-wheel drive, says a recent report from the organizers of the World Car awards.

The revelation reportedly came during one of the awards-adjudicator’s winter testing of the Porsche Taycan electric vehicle in Finland, and the reasoning is that drivers may get overconfident with all-wheel drivetrain and don’t effectively judge the available traction.

Taking off with all wheels turning makes it easier to move and accelerate, which means the driver may not get a good impression for road slipperiness. That gets even more difficult in the case of EVs that have two or more electric motors to provide all-wheel drive, because launch may not feel as aggressive as that in engined cars.

Also, electric vehicle systems are all meant to work together to provide seamless driving, which may further hide dangers such as very low traction. And launch in wintery conditions, done more cautiously to take reduced traction into account, may end up not giving drivers a good enough sense of the reduced traction, because the AWD EV will accelerate almost the same way as it does in dry conditions.

That negates one of the telltale signs of slippery conditions — that little slip of the tires as the driver finishes backing out of the driveway and shifts into a forward gear. Thus, right from the get-go, EV drivers might not get a sense for road conditions until they have to stop or turn (with which any high-powered car has an issue).

“The traction between the road and the tires plus almost 500 hp of power (in the Taycan) created something of an unbalance,” said auto-journalist Toni Jalovaara. “Still, it was totally possible to drive safely. Patience and self-control were needed, of course.”

And even when the driver gets it all sorted out, there is the chance the electric Taycan won’t behave like the traditional all-wheel drive Porsche in emergency situations.

“As a native Finn with 40-years experience of winter driving, one could expect to have some knowledge of slippery conditions, but this 2-motor electric car behaves totally differently than anything I’ve driven before,” said Jalovaara. “Normally when the tail starts to slide, you turn toward the direction where you want to go. With the Porsche Taycan, you turn illogically to the other direction and push for more power.”

An easy test of winter driving conditions is walking … Jalovaara says that if the surface feels too slippery under your feet, then four driven wheels and good winter tires won’t change that. He recommends that drivers attempt a quick brake test, when there is no traffic, to get a better idea of what traction conditions are like.