The Importance of Car Control and Winter Tires from an Idiot’s Perspective

Cars, Features I By Jeric Jaleco I March 14, 2023
Car control

A Ford Mustang on summer tires plus snow makes for the greatest rally driving school (and lesson in car control) I never asked for.

Let me start by stating that I’m not always this stupid. Only some of the time. But then again, no one saw the weather that would plague Reno, Nevada during my annual stint of National Guard training. None of my local friends nor coworkers could have predicted such a winter, and my naïve self, who had never experienced this weather to such a degree, was about to get some unwanted lessons in car control in what was perhaps the worst car possible.

Car control

I recently traveled from sunny Sin City to the Biggest Little City in The World in my modified 2013 Ford Mustang under the promise the weather would be beautiful and that spring was around the corner. I’d train with my Guard unit for three weeks during this trip, but I always plan to make it a working vacation every year. Unfortunately, this year wouldn’t be one of those years. Not in this weather, at least.

Reno was blindsided by a sudden wave of winter storms and became a blizzarding hellscape during the time of year when the snowfall typically ceases, and the weather grows more agreeable. As you can imagine, this sudden occurrence didn’t bode well for an aging Ford Mustang’s car control on high-performance summer tires.

Car control

You can probably guess how that went.

I grieved the loss of the picturesque driving weather as Reno hosts some of the most beautiful twisties in America, on par with famous passes in California and home to Reno’s grand selection of enthusiast cars and even an annual hillclimb. Every trip rewarded me with rips up northern Nevadan togues alongside friends in similarly-capable cars, suspension loading up as we zip around one banked uphill hairpin after another as our exhausts echo off canyon walls and through the tree line.

By comparison, this year’s trip felt like a sales pitch to ditch my Mustang in exchange for a WRX. It might even work. It was a time for parking the Camaros and busting out ye olde Subaru Crosstreks (or at least some Bridgestone Blizzaks). Sadly for me, who likes to play “touge tourist,” most mountain passes remained closed until the weather finally heated up weeks after, as my time in Reno became the winter rally school I had never asked for.

Car control

Simply commuting to the Guard base became exercises in at-the-limit car control. Every abrupt throttle input or miscalculated steering correction punishes with under or oversteer at well below the speed limit. Icy downhills translated brake pedal action into absolutely nothing at all, and even breathing on the throttle on one wrong patch of frost was met with the unwarranted conjuring of Vaughn Gittin Jr.

My Michelin Pilot Sport 4S tires clamored for traction where there was none, attempting to claw at that dastardly powder, only to skid at the mere thought of slush or ice, which were constant threats. It took weeks of waiting for warmer weather for me to take leisurely jaunts up the local backroads for impromptu photoshoots. Even then, the hardened rubber compound and occasional wet patches from snowmelt significantly reduced overall traction and car control.

Car control

The S197-generation Mustang’s traction and stability control were also fairly rudimentary, with no inclement weather mode. Such systems allow for plenty of slip-n-slide action, even when left fully on.

Admittedly, you learn much about patience, gentler driver inputs, and safety if you’re a wise samaritan. However, if you border more on “unhinged sociopath,” you will get really good at drifting, whether you want to or not.

Hell, my first night caught in the storms was on the freeway heading back to the hotel. All I needed was to take the next exit, so I hopped lanes only to encounter a mound of conniving slush. How dare it be there! My next thoughts were centered on how to stop manji-ing down I-580 at 60 miles per hour. I was handling it the best this desert rat could but looking like a total jackass and a public menace as I was forced to practice counter steering.

Okay, maybe that was a little fun, but it was mostly frightening and purely unintentional. I just wanted to drive home, for crying out loud.

Car control

The vehicle that probably stood the best chance in the whiteouts had to have been the classic brodozer parked outside the hotel. Or maybe one other tenant’s Subaru Ascent. I had to count my losses for several days and leave my car buried while I hitched a ride with colleagues driving more well-equipped machines.

Car control

There are no excuses. Tires were the defining factor in my experience. All the Reno locals who blitzed past their neighbors driving well over the speed limit or took corners with absolute car control & surefootedness did so on the merit of winter tires. I’m sure most Snowbelt citizens sing the praises of winter rubber like a Bible verse, but it shocked me how many locals in the Sierra Nevadan region attempted to skate by on ho-hum all-seasons thinking all-wheel drive alone would be their savior.

Foolishness, I say. I saw just as many Subies and Suburbans struggle for traction the same as “lesser” cars. Proper tires and more deliberate driver inputs can account for just as much, if not more, of your winter driving performance than the vehicle at your disposal.

The otherworldly grip of the Pilot Sport 4S or the Goodyear Eagle F1 Supercars of my friends’ cars were condemned to irrelevancy for the season as our compounds were reduced to ice. Yet, what made it through frequent snow storms with ease? One friend’s NA Mazda Miata, dashing through the snow on Vredestein Quatrac Pros.

What a champ, and it wasn’t even the best winter rig I saw out there. That title likely goes to the Mustang Mach-E GT I spotted on Vredestein Wintrac Pros or the current-gen F-150 Raptor, whose BFGoodrich All-Terrain T/A KO2s are also snow-rated. But perhaps The Little Mazda That Could was the best of the bunch in terms of spirit.

Fascinating. It’s almost as if having specialized rubber compounds that don’t freeze over or aggressive tread patterns that can evacuate slush and moisture can make or break the driving experience. Who would’ve guessed?

But in all seriousness, all those little tidbits of technical geekery make a difference in the hierarchy of tires, and genuine winter rubber is no gimmick.

You could also easily skate by with certain all-seasons, so long as they’re trusted, high-quality tires with a proven skillset, often denoted by a three-peak mountain snowflake (3PMSF) logo. A previous writing stint introduced me to several such tires for various buyers’ guides, none of which made it to my car for this recent trip, but they definitely should have.

Summer performance tires have none of the goodies that make a winter tire or even a 3PMSF all-season competent in such weather. Their rubber compounds also can’t resist hardening in the bitter cold, nor have the deep and aggressive tread patterns or siping necessary for evacuating moisture and digging into the snow.

The hard lesson from my ill-planned trip is to never chance it in the snow, no matter how skilled you think your car control may be. Because no matter how good you are, skill can’t magically create traction that isn’t there. We’re not Sébastien Loeb, so travel prepared with the right tires, or you’ll be as useless as racing slicks in a hurricane.

This gambling kid from a gambling city took a chance on my car control skills and lost, and I spent most days after work stuck in a hotel or ferried in friends’ trucks as my journey to America’s lesser-known driving Mecca was neutered by Mother Nature. It wasn’t until my final week that the weather cleared enough for one or two good canyon runs up State Route 341. But by then, all I cared to do was park that damn Mustang and sip some cocoa in a hot spring with friends.

Car control

Oh well. There’s always next year’s snow season, and I’ll be sure to have a set of winter rollers on standby for another crack at the Rally De Reno

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