Winter driving: must-have kit for your next car

Keep warm, keep moving and stay safe with the best equipment for winter driving

BuyaCar team
Nov 12, 2019

Winter weather might bring cancellations to railways and delays at airports but, with the right preparations in place, it doesn’t have to stop you and your car getting from A to B.

Driving on icy or snow-covered roads is second nature to motorists in Scandinavia, eastern Europe and America. That’s because they equip their cars with the right gear and carry some simple and inexpensive practical kit to make sure they are prepared in the event of trouble.

 

If you're in the market for your next car and you're looking for something thats going to hold its own during the coldest of winters, there are several things you should look out for to keep you moving through even the most adverse conditions, from four-wheel drive to a heated steering wheel.

Read on for our list best kit you should look out for when choosing your next car for tackling those harsh winter weather conditions.

Must-have kit for your next car

Winter driving: front- or four-wheel drive

Four-wheel drive cars tend to provide the most grip in slippery conditions, because the power from the engine is shared between all four wheels, so each one is turning with a relatively gentle force, making them less likely to spin.

However, they tend to be more expensive than more traditional front-wheel drive alternatves. The good news is, you don’t necessarily need to shell out for the four-wheel drive option because front-wheel drive vehicles fitted with winter tyres will also be competent enough on snowy or icy roads.

These vehicles send the power from the engine to the front wheels only, but the weight of the engine pushes them down, so the tyres can burrow through the snow and find grip. If you live in a particularly rural part of the UK however, four-wheel drive is probably the more sensible choice.

One to avoid is rear-wheel drive. Where the engine drives the back wheels that, in most cases, will have relatively little weight over them – because in nearly all cases, the engine is in the nose of the car – meaning they will give poor traction, especially on slippery surfaces.

Electronic driver aids can only help so much, and while a set of all-season or winter tyres will improve matters somewhat, driving a rear-wheel drive car in anything less than perfect conditions will be uncomfortable at best and downright unsafe at worst.

Winter driving: automatic gearbox with snow mode

A handy feature on some cars fitted with an automatic gearbox is a ‘snow’ or winter driving mode. By switching on this feature, the car will pull away in second gear, minimising the chance of getting wheelspin. These modes generally soften the power delivery to the wheels, making them less likely to lose grip under acceleration.

Many of the more upmarket cars available with an automatic gearbox - such as offerings from Audi or BMW -  will feature some kind of bad weather mode, whether it's called 'snow' or 'all-weather', this will definitely prove useful when the going gets tough. Snow mode is usually activated with a button showing a snowflake, or one with the letter 'W' for winter. Be sure to check the exact specification of the car to make sure it's there.

Winter driving: heated windscreen

Clearing ice and mist from car windscreens can be a real pain, but a car with an electrically heated windscreen will be ready to drive in a matter of seconds.

Sometimes called ‘quickclear’, engineers at Ford came up with the idea to use an ultra-thin mesh of heating wires in the glass to warm it instantly, like a fancier version of a car’s back window. It works a treat and is a worthwhile option.

Winter driving: heated seats and steering wheel

You don’t need snow drifts and icicles to feel the chill through to your bones. Which is why on a cold winter’s day, you’ll appreciate being able to press a button and have both your seat and steering wheel warm up in seconds.

Even versions of humble cars like the Ford Fiesta and Hyundai i10 offer a heated steering wheel these days, so shouldn't be too problematic to find cars with this addition at a reasonable price.

Winter driving: heated washer jets

When buying a new car, heated washer jets for the windscreen are often included in optional winter packs, which bundle together related extra equipment.

The beauty of having heated washer jets is they won’t freeze up when driving, helping improve visibility in snow and sleet. And when you start the car on an ice-cold morning, they will defrost.

Winter driving: higher ground clearance

To clear more substantial snow drifts you’ll need a car with good ground clearance. This refers to the gap between the road and the bottom of the car; a hatchback such as the Ford Focus has less than five inches (12cm) of ground clearance, so it would struggle to some deeper drifts of snow.

In contrast, the Ford Kuga offers nearly eight inches (20cm) of clearance while the class leaders like the Land Rover Discovery stands 12 inches (28cm) proud of the ground. The more rugged off-roaders like the Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk (8.7 inches) or Mitsubishi Shogun (8.5 inches) will offer similarly good ground clearance.

Winter driving: voice control

Driving through snow can be stressful, so a car equipped with voice control will help to make features such as navigation, the phone and even the heating easy to access, allowing you to focus on the most important job at hand – keeping you and your passengers safe and moving.

Winter driving: spare wheel

Many cars come with kits to inflate a flat tyre. However, if the tyre has been damaged by a particularly nasty pothole, the inflation kit won’t be of any use as the tyre may not be repairable and therefore dangerous to drive on.

That’s why it is better to have a spare wheel and tyre on board. Whether compact or full size, they will get you going again and save you from being stranded. This is another area where it's good to confirm the exact specification of the car before you commit to a purchase, because spare wheels are not always included.

The best accessories for winter driving

Winter driving: all-season or winter tyres

All-season tyres are becoming increasingly popular, and it’s easy to see why.

They offer good grip in the winter, on ice-cold or snow-covered roads, but are better than winter tyres when the temperature rises and conditions ease. It means you need only pay for one set of tyres, all year round.

By contrast, winter tyres are designed to perform at temperatures below 7C. So you have to switch them back to summer tyres once Spring arrives, but you do get far superior performance through those colder months.

Both types improve a car’s grip on snow and ice, in terms of pulling away, taking a bend or stopping. You can see their effectiveness in the video above from our sister publication, Auto Express.

Winter driving: snow socks

If on average you only suffer a few days of snowfall where you live, you probably won’t want to invest in a set of all-season or winter tyres. In that case, snow socks could ride to the rescue.

Snow socks cost from about £40 a pair. A little like socks for your tyres, they snap on the driven wheels (e.g. the front two on front-wheel drive cars) and provide extra grip to get a vehicle moving.

They are only designed to keep you moving in snowy conditions though, so don't try and use them on clear roads, and manufacturers typically advise travelling no faster than 30mph when using them.

Winter driving: snow chains

The ultimate all-weather accessory, snow chains are fitted around the driven wheels of a car. They dig in to snow and find more traction than even snow tyres or snow socks can provide, which is why they must be fitted in many continental ski resorts.

Costing from less than £30, the chains can only be used on surfaces covered by snow; on a clear road they reduce a tyre’s grip.

Winter driving: winter driving course

There are a wide range of advanced driving courses that simulate winter conditions all year round, meaning drivers can practice controlling a car in a challenging environment.

From dealing with aquaplaning to performing an emergency lane-change; preventing the nose or tail of a car skidding out of line to just pulling away from a standstill, the courses take just a few hours but the skills stay with you for a lifetime.

Winter driving: emergency kit

The AA and RAC advise drivers to pack a winter emergency kit that will keep them warm and safe if your journey takes longer than expected, the car breaks down, or traffic grinds to a halt leaving you stranded on the road.

Both recommend that motorists include the following:

  • Ice scraper and de-icer for clear windows
  • Phone charging cable
  • A warm coat and practical footwear
  • A rug or blanket to keep you warm if your car breaks down
  • Snacks, in case you’re stuck in a long delay
  • Extra screenwash to ensure you can clear road salt from your screen
  • First aid kit
  • A shovel to clear snow

 

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