Slipping and sliding at the 2020 Redline Ice Winter Driving Experience
We tested six popular models of cars and crossovers on the snow and ice to find the answer to the question: How good is your car on snow and ice? For three years, since the inaugural Redline Ice event, we’ve been invited to see what safety systems can do in bad (or worse) weather conditions. It’s always informative. Here’s what we learned this year.
To start with, every vehicle on hand had all-wheel drive and was equipped with winter tires. Most consumers associate AWD with stable all-weather driving, but just having all four wheels turning only gets you so far. Winter tires, or at least good all-season radials, are a must if the weather gets bad where you live and drive. It’s worth noting that the biggest, largest-tired truck will slide and spin easily if those tires aren’t made for snow and ice. Conversely, even a rear-wheel drive sports car can be driven safely on snow and ice if it’s properly equipped with good snow tires and a driver with a judicious foot.
Beyond just those basics, though, there are a lot of systems in today’s vehicles that go a long way towards improving safety when the roads get ugly. Or turn into a snow-covered Colorado parking lot, as in our testing facility. With an acre of snow (rubbed down to ice in many spots by the time we were done) and six vehicles for testing, we had a full day to learn; and took advantage of it.
2020 Acura RDX
The RDX was in a wintry white color and featured the popular A-Spec package. Having spent time at this same event last year with the almost identical 2019 model plus having taken one for a full review, the RDX was the vehicle at this event we were most familiar with.
The Acura RDX is a well-done luxury sport crossover, but is surprisingly astute in situations where you wouldn't normally expect a luxury sport cross to be. Like off-road. Or in snow and ice. Yet it does remarkably well. Part of that is the very predictable power delivery of the vehicle’s drivetrain. The distribution of that power is also key and became very clearly a part of its stability on the snow once traction control was turned off.
Also interesting, and something noted last year, was the throttle shutoff that happens when the RDX has steering locked in either direction and is traveling in a direction counter to that steering (forward or the opposite direction from the turn). Of note too, was the throttle dampening that happens when wheels begin to slip and the vehicle’s yaw changes as a result.
2020 Dodge Charger GT AWD
The Dodge Charger is a big, four-door sedan with about 4,000 pounds of goodness. The GT model is driven by a drivetrain nearly identical to that found in the Challenger GT, which we drove at last year's event. The Charger is a heavier car, though, adding in those bigger back seats, and has a little tuninig to accommodate that difference. Notably, the Charger GT still outputs a satisfying grunt from its exhaust and lives up to its name when it comes to snow throwing.
Of all the vehicles at the event, the Charger GT was the least snow-worthy in terms of pure safety. It’s big, it’s heavy, and it’s not the most maneuverable vehicle in the best of circumstances. It’s a muscle car, after all. Yet it was also the most fun to drive and the most informative in terms of safety systems operation. That’s because the Charger was the only one vehicle at this year's event where nearly ALL safety systems could be closed down. Traction control, stability control, all-wheel drive, crash avoidance ... Basically everything but the ABS braking can be shut off, allowing for a really good look at what happens when a car goes “old school” without those things.
It was amazing what a difference it made. The 2020 Charger GT, which we will review in full soon, was a tremendous amount of fun to hoon around the lot in. Like its Challenger sibling, the Charger rooster tails snow, throws drifts to the wind, and plows sideways with glee. With safety systems in place, it’s controllable and does well on public roads when the weather is bad (given a moderate driver at the wheel), but physics work their magic when playing in the snow and the Charger becomes pure joy.
Turn off all systems and it becomes a rear-wheel drive monster with no safety beyond a seatbelt. That has a certain amount of adrenal appeal in a situation like Redline Ice, but also illustrates how difficult it is to control a vehicle of this size without any help from the nannies. Keep those systems on, folks.
2020 Fiat 500X
The 500X has all-wheel drive as standard, starting this year, and a tiny turbocharged powerplant as well. We will have a full review of the 2020 500X soon, but our time at Redline Ice showed us a thing or two about this little not-quite-Jeep and it’s capabilities. To start with, the it's light and agile, as it should be wearing the Fiat badge. One of the smallest of the vehicles at the event, the little 500X twists and spins quite easily. But only when you want it to.
