Snow job: What not to drive in the winter’s worst
April 3, 2009
Invariably, at least once each year, I find myself in a wonderful conundrum: Covering automobiles for the most wintry of wintertime automotive markets, yet gifted with test versions of said vehicles that do not in any way, shape or form fit the climatic conditions.
Car journalism, after all, is traditionally a Southern Californian venture, save for those exciting, company-sponsored jaunts to Switzerland or Finland, and when it comes down to it, automotive companies reserve uncertain feelings for those of us in the idiotically named “snow belt.” Anyone who does not live in Southern California, Arizona, South Texas or Miami, as the rest of the country does seem to get snow, at least once in a while, right?
Subsequently, as I came disturbingly close to soiling myself, making a hasty contract with God as I swerved, slid and shook my way up a snowy Monday morning Vail Pass in ” check this out ” a Mini Clubman, with totally incompatible, run-flat, all-season Goodyear Excellence tires … I knew I had pushed the envelope just a little too much.
The Clubman, the extended, station wagon-styled reinterpretation of the ultra-popular Mini Cooper, is indeed a wonderful summer and fall machine, but in its SoCal-ready variation, I would probably have been safer walking.
I have no anecdotal evidence to suggest that a Blizzak-outfitted Clubman might suddenly be as rough and ready as a Tahoe with tank tracks ” as I say, Denver’s auto writers don’t seem to get cars in the winter with winter tires (curious, I know) ” but I guess I have to hazard a guess that the experience might be a little more pleasant.
For the last two summers at Cooper’s Minis in the Mountains events, I’d asked Front Range Mini owners about their wintertime experience, and they concurred with what I found in, all things considered, not especially nasty I-70 conditions earlier this week.
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“Uh, the minute it snows, the traction stability control light on my dash starts blinking like the car’s going to explode,” one told me. “I have absolutely no ability to start, stop or steer, which I guess are important to the driving experience.”
Poppycock, I thought, and set out back to the Front Range in 4 inches of fresh snow Monday morning, although I noticed that, true enough, even on flat surfaces, the very light (2,800 pound) Clubman was not exhibiting any signs of traction, whatsoever.
Moreover, while cruising on black ice on the Interstate, and confronted with the first of a long series of (again) not-especially tortuous grades, the six-speed Clubman, its slick tires and a hard-working but sadly underpowered 118 horsepower engine, needed a long, high-revving stint in second gear just to stay on the road.
The traction control light was fully ablaze half of the drive, the front-wheel-drive madly darting off to the left and right, and … well, yes, I have indeed now made some fairly serious concessions to God that I guess I will have to follow up on, in exchange for surviving the ordeal. Better yet, the Mini’s tire pressure monitoring system had also not been calibrated correctly with the run-flat), so the dash was also lit up even more with a variety of warnings about my still-inflated tires.
I know I sometimes go overboard and dabble in the purely exotic, totally non-winter-compatible world of automobiles (I know the Dodge Challenger, the Aston Martin Vantage and the Jaguar XKR would never leave your Breckenridge garage between November and April), but … it is indeed a bit of a let-down to see a more standard-issue vehicle not cutting the mustard .
Should you go for a change of venue and Mini-fy yourself in the summer months, it’s the pinnacle in slightly more capacious dork chic, as I’ve said before: an extended storage area, coupled with fold-flat rear seas, was big enough to hold two pairs of skis, so you could carry plenty of stuff on your summer travels.
The double barn doors (with their silly little windshield wipers) are now highly spring-loaded, potentially whacking bystanders; interior controls remain overly precious, including the bank of James Bond-style toggle switches which cannot be reached or operated if you’re carrying beverages in the cupholders.
A small suicide door on the car’s right-hand side does allow for slightly easier loading of normal-sized human passengers in the back; given the fact that the parked car’s roof comes up to my waist and the whole thing seems to be about the size of a refrigerator shipping box, it’s quite comfortable.
Just … not the best choice on icy roads. Too bad about them icy roads here in Colorado.