STEVE COLQUHOUN June 09, 2012
How to get to the snow and back safely and comfortably.
As the mercury plummets it's time to strap the skis to the roof, pack the parkas, throw in the thermals and make the trek to the winter wonderland of your choice.
For most city dwellers, that will necessitate at least a three-hour drive before you even see the white stuff, while for others it could be closer to six.
So what are the best cars that will swallow all your gear, provide comfort and deliver you to the best skiing spots in safety?
If you're thinking something with all-wheel-drive, you're right - sort of. Experts caution that having traction at all four wheels can breed a sense of overconfidence, leading people to drive faster than is safe for the conditions.
The system is a boon when it comes to getting the car moving in low-grip situations, such as an icy slope. Once moving, though, AWD doesn't offer any braking benefits - it won't do anything extra to stop you ploughing off the road if you're going too fast. Another disadvantage to choosing an AWD car is its weight. Although having some weight over the wheels is an advantage in gaining initial bite on slippery surfaces, the AWD mechanicals add extra mass. That, combined with the inherently taller centre of gravity of most SUVs, can make them a handful to steer, especially on a slippery descent.
However, SUVs remain the overwhelmingly popular choice among snow bunnies, and for good reason. Their taller ride height enables them to traverse larger snow drifts without ''bottoming out'' - becoming stranded on the snow between their wheels. They're also typically more spacious than sedans and hatchbacks, with room to pile in all of the gear and supplies needed for an extended stay at a snow resort.
If you need a roof-mounted luggage box, pack it with lighter items such as clothes and bedding and remember that placing extra weight above the roofline will negatively affect the car's handling in slippery conditions.
SUVs - especially at the upper end of the market - are more likely to be fitted with snow-specific traction and stability-control programs that can be switched on or off at the twist of a dial, as well as a ''hill descent control'' feature that will take over the acceleration and braking on a steep, slippery surface.
Some also offer - usually as an option - heated seats, heated windscreen, heated washer water and even a heated steering wheel.
Don't completely discount front-wheel-drive cars, though. Experts say that in light snow conditions - less than 15 centimetres - they are quite capable if driven with care. They're a better bet than cars that drive the rear wheels only, which can more easily spin out of control with acceleration at the wrong moment.
You should also factor snow chains into your ski-holiday plans. In Victoria, it's compulsory to carry them when inside national alpine parks during ski season, and they need to be fitted when directed by signs. In NSW, it isn't compulsory to carry them. But if you don't and a sign directs you to do so, you'll need to rent some from the nearest town.
Some cars sporting larger wheels with low-profile tyres can't be fitted with snow chains - check with your car dealer if in doubt. Also ensure that the chains will fit inside the wheel guards without rubbing that will damage the car.
Some manufacturers or tyre retailers offer a service to swap a smaller set of wheels on to the car for the duration of your holiday.
If you're a regular visitor to the snow, it might be worth investing in a set of snow tyres that you can swap on and off your car as needed.
As a minimum, chains are usually fitted to the driving wheels, and for AWD cars they can be applied to all four wheels for maximum safety. Check with the manufacturer or car dealer for their recommendation. After chains are fitted, it's recommended that the car be driven for a few kilometres before stopping to re-tension the chains.
Diamond-pattern chains are preferable to the basic ladder pattern for better fit and performance. And pack an old set of leather gloves for fitting the chains - it's usually a wet and muddy process.
Is it better to drive a diesel-powered car to the snow, or petrol? Diesel tends to be the default choice for many buyers of the larger SUVs favoured by snow bunnies, who prefer the lower fuel bills and a wider spread of torque for easy overtaking and towing.
However, diesel is more volatile in cold conditions, with a propensity to turn into a sludgy gel that will initially make the car hard to start and eventually stop it altogether.
If you are driving a diesel-powered vehicle, plan to fill your tank at a fuel station in one of the towns below the ski resorts, where the diesel fuel is supplemented by an anti-gel additive.
Petrol-powered cars typically suffer no such difficulties.
Wagons - either SUVs or car-based load luggers - are a handy companion not only for their increased capacity for luggage but also because you can sit on the tailgate to remove your skiing boots and overclothes, protected from falling snow by the raised boot-lid.
Leather seats are a sensible option for families who change out of their ski clothes before getting into the car, as any excess water can be quickly wiped up. However, expensive leather can be ruined by prolonged or repetitive exposure to water, so if you plan to drive home in your wet ski clothes, go for more durable cloth seats.
Either way, invest in a set of heavy-duty floor mats to protect carpets from muddy boots.
And, of course, factor in the uses to which you will put the car during the greater part of the year that you won't be driving around a ski resort, as well as finding a car that will comfortably make the long trip to and from the ski field.
The big Beemer has snow cred in spades with its generous, family friendly proportions, decent underbody clearance and a range of powerful engines that aren’t extremely thirsty. Looks pretty good parked next to the chalet, too. Also comes with hill descent control as standard across the range, and roof racks for mounting the skis or storage box. Seat heaters for front and rear passengers sit on the lengthy options list, while a lockable ski holder is a dealer-fitted accessory. Check with your BMW dealer about fitting snow chains, as some tyre and wheel combinations sit quite close to the enclosing guard.
A favourite among those who place practicality ahead of prestige, and the darling of the cross-country skiing set. Car-like proportions and driving experience combined with permanent all-wheel-drive grip appeal to many who struggle to justify the size and fuel use of a larger SUV. Has a slightly taller ride height than the Liberty it’s based on, which means it will go places many sedans and wagons won’t. Despite that, the Outback retains a relatively low centre of gravity that lends more stability and better grip on slippery roads than taller cars. It cannot match the boot space of larger SUVs, but has enough space for most young families.
The Swedes know a thing or two about driving in the snow so Volvos tend to be inherently capable