Winter Essentials: Key Safety Features for Your Holiday Travels

car stuck in snow

As a company based in New England, CarGurus understands that traveling at this time of year can quickly become perilous, and having the right vehicle for winter can make a world of difference. We’ve already seen our first batch of snow and expect more to arrive shortly. Of course, inclement weather can unfortunately coincide with some of the busiest travel times of the year. With the amount of traffic you’re likely to experience this weekend, and with the very real possibility of icy road conditions, we implore you to be proactive this winter and drive a vehicle that can perform well in less-than-ideal conditions. That’s the best choice for you and for other drivers on the road.

There are a few essential features a car must have to be prepared for winter holiday driving. Yes, fast-acting climate control, heated seats, and a heated steering wheel will definitely make for a more comfortable trip. But there are a few key widely available features that will make a dramatic difference in how your vehicle performs on snowy and icy roads. Of course driving a car that has all these features would maximize your ability to traverse the snow, but we recommend that you travel in a vehicle that has at least some of these features. For more winter driving tips, check out the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration’s Winter Driving Tips.

If you take a look at the last few editions of our annual “10 Best Cars to Tackle Winter” car list (we encourage you to read them here, here, and here), you’ll notice that every vehicle on those lists has an available all-wheel-drive or 4-wheel drive-powertrain (well, except the Mercedes-Benz G-Class 6×6, which has a 6-wheel drivetrain). For the uninitiated, all-wheel drive (AWD) provides power to all four wheels on a vehicle, which dramatically improves a vehicle’s performance in inclement weather. The system can shift power from a wheel that loses traction to those that still have it. This reduces the potential for a vehicle to lose control due subpar road conditions, as the system works to maximize available traction. To be frank, if you live in an area that sees more than the occasional snowfall, an AWD vehicle would be a great investment.


ESC abstracted on a Mercedes-Benz C-Class

Electronic stability control (ESC) is an often overlooked feature when it comes to winter safety. New autonomous-driving safety features (automatic emergency braking and lane-keeping assist) have been receiving a lot of press and publicity lately, but computerized ESC has been around since the 1980s. And whereas automakers discourage the reliance on some of those autonomous features in the snow (their sensors can be blocked by snow and ice buildup), ESC can handle the winter weather. ESC uses a computerized system that detects when a car is skidding and automatically applies the brakes to steer the vehicle where the driver wants to go. The system counters over- and understeer by individually braking specific wheels and works to counter a loss of control. ESC also includes a yaw (rotation around the vertical axis) sensor to detect sideways motion and works to prevent the car from sliding. All of this helps a great deal to handle winter weather. Luckily, if you have a car from 2012 or newer, it most certainly has ESC, as the NHTSA has required it on all passenger cars built since 2012.

2015 Ford Exlporer

Ford’s Quickclear heated Windshield demonstrated on the Ford Explorer

Although this may seem like a luxury/convenience feature, heated mirrors and windshields can make a tremendous difference when snow and ice get out of hand. Probably the most important factor when driving in poor weather—outside of the vehicle’s traction—is maintaining good visibility. Most of us have experienced the struggle of chipping away at layers of ice on our windshield and mirrors while clearing the snow off our car the morning after a snowfall. And most of us know the difficulty of dealing with snow and ice piling on our windshields and mirrors while driving in winter weather. Heated side mirrors ensure that your side and rear visibility should never be impeded by chunks of ice or snow, and heated windshields reduce snow and ice build-up during heavy snow. Although heated windshields are a relatively new feature, there are several alternatives, such as windshield wiper de-icers, that can help deal with heavy snow.

For all the strong press that AWD vehicles receive, it should be noted that a good set of winter tires on any vehicle can be as effective, if not more effective, than an AWD vehicle with summer tires. Here’s a demonstration:

Being the only points of contact with the ground, it makes sense that a vehicle’s tires are crucially responsible for maintaining traction. Winter tires are designed to improve a vehicle’s handling, acceleration, and braking while on snow or ice. We understand that it may be a bit of a hassle to take the time to switch out your tires, but it can make a huge difference on the road. If you drive in a place that gets winter snow, you should take the time to switch out your tires twice a year.

What feature do you find essential for winter driving?

–John Harrington

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