How do everyday drives handle the snow and ice in Colorado’s high country?
Earlier this month, with a chill in the air and plenty of snow on the ground, we once again found ourselves at the annual Rocky Mountain Redline Colorado Winter Driving Encounter. This year's event pit eight vehicles from various manufacturers against the snow and elements of Colorado's high country, resulting in some lessons on how modern safety systems help control vehicles in adverse conditions ... and a lot of fun.
With a selection of everyday vehicles from several automotive brands on hand – all clad in winter tires – we first spent a day in a snow-covered parking lot near a ski resort in Winter Park, Colorado. We spun, slid around, drifted, and otherwise pushed the vehicles to their limits of handling on the snow. Some did better than others, but all proved that safety systems can work for or against a driver when conditions are least favorable.
The next day we repeated the exercise on a frozen lake, learning what creates the most traction for each vehicle. The takeaway? Today's modern safety systems are far more active and useful than might be thought. In some cases, maybe a little too helpful.
Here's a quick summary of how each of the vehicles performed.
2019 Acura RDX A-Spec
By the time we arrived at this year's Winter Driving Encounter we were well acquainted with the 2019 RDX in its new A-Spec packaging. We did a full review of the vehicle a couple of weeks before and had driven it at the off-road event Redline conducted in the fall of 2018. In both our week with the crossover and that off-pavement event, we learned that the RDX is easy to underestimate.
That impression was further bolstered by this latest experience. In every case, the reason is the same: Acura's Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD) is extremely astute in a variety of situations. Especially if the driver knows how to use the big, front-and-center control knob to set the proper driving mode. A steady foot on the throttle, Snow mode, and no exaggeration to the steering meant that the 2019 RDX stayed the course through snow and did fairly well on solid ice as well.
Turning to Sport+ mode, which drops much of the traction control in favor of more power faster, changed those metrics to fun times. Drifting, tires spinning dramatically, and throwing snow around was easy in the RDX, which is more of a sports car with a crossover body than it is anything else. Going between the two settings showed the dramatic variation in the Acura RDX's control and stability on slippery surfaces, depending on the chosen setting.
2019 Buick Envision
The newly-refreshed Envision has a better look and, more importantly, a new 2.0-liter turbocharged engine option. All-wheel drive is standard with that engine, but this being a no-nonsense premium crossover, there aren't any drive modes or other selections to make. Choices are basically limited to whether traction control is on or off. In either case, the Buick drives with a front-wheel bias, AWD notwithstanding.
Understanding that last point is crucial to understanding how to control the 2019 Envision when roadway conditions get sub-par. With traction control on and and a steady hand and foot, the Envision behaves predictably and much like a front wheel-drive sedan in the snow and on the ice. For most drivers not intent on anything but safety, that makes the Envision intuitive on snow-covered pavement.
What that doesn't do is make the 2019 Buick Envision easy to play with when fun times are the intent. It took some learning, and a little coaching from a professional racer, to get the hang of pushing the Envision to frenzied limits in nose spins and long ice-enabled drifts. That's a good thing. The harder it is to teach yourself to make a particular vehicle behave badly, the safer it probably is in normal driving.
2019 Dodge Challenger GT
Largely unchanged from our drive of this big car on the snow and ice last year, the 2019 Challenger GT was the only non-surprise at this winter drive. The big all-wheel drive Challenger normally operates with a rear wheel bias, but several options allow the driver to tune that for various needs (or wants). The muscle coupe gained a lot of attention at this event, which it deserved.
When driving the Challenger GT normally on snow, leaving the drivetrain settings at default results in the rear-heavy bias showing itself in the corners. It doesn't take long to learn how to compensate for that with smoother turns and longer leads into them before the Challenger GT becomes very controllable on slippery surfaces. Even ice.
With all bets off, though, the 2019 Dodge Challenger GT becomes a whole lot of fun. It throws rooster tails of snow and slides around like a ballet dancer in a Ken Block short all the while making glorious muscle car sounds. Making the transition is easy. When the car is stopped, but in gear, hold down the traction control button for about three seconds. When it beeps, the dashboard will show traction control off and "Track Mode" on. This disconnects the front axle entirely and makes the Challenger GT completely rear-wheel drive with a pure 50:50 torque split between those rear wheels.
2019 Honda Passport
The new guy on the block, the all-new Passport from Honda is a two-row crossover sitting just underneath the Pilot in both seating and size. The Passport otherwise shares much with the bigger Pilot, which we drove at this event last year, including many of the same handling characteristics. Foremost of those is that when driven in "Snow" mode and with careful winter driving methods, the Passport holds its course safely and without pucker factor.