Which was key. With traction control on and the throttle being managed well (mostly to keep the turbocharger from getting too excited), the 500X stayed its course without slip or slide. There was a bit of a learning curve, however. Pressing the throttle too much and engaging the turbochargers too quickly meant adding a lot of power to the wheels very suddenly. That meant losing traction when the pavement was slick. It also meant more control when on the hoon path. Which meant a lot of fun.
When sliding around, the 2020 500X is wholly predictable in its movements once the pedal control is learned.
2020 Honda CR-V
Last year, the CR-V’s stablemate, the Passport, taught us a lot about how Honda’s safety systems engage to keep the vehicle on track in snow and ice. Much like the RDX, the CR-V uses several in-built safety systems to stay the course. The throttle damping and cut-off witnessed in the RDX is more noticeable in the CR-V, probably because, by comparison, the CR-V is far less powerful as a more mainstream crossover.
The Honda CR-V is very predictable and easy to drive with just enough giddy-up to its acceleration at low speeds to feel more than boring, but not so much that it’s actually quick. This approach to confidence has done well for Honda, making the CR-V the best-seller in its class. When the weather gets tough, though, so does the CR-V. Want to turn donuts and drift sideways through the snow? Don’t take this car. It’s almost incapable of those things because of its extremely strict and very serious safety setup. Which is a good thing if you’re just trying to get to work on a crappy weather morning.
2020 Nissan Altima AWD
While many believe that the sedan is about to die, a few companies like Nissan have doubled-down on them, adding things like all-wheel drive and better exterior looks to keep them going. The Altima (and its Sentra sibling) received AWD last year and are all the better for it. The Altima’s AWD system is not driver-controllable, which means it's largely left up to the car as to when and how it operates. Similarly, traction control cannot be fully shut off, only dampened.
There are reasons for that, not least of which is the focus of the Altima’s AWD system: stability. The other reason is its transmission: the Altima uses a continuously variable transmission (CVT) rather than a geared trans. This means it holds steadier RPM rates on the whole and must be more prudent with torque management. Hence the electronically-controlled AWD.
All of that translates to two things. First, the Altima is not a race car and won’t really allow a lot of buck and throw when being pushed around a snow-covered parking lot. And the Altima becomes exceedingly safety conscious. Like the schoolyard monitor that makes everything less fun, the Altima AWD left us with the choice of challenging authority (and probably losing) or marking it down as a downer. The upside is that the Debbie Downer of the group was also one of the most safe to drive. Which, to be fair, is really the point here.
2020 Nissan Rogue Sport
Last on our list, but not least, is the little Rogue Sport. Called the Qashqai everywhere else, the Rogue Sport is related to the Rogue by name only. It’s a very different vehicle otherwise. When it first appeared in 2017, we were glad to drive it, and our full review in 2019 was pretty shiny. At Redline Ice, though, the Rogue Sport was something more.
To start with, like the Altima, the Rogue Sport has a CVT and gives no control of the AWD system to the driver. Unlike the Altima, though, the Rogue Sport has the higher stance and familiar confidence of a crossover. This means more capability when it comes to being unsafe (in a safe manner) on the snow. Sliding and spinning are an option in the Rogue Sport, but to do so requires deliberate maneuvers to make it happen. And it won’t happen quickly as the engine and CVT are slow to respond in most circumstances.
When not meaning to slip or slide, the Rogue Sport is pretty stable as a regular drive. Like most vehicles of its class, this Nissan is more car-like than SUV-like, and thus a little more intuitive in its motion dynamics. The slow-paced engine and transmission come into play as safety items here and go a long way towards keeping the Rogue Sport upright in the worst of conditions.
Pulling It All Together
The six vehicles in play at the Redline Ice event this year were great examples of the daily drives most people own. Each, in its way, was excellent at staying safe when conditions were at their worst. Slipping and sliding on purpose is one thing, but doing so when it’s not intended can be disastrous in an automobile. Today’s modern technologies are taking safety to entirely new levels when combating inclement weather.
It’s good to know that they’re ever-improving as well, as terrible weather will be the most difficult thing for vehicles to deal with going forward. Especially as automation becomes more prevalent.