A nonprofit publication of the Kentucky Center for Public Service Journalism

Keven Moore: With a little practice, rear wheel drive cars can perform well in slippery winter conditions

It took a while for winter to arrive this year but once it got here it didn’t take long to remind us of just how slippery some of our vehicles drive in the snow or ice as we found ourselves sliding around town last week.

Most of us should not be surprised that different types of automobiles handle and perform differently in winter conditions. Whether you drive a car, truck, van or SUV, the characteristics and limitations of the vehicle will differ — but there is a distinct difference between front-wheel and rear-wheel driven vehicles.

Growing up as a teenager, my first car was a 1974 Mustang and it was equipped with rear-wheel drive, like most of the other early 1970 model vehicles. As a 16 year old I can vividly remember mastering the art of fishtailing in the back Lafayette High School parking lot on a snow day, while playing chicken with another car load of teammates. It wasn’t until the following morning, where I was marched into Principals office to learn my first lesson of just how perilous rear-wheel drive vehicles can be.

New rear-wheel drive automobiles and trucks handle as well in poor conditions as front-wheel drive models (Creative Commons Photo)

New rear-wheel drive automobiles and trucks handle as well in poor conditions as front-wheel drive models (Creative Commons Photo)

The second lesson came some eight years later when I actually learned the difference between a rear-wheeled pick-up truck and a rear-wheeled driver car. I had just bought my first Chevy 4×4 pickup truck and immediately thought I go and do just about anything in that vehicle.

But just a couple of weeks later, as I was returning home from a weekend hunting trip in a light rain, I suddenly found myself fishtailing into the off-ramp on to New Circle Road from Versailles Road, while traveling 40-45 miles per hour. Somehow I avoided flipping the vehicle with my best NASCAR impersonation, but ended up in the grass but still upright. I headed straight home and learned a valuable lesson.

From the birth of the automobile industry, most of the cars manufactured in the United States were rear-wheel driven. But with the alarmingly rising gas prices during the 1970’s fuel crisis, car manufacturers were forced to find new ways of engineering cars with greater fuel efficiency.

Because the complexity required to build a rear-wheel drive car, one of the simplest ways to reduce the size, weight and fuel consumption in a car was to make it front-wheel driven. By reducing drivetrain weight and space needs, vehicles could be made smaller and more efficient without sacrificing acceleration. By the mid-1980s, most formerly rear-wheel-drive Japanese models were front-wheel drive, and by the mid-1990s, most American brands only sold a handful of rear-wheel-drive models.

In front-wheel drive vehicles the engine and the drive axle are both in the same part of the car and thus there is no need to have a complicated transmission and a driveshaft, which occupies both car weight and passenger compartment space. Another decision engineers made was to position the engines transversely, reducing the engine bay’s size.

The downsides however is that front-wheel drive vehicles don’t handle the same as a rear-wheel drive vehicles because the front of the car will have the burden to house the biggest weight of the entire car.

In dry conditions and on racetracks, rear-wheel drive cars are actually preferred because the front-wheels can take care of steering operations without having to power the vehicle. This makes for easier and more precise handling, but when you introduce snow and wet pavement into the equation, it has the exact opposite effect.

Today, the rear-wheel drive vehicles are once again becoming a car manufacturer preferred system. Such popular cars as the Ford Mustang, Dodge Charger & Challenger, Hyundia Genesis, Chevrolet SS, and the Chevy Camaro today are all rear-wheel drive.

Not all rear-wheel drive cars are sports cars, but there are certain drivers who prefer to be pushed, rather than pulled down the road. Rear-wheel drive cars are treasured by drivers for their purer handling when compared to many front-wheel drive models. They also offer more balanced performance when it comes to power delivery, since the front tires aren’t steering and accelerating all at the same time.

The handling is greatly enhanced, because a rear-wheel drive car will be closer to the preferred 50/50 car weight distribution.

ice and snow

In the past there were problems with rear-wheel cars and slippery surfaces, but due to the recent improvements in traction control systems, such problems do not represent as big of an issue anymore. Today, if you include a good set of tires, they are typically just as good in the winter as front-wheel drive vehicles.

Even though these new rear-wheel drive vehicles may be easier to handle there are still some additional steps you can take enhance the safety of your rear-wheel drive vehicles, especially if you are driving a late model rear-wheel drive vehicle:

— The first thing that you can do to help control your rear-wheel drive is: buy a new set of tires. Consider buying a set of tire chains for heavy snow in heavy snow and ice.

— You may want to consider purchasing a set of snow tires like our fathers and grandfathers did before us. Snow tires offer an unique tread pattern to help navigate through ice, snow and water. They are usually made from a softer rubber compound to give a vehicle more grip and will increase your ability to accelerate without losing traction and decrease the time and distance you need to come to a stop.
— If you drive a pick-up truck (which has very little weight over the rear-wheels, its be a good idea to fill your bed with a few hundred pounds of weight. This is the cheapest alternative to add traction and handling in slippery conditions. Most people use sandbags or concrete but I suggest just drop in on your closest home improvement box store and purchasing a handful of 40 lb. bags of top soil and then use them on your yard in the spring.

— Change your driving habits when snow or rain begins to fall. Slow down and do not be afraid to drive under the speed limit and when it’s time to stop brake early and softly so there is no danger of sliding. Approach turns much slower than usual and stay closer to the center lane to avoid fishtailing and this will make for a more controlled transition.
— To better learn the limits of your new rear-wheel drive vehicle to find an empty snow-covered parking lot and practice. Try initiating a skid and successfully correcting it. Do some quick lane changes and heavy braking to get an idea of how long it will take for you to stop. With a little practice and confidence, you and your rear-wheel drive vehicle will be just fine in the winter time.

Be Safe My Friend.


Keven Moore works in risk management services. He has a bachelor’s degree from University of Kentucky, a master’s from Eastern Kentucky University and 25-plus years of experience in the safety and insurance profession. He lives in Lexington with his family and works out of both the Lexington and Northern Kentucky offices. Keven can be reached at kmoore@roeding.com.

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