If you want to drive an automatic car in snow there are a few things it’s important to remember. But broadly speaking, the principles are the same as driving any car on a slippery surface: you need to be gentle with the controls and cut your speed.
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How do you drive an automatic car on a slippery road?
The basic idea in any car is that when you accelerate, you don’t want to spin the driving wheels (usually at the front). And when you slow down, you don’t want to lock the wheels and start a skid.
Bearing that in mind, first of all, get to know your car. Some modern automatics have a winter mode. We discuss that shortly.
If your car doesn’t, does your car have an L or 2 on the gearshift? If so, put the car in 2. If – and this is more likely on a modern auto – there’s a manual option, select 2nd to pull away in. Doing either of these when driving an automatic in snow will reduce the revs and make your car’s wheels less likely to spin as the tyres try to grip the slippery surface.
As you slow down, the automatic will probably change down the gears. You want it to be in as low a gear as possible when you come to a halt or approach a bend. This is where keeping your speed down will help.
There’s another reason for this: cars on regular, summer tyres require around 10 times as much time to stop on snow as they do on a dry road. Bear that in mind and don’t tailgate other drivers or you might end up getting to know them better than you wanted.
How to drive in snow
As soon as you’ve got moving, if you’re in a manual car, select a higher gear. With an auto, you might want to do this manually. Again, this is so that your wheels don’t spin.
Try to make your inputs on all controls as gentle as possible so be very progressive with the accelerator pedal. Don’t yank the steering wheel or stamp on brakes. Once you’re underway, for corners make sure you’ve done your braking before you start turning the steering wheel.
If you get to a corner and feel the car ploughing straight on, don’t panic and jump on the brake. This will cause the wheels to slide on the snow – even with anti-lock braking – and momentum will carry you straight on. Simply stop accelerating. This should prompt the car to come back into line.
If you’re driving on a snowy road, it might make sense to follow other drivers’ wheel tracks as you might on a soaking surface. This might be because the weight of traffic has caused the snow to melt and your tyres will be on tarmac.
But in very cold weather, the snow will simply have become compressed and it’s likely to be icy. That means your tyres will get more grip on fresh snow.
Space is also your friend in snow. If you’re going down a hill, use a low gear and brake gently. Don’t go at the same speed as the car in front: if it hits an icy patch and skids, so will you. You need to be able to stop before you hit them, or anything else. Equally when going up a hill, take a run up and try not to stop until you’ve got to the top of the incline.
When snow is falling heavily, it’s similar to driving in fog so use dipped headlamps. If your car has Daytime Running Lights, don’t rely on them: they’re only on at the front and you don’t want someone to run into you from behind because they haven’t seen you.
You don’t just need to be wary of snow. In the winter, black ice can be a problem. It gets its name because the ice is transparent so the black colour of the road surface is visible through it, making the slippery stuff very difficult to spot. Even so it can be lethal, not least because you’re not expecting it.
As with snow, if you feel the car going into a skid on black ice, don’t brake, wait for the car to scrub off speed of its own accord.
What is winter mode in an automatic car?
Modern automatic cars have what’s known as a ‘winter mode’. This is where the electronics control the gearbox and throttle pedal to reduce their sharpness. The aim is to prevent you from spinning the wheels and force you to drive in an appropriate way for the conditions.
You might also consider getting winter tyres. These are designed to provide grip when temperatures fall beneath 7 degrees C. Depending on where you live in the UK, we’d advise considering winter tyres or possibly investing in all season tyres (picture below).
Winter or all-season tyres might well be expensive but they could save your life, or at the very least save you from getting stuck or having a very expensive accident.
Last but definitely not least, you might want to keep a winter kit in your car. Here we look at some of things to consider.
I’ve been writing about cars and motoring for more than 25 years. My career started on a long-departed classic car weekly magazine called AutoClassic. I’ve since pitched up at Autosport, Auto Express, the News of the World, Sunday Times and most recently the Daily Telegraph. When I’m not writing about cars and motoring, I’m probably doing some kind of sport or working in my garden.