There are several reasons for this, not the least of which is the way the engine, transmission, and driver controls change when the going gets slick. To start with, Snow mode dampens throttle response to better regulate inputs. It also loosens the steering feel a little. Traction in Snow mode is tuned towards slowing down wheels that aren't as grippy, rather than pushing power to the wheels that have a better surface. All of this translates into smooth moving and very little sliding. Honda has a further safety system in place that cuts throttle input entirely if the vehicle is sliding in a direction that isn't consistent with the steering wheel's turn if the steering is locked (turned all the way) to one side or the other. This helps mitigate the panic response many drivers have when they feel the vehicle sliding out from under them.
Even with just regular driving in place, no special modes activated, the Honda Passport does very well at detecting the slippery surface and compensating to keep the vehicle on track. Snow mode improves this by anticipating that it could happen, but standard driving modes for comfort or fuel savings remain very safe on a slick surface.
When you shut off these systems the 2019 Passport can still be a lot of fun on the snow, though, with more potential than expected for drifts and slides.
2019 Jeep Wrangler Sahara AWD
The new-generation Wrangler line-up has a surprise in the form of the all-wheel drive (not four-wheel drive) Sahara model. Powered by a turbocharged four-cylinder engine with Jeep's new eTorque mild hybrid system, the Wrangler Sahara AWD swaps the usual 4WD transfer case gearbox for a differential. The 4WD shift lever has both a "4H Auto" option and a "4H Part-Time" option.
The 2019 Wrangler Sahara AWD is normally in a rear-wheel bias for its operations and has an option for forcing rear-wheel only in "2H" mode on the shift lever. Going to 4H Auto allows the electronics of the Jeep to decide how much power to send, if any, to the front axle and when. The split can become a forced 30:70 rear bias in 4H Part-Time. Further vectoring on each axle, between wheels, is done automatically as needed.
For stability on the snow, the Wrangler does best in 4H Auto, allowing the AWD system to do its thing keeping the rig as stable and straight-and-narrow as possible. The Wrangler, being a tall SUV with a short wheelbase and large tires, is not inherently adept at keeping itself out of a slide. We do note that with the AWD system running, the Wrangler Sahara is far more snow-friendly than are standard Wrangler models with or without 4WD. The greatest difference being the vehicle's ability to push power fore or aft as required, which is not done in traditional 4WD drivetrains.
With things in 4H Part-Time, the Jeep became a lot of fun to slip and slide, throwing snow and skittering across the ice with glee. With the top off, it was by far the most fun we had on the snow and ice for this event.
2019 Mercedes-Benz C300
The little luxury coupe from Mercedes is a solid car on its own. Equipped with Mercedes' all-wheel drive system, called 4Matic, it's stable and reliable on the snow and fun on dry pavement in the corners. Of all of the vehicles in attendance for this event, the C300 seemed the most controllable out of the box. This was a combination of the car's small size, low stance, and smoothly predictable power delivery.
Just before this event, we'd driven the C300 as a daily driver for a week (review coming soon), so we were already familiar with its capabilities. With safety systems on and active, the 2019 C300 maximizes traction well and holds a straight line or gentle curve without issue. With systems turned off (namely the traction control and entering Sport drive mode), the Mercedes-Benz C300 was the lightest and most acrobatic of the cars on snow and ice.
2020 Mercedes-Benz GLE 450
Despite its bulk, the all-new GLE 450 is light on its feet and well-mannered on good or bad driving surfaces. With everything on and 4Matic engaged, the GLE 450 stays steady through most driving, assuming a prudent foot and careful hand are used. The sheer size of the big SUV plays against it, though, so driver control is a must with this machine.
Maneuvering the 2020 GLE 450 on the snow is predictable and easy, with the safety and traction systems doing a commendable job keeping the large SUV on track. Turning off traction control changes things immensely, causing a lot of slip and sideways movement. Even if the driver is being careful.
As you'd expect, turning off traction control and turning on Sport mode makes the big Mercedes SUV fun to throw around in the snow. The weight of the machine is easily used to advantage when the aim is to slide sideways, throw up jets of white, slushy powder, and spin circles around the occasional orange cone.
2019 Toyota RAV4 Adventure
Toyota totally redesigned the RAV4 for the new model year ... and it really shows. The previous-generation RAV4 Adventure was at this same event last year and held its own surprisingly well, but for 2019 Toyota has added more gears to the transmission and more drive mode controls to further improve the Adventure's off-road cred.
Driven normally, the 2019 RAV4 Adventure does a good job of sensing the environment and keeping things safe. Adding on Snow mode to the drive controls means slipping and sliding requires concerted effort and is far less likely to happen with an inexperienced or inattentive driver.
Turning off those things, specifically traction control, was a lesson in how much that system helps keep the RAV4 on course. Putting the RAV4 Adventure into Sand mode forces torque delivery to become equal between the wheels and allows for a lot of fun slip-and-slide and drift-and-spin in the snow. Interestingly, Rock/Mud mode was ideal for the ice, making the traction control system become far more pushy about getting the best traction delivery out of each wheel without regard for how much sliding might happen.
Ed's note: Aaron travelled to the Colorado Winter Driving Encounter as a guest of event organizer, Rocky Mountain Redline.