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The Basics of Driving a Volvo in the Snow

Several years of living in California had helped me forget most of what I knew about driving in the snow. Not that I ever had any formal training anyway. I'd also forgotten just how cold it can be on parts of the continent that have a real winter. And so I arrived at Volvo's 2005 Winter Test in Québec City, Quebec, wearing $30 hiking boots, unlined jeans and no coat (forgot that, too). It was January and it was about zero degrees outside.

The next morning, bundled up in a borrowed coat, I trudged out to the hotel parking lot with 25 other journalists. There, waiting under a fresh blanket of snow, were our rides for the day — all-wheel-drive V50 T5 and XC70 wagons. That's right — it was up to us to get busy and brush off the snow, scrape the windshield and warm up the interior.

The Volvo staff had their reasons for making the journalists take matters into their own hands. Nearly half of all Volvos sold in the U.S. and Canada in 2004 were equipped with all-wheel drive, according to company officials. The popularity of the XC90 SUV certainly had something to do with this, but beyond that, Volvo feels more and more of its customers are choosing AWD because they want to pursue their active lifestyles come rain or snow.

During the Winter Drive Test, we would be living that lifestyle for a day — following the schedule of a hypothetical family who saw the snow and ice on the roads but set out for adventure anyway.

Our big day included a drive around Île-d'Orleans, an island in the midst of the mostly frozen-over St. Lawrence River, with a stop at a sugar shack (a must-see for maple syrup enthusiasts). Later, we toured an ice hotel (constructed of real ice blocks) and watched a couple guys throw themselves down a ski slope doing something called the Park & Pipe.

Amongst all these activities, we put plenty of kilometers on the Volvos and got a feel for how they handle in the snow. Both the V50 and the XC70 thrived in this environment as you'd expect of cars born in Sweden. Plenty of the credit goes to their electronically controlled all-wheel-drive system, which uses sensors to identify traction loss the moment it occurs. Oftentimes, the system is able to react before the tires have begun to slip and spin very much — needless to say, very reassuring for the winter driving novice.

We also got a taste of some extreme conditions, piloting the cars through a twisty course on a frozen lake and a timed slalom on hard-packed snow and ice. Even with AWD, traction was almost nonexistent in these settings, and we quickly realized that you've got to fight hard to keep what little there is.

It was a fun day, but I'm not sure if I could keep up with the "typical" Volvo family on a regular basis. However, I did learn a thing or two about getting through months of snow and ice without resorting to hibernation. Here are some tips for the rookies out there:

Spend the money on snow tires.
All-season tires are only for all seasons if you live in an area that gets maybe one or two snowstorms per winter. If you're moving to an area that has snow on the ground for half the winter or more, do yourself a favor and buy a full set of snow tires. All of the Volvos we drove were equipped with non-factory snow tires, and I have no doubt this is why they were surefooted even on roads that hadn't been plowed and sanded. I also saw plenty of Hyundais and Kias motoring along in Quebec. Snow tires are likely the only reason these cars are able to get out of the driveway every morning. Switching between regular tires and snow tires is a hassle, but the extra confidence you'll have behind the wheel is worth it.

Do I need all-wheel drive?
This is more of a judgment call. If you live in an area where the snowplow comes through often, you'll probably be fine with front-wheel drive and snow tires — just like the Hyundai and Kia drivers in Quebec. If you live in a more remote area or lead an active lifestyle that often takes you down unplowed back roads in search of adventure, all-wheel drive is a good idea. Whether you go for AWD, check to see if the car you're interested in is available with stability control. It's identified by acronyms like DSC, DTSC, ESP, VDC and VSC on options lists and can also be a big help when traction is poor.

Slow and steady wins this race.
Keep in mind that all the normal driving dynamics still apply when you're driving in snow — everything just happens at a slower pace. Accordingly, it's a lot easier to get into trouble. You may only be going 40 mph, but the layer of snow you're driving on could turn to ice, sending your car into a skid. If you're going just a little too fast into a corner, the car might not have enough traction to make the turn (even if it has all-wheel drive), sending you off the road. If you doubt your ability to react appropriately to either of these situations, slowing down is the best thing you can do for yourself. When you do go for the accelerator, apply it in a smooth, deliberate manner to give your tires the best chance of finding traction. If your automatic transmission has a winter mode, as on the Volvos we tested, use it. This starts you out in second gear from a stop so that the wheels have less torque to contend with. Torque is what makes the turbocharged V50 T5 feel speedy on dry pavement. In snow and ice, though, dipping into all that torque can make you spin out of control.

Don't rely on the brakes.
Slowing down is a good idea, but keep in mind that applying the brakes may not bring the expected results. Stopping distances are much longer when traction is limited. If you begin braking for a turn about where you would on dry pavement, you'll find that the car is still moving too fast when the turn comes up. So allow plenty of space. Another word of advice: Get comfortable with what it feels like when your car's antilock braking system activates. The ABS is more likely to kick in on slick roads. When the pedal starts pulsing, maintain pressure.

Keep your eyes up.
When driving in snow, your natural inclination may be to focus on the road surface directly in front of the car, checking for patches of ice. However, as Volvo's slalom exercise illustrated, you also need to look farther down the road for children running across the road, cars that may have spun out, and so on. Why is this so important? When traction is poor, your car can't change direction as quickly. If you need to steer around danger, it's better to find out before you get to it.

Stability control is great, but it can't save you every time.
The V50s we drove were all equipped with stability control. In simple terms, this means they have sensors that compare the steering angle with the amount that the car is actually turning. If these are out of sync, the stability control system can brake individual wheels and reduce engine power to keep the car on the driver's intended path. When I drove the V50 on the frozen lake, the system intervened often, valiantly trying to keep the wagon on track. But there's only so much sophisticated electronics can do when there's virtually no traction. Slipping and sliding are fun on a closed course like the one Volvo set up. However, if you're going to drive on a mix of snow and ice on public roads, you need to know how to react to a skid.

Take a winter driving course.
So how do you deal with a skid? Experts will tell you that if it's one of the front tires, you should back off the gas and resist the urge to wrench the steering wheel. If it's one of the rear tires, you should steer into the skid to regain control. Sounds easy enough, but it's tough to execute in the real world, especially if your rear tires are causing the trouble. The best way to learn how to handle these situations is to take a winter driving course. Check to see if a local university, automobile club or community group offers a class. It may eat up a few hours, but the upside is that you and your car are likely to get through the winter in one piece.

Get yourself some long underwear and a good pair of boots.
Naturally, you'll want to keep a shovel and a bag of kitty litter in the back of the car in case you ever have to dig yourself out of a ditch. But don't forget about apparel. When temperatures are below zero, an extra layer or two could make the difference between keeping your wits about you while shoveling and freezing to the bone. As for the boots, well, those could be the difference between staying on your feet and taking a spill in the icy parking lot of a historic sugar shack. Twice. Trust me on this one.

For advice on getting your car ready to drive in cold temperatures, see "How to Winterize Your Vehicle."

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