How does your driving change when the traction changes?

Front-wheel, rear-wheel or 4X4: from a philosophy of choice to actual driving practice, knowing which car axle transmits torque is essential for safety and efficiency, especially in winter

Home road cars tips How does your driving change when the traction changes?

While people who live in Northern European countries are used to driving on snow or in any case on frozen road surfaces, in the central and Mediterranean part of the continent, most motorists find it to be a critical condition. Experience plays a primary role in such situations, and this is demonstrated by the many unexpected Swedish or Norwegian housewives who, in winter, move very competently on such surfaces. But there is no technique that applies to all cars, since the type of traction changes the reactions of the car.

How does your driving change when the traction changes?
How does your driving change when the traction changes?

Tyres are essential

One basic assumption, regardless of the vehicle's transmission, is that it is essential to have four suitable tyres in good condition. If this is not the case, even a four-wheel drive car and all the most advanced electronic devices will be unable to guarantee transmission, road-holding and safe stopping distances. Should you find yourself in the condition of having to choose, in order to move around on a snowy mountain route, a city car with four winter tyres will always prove more efficient than an SUV equipped with summer tyres.

Front-wheel drive with no great surprises

By nature, driving a front-wheel drive car is straight-forward, just like driving on dry asphalt in everyday conditions. Having the drive wheels under the engine, and so in the heavier part of the vehicle, helps you start with relative ease even on a hill. If you exclude the most critical situations, no special measures are necessary: you accelerate and release the clutch pedal as if it were a normal start, trying to avoid triggering the traction control, which complicates things.

Even on a bend, the reactions remain the same as always, naturally amplified by the reduced adhesion. In principle, front-wheel drive retains an understeering behaviour, with the front part tending to widen the trajectory only if the speed is higher than that suggested by common sense and physics. But if your speed is high (not too high), simply gradually take your foot off the accelerator to return the front of the car to the proper trajectory.

Watch the tail

On the contrary, a rear-wheel drive car has less intuitive responses, which in some ways can be considered more fun, but only outside traffic-heavy roads. Rear-wheel drive is a solution reserved for cars with sports characteristics, or in any case for the most prestigious saloon cars with powerful engines, a prerogative that should not be underestimated when accelerating. Especially when cornering. In the event of snow, the accelerator must be used with caution to avoid oversteering, with the tail leading out of the corner, forcing the driver to counter-steer quickly and to the right extent to avoid driving off the road.

Having four-wheel drive does not make you invincible

A four-wheel drive car is the solution that guarantees the best balance in all situations; nevertheless, you should be under no illusions of being invincible at the wheel of an SUV on a snowy mountain road. On an uphill slope, behaviour is exemplary: 4x4, electronics and winter tyres are the perfect blend to drive on safely. Things change downhill, where four-wheel drive crossovers can encounter the same drawbacks as conventional cars, accentuated by their significant weight.

The art of stopping downhill

The sheer mass is truly felt when you brake, considerably lengthening the stopping distances on straight lines and making entry in a bend critical. ABS prevents wheel locking and ensures steering directionality is maintained, but if the speed is too high electronic stability control cannot perform miracles. With all types of traction when driving downhill it is worth making the most of the braking effect of the engine and gearbox, trying to use the brake pedal only if necessary and with the wheels pointing straight ahead. One rule which must never be forgotten if a vehicle fitted with snow chains on the front wheels is driven downhill. The considerable difference in grip on the two axles accentuates the oversteering effect if the pedal is touched when cornering, even at very low speeds.