AWD Offers No Miracles
The primary role of all-wheel drive (AWD) is to provide forward traction. AWD will get you moving and keep you moving in deep snow. It will allow you to climb the steep driveway to the front door of the ski chalet. AWD helps prevent fishtailing under acceleration, which causes many drivers of rear-wheel-drive vehicles to lose control. However, you shouldn't include "increase cornering power" in AWD's job description.
The latest smart AWD can help a vehicle turn on snowy roads — a little. However, the difference is a small fraction of that offered by winter tires or even brand-new all-season tires. Also, since AWD can do nothing to help you stop, be aware that it creates a false sense of security.
The reason: On dry or wet roads, most vehicles can decelerate far better than they can accelerate, while cornering power is closer to stopping ability. This means a lot of drivers' subconscious expectations of braking and cornering power in the snow far exceed what's truly available.
Make Sure You Can See and Be Seen
If you can't remember when you replaced your windshield wipers, it's past time for renewal. Those who expect to meet serious snow should fit wiper blades designed for winter driving. Clean the inside of your windows thoroughly. Apply a water-shedding material (such as Rain-X) to the outside. Make sure your windshield washer system works and is full of anti-icing fluid. Run the air conditioner on the "fresh air" option, even if you must use the "hot" setting, to remove condensation and frost from the interior of windows. Many cars automatically do this when you choose the defrost setting.
Truckers are instructed to check the operation of all lights at least once a day: Once a month isn't too much to ask of you, is it? If your headlight covers have become opaque from age or are sand-pitted, use a polishing agent or, better, fit new covers. When driving, use your headlights even at midday so that others will see you. Make sure your headlights and taillights are clear of snow.
Give Yourself a Brake
Learn how to get maximum efficiency from your brakes before an emergency. Antilock braking systems (ABS) became a popular option long before electronic stability control. Since the 2012 model year, every new car has ABS as part of ESC. It's easy to properly use ABS: Stomp, stay and steer. Stomp on the pedal as if you were trying to snap it off. Stay hard on the pedal and smoothly steer around the obstacle. (A warning: A little bit of steering goes a very long way in an emergency.) As with ESC, ABS does not suspend the laws of physics.
Learn to Catch a Skid
If the previous advice seems insufficient and you're ready to put in some work, you can learn how to correct a skid, Demere said. He gave these instructions:
A front-tire skid is easy: Smoothly release the accelerator, leave your hands where they are and allow the car to slow down. Turning the steering wheel more or pushing the brake pedal is like using a canceled credit card: It does nothing good and may do something bad if the traction suddenly returns.
Learning how to catch a rear slide is a different matter. It's like learning how to hit a curveball or play the piano: It takes lots and lots of practice. But even with practice, some people never get it.
To get practice, find a "slick track" go-kart track. After you've become proficient there, he said, go to an indoor kart track.
"These karts are fast, and mastering them requires all the skills required in racing. Professional car-control schools are available but the price is often steep, perhaps as much as $900 a day," Demere said. However, even a small amount of auto bodywork will cost $900. "Should your own body need work, $900 will buy very little plastic surgery," he said.
If you can't justify the $900 for a pro driving school and are still determined to learn, he offered an alternative: The next time it snows, find a place where you can slide your car without danger of damage or police intervention. Head out early and keep your speed low: 25 or 30 mph is plenty to get the feel. "And stop before the police show up," he added
Regardless of your driving skill or vehicle preparation, there are some winter conditions that can't be conquered. That's why you should carry a sleeping bag and other survival equipment in the winter.