Is front-wheel-drive really better in the snow?
All-wheel-drive, is of course, the best option for driving in snow, but what if AWD is not an option? I've always been told that front-wheel-drive is the preferred choice over rear-wheel-drive. Maybe those who preach this have not considered the benefits of mid-engine rear-wheel drive?
This past Sunday, the Northeastern Pennsylvania region of the SCCA (www.nepa-scca.com) had an autocross scheduled at the Schuylkill Mall in Frackville, Schuylkill County. I had originally planned on making this event, but after the huge snowstorm the night before, it was no longer a consideration.
So Sunday rolled around and I had a lazy morning at home enjoying the view of the newly fallen snow. Just before noon I saw that the roads were clear and I had some errands to run, so off to the mall I went. As I turned onto Mall Road, the scheduled autocross popped back into my head. Surely the event would have been canceled, but I had to drive around to the backside of the mall just to confirm.
Imagine my surprise when I rounded the bend and saw orange cones dotting a snowy landscape with a red Honda Civic sliding around them. I couldn't believe it. These fools were actually racing their daily driven cars in three to five inches of snow.
It took me less than 30 seconds to realize that I was capable of being just as foolish. I parked my car and ran up to the timing truck to see if they had any loaner helmets since I hadn't brought my own. Within moments I signed the insurance form, paid my fee and was heading back to my car with a helmet in hand.
There were only three cars running with four different drivers. Since there were so few people present, there were no course workers so if we knocked a cone down, we had to stop and put it back up. It was rather comical watching the antics of frustrated drivers having to stop mid-race to upright a cone they had just knocked over.
The three cars that were racing before I showed up were a Honda Civic hatchback, a Kia Rio and a Nissan 200SX. All three cars are front-wheel-drive. I know the Nissan had new snow tires up front and all-season tires in the rear. I'm not sure what kind of tires the other cars had. I was driving my 1985 Toyota MR2 with half-worn snow tires. The MR2s mid-engine rear-wheel-drive layout seemed to work out perfectly fine for the task at hand.
The driver of the Nissan was holding the fastest time of the day at 1:06. The rest of the drivers were spread out back to 1:12. On my first run I managed a 1:02 -- all while staying in first gear. I was braver on my second run and third run and put down a blistering 59-second run which ended up being the fastest time of the day.
So I guess it's not always true that FWD is better than RWD in the snow. There seems to be an inherent benefit to having the power plant above the drive wheels. At least two of the other drivers there are consistently faster than I am on dry courses, so I am sure the difference was the car (and the tires!).
Now, please don't run out and buy a Ferrari for winter driving at my implication that mid-engine RWD can be good in the snow.
At any rate, about an hour after I started racing, the snow on the track started to get really packed down and everything became extremely slick. I've never wiped out so much in an autocross before. I was doing 360's all over the place and just maintained throttle until I floated back onto the course. I've never raced in the snow before, but I will be looking forward to doing it again. What an incredible experience.
Hopefully it will snow again for the March 12 event at the Schuylkill Mall. If so, see you there.