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
Sep 16, 2021

Winter weather might bring cancellations and delays to public transport but, with the right preparations in place, it doesn’t have to stop you and your car.

Driving on icy or snow-covered roads is second nature to motorists in some countries such as 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 that can endure even the harshest of British winters, there are several things you should look out for to keep you moving through even the most adverse conditions, from the capability of four-wheel drive to the comfort of a heated steering wheel.

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

Must-have kit for your next car

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 alternatives. 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 should also prove 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 front 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.

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 this feature is definitely fitted and what the control looks like.

Heated windscreen

Clearing ice and mist from car windscreens can be very tedious, especially when you’re in a rush, 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 the demist function on a car’s back window. It works a treat and is a worthwhile option that is now also available on some cars from other manufacturers.

Heated seats and steering wheel

Even if the typical British winter isn’t overly picturesque with snowdrifts and icicles, they can still prove mightily cold. This is why you’ll probably appreciate being able to press a button and have both your seat and steering wheel warm up in seconds.

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

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 quickly defrost.

Winter driving: higher ground clearance

To clear more substantial snowdrifts 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 (13cm) of ground clearance, so it would struggle in 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.

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 on the move.

Spare wheel

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

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.

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 be an ideal and far cheaper alternative.

Snow socks cost from about £60 a pair. A little like socks for your tyres (hence the name), 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.

Snow chains

The ultimate winter driving accessory, snow chains are fitted around the driven wheels of a car. They dig into snow and find more traction than snow socks or even snow tyres can provide, which is why they are an essential item in many continental ski resorts.

Costing from around £30, the chains can only be used on surfaces covered by snow. If used on a clear road they will instead reduce a tyre’s grip.

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.

Emergency kit

A winter emergency kit that will keep you 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.

A good winter emergency kit should 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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