Winter driving: myths and facts

It’s with regret that I remind you all of the impending arrival of winter. While partially redeemed by the reintroduction of holiday cheer, eggnog, and ski season, the onset of Winter can be a tough pill to swallow for summer lovers like myself. And while the cold alone can be a downer, there’s one thing that can make it even worse: car troubles.

Cold weather and snow covered roadways can wreak havoc on motorists and their motors alike; so today, while it’s not quite winter yet, we’re going to go over some of the most common winter motoring myths—and debunk them so you don’t have to fall victim to their consequences.

Even with fuel injection, letting your car idle is a good idea.

You don’t need to warm up your engine before driving.

We’ll start with what is likely the most hotly debated winter car care topic of them all: should you warm up your engine by letting it idle before driving? My answer: a resounding yes!

This topic is especially interesting because what we’re doing here, really, is debunking the debunking of a previously debunked myth. (Still with me?)

Before engines were equipped with direct fuel injection like they all are now, they relied on carburetors to deliver fuel into the combustion chamber. One of the problems with carburetors was that they did not perform well in cold weather. So to remedy this, car owners, out of necessity, let their engines idle for a few minutes before driving, which allowed the carburetor to reach operating temperature and thus function properly.

However, fuel injection had almost completely replaced carburetors by the mid 1990’s; but the warm-up practices ingrained  in the minds of car owners lived on. Car bloggers and automotive journalists alike were quick to point out that the practice of letting the car warm up was obsolete, due to the absence of carburetors in fuel-injected engines.

Additionally, modern cars and their computer systems are intelligent enough to adjust fuel delivery in order to compensate for the colder temperatures. This led to the recommendation that motorists skip the idle warm-up period and instead just start the engine and drive off.

While it’s true that there aren’t carburetors to warm up anymore, it seems that members of the no-warm-up club have forgotten about the most critical piece of the engine longevity puzzle: engine oil! Computers can compensate for the fueling troubles induced by low temperatures, but they can’t compensate for oil that has the viscosity of molasses.

The most common and relatable way to visualize this issue is by comparing the flow characteristics of cold and room temperature syrup. Like syrup, engine oil flows much better, and thus lubricates better, when warm. So, when low temperatures thicken your engine oil as it stagnates in the oil pan, it becomes necessary to properly heat it by idling before putting any load on the engine. Failing to do so is doing a serious disservice to your engine, and decidedly shortening its lifespan if you do it repeatedly.

I know a lot of people would disagree with me on this, but you can’t argue with physics: an engine with thick oil is not getting proper lubrication. And an engine without proper lubrication isn’t happy. So please—let your engine idle for 60 seconds before driving off into the cold, and know that it would thank you if it could.

Carrera 2 in the snow (photo: Rennlist)

Rear-wheel drive cars are not suitable for the snow.

It’s a common misconception that rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles aren’t good in winter conditions, and that all-wheel drive (AWD) is a must on snowy roads. The reality however, is that the number of drive wheels is effectively irrelevant, as the true determinant of winter performance is—you guessed it—your tires. AWD make no difference while stopping and turning—arguably the greatest safety concerns on snowy roads—it’s your tires that really matter there. A RWD car with proper winter tires will perform far better than an AWD car with all-season tires. So don’t let Old Man Winter talk you out of buying your favorite sports car, just make sure it’s wearing the right winter rubber, and you’ll be just fine.

If you don’t believe me, maybe this video, which shows a RWD BMW M3 with winter tires outperforming an AWD Subaru Forester without them, will change your mind.

Contrary to common belief, tires shouldn’t be underinflated.

Letting air out of my tires will improve traction on snowy roads.

Many a motorist has been fooled into thinking that underinflating their tires will allow the tire to flex more, thus improving traction and grip. As I’m sure you suspected, this is not true. But, like all myths, this one is based on a kernel of truth.

In intense, offroad snowy conditions—the type some people seek out for fun—it can be beneficial to underinflate tires, which artificially increases the contact patch and allows tires to more easily conform to the uneven surface upon which they’re driving. However, this “tip” should be left on the offroad trails, as underinflating your tires on flat, snow-covered or plowed roads is only going to hurt you. By letting air out of the tire, the sidewall will begin to sag, and the outside edges of the tires will start to bear more load than the center of the tread. This will not only compromise the structural integrity of the tire, but it will remove pressure from the part of the tire that does the most work on snowy roads: the middle section of the tread.

So instead of underinflating your tires, make sure they are inflated to exactly what the manufacturer recommends. This really is the pressure at which they’ll perform best for daily driving duties.

Alright folks, there you have it. Those are our top three winter car care and driving myths debunked! Just three more reminders that not everything you hear, especially in the automotive world, is exactly as it seems. The winter can be a dangerous time for drivers, so it’s important to be as well informed as you can. Hopefully this article helped you get there!

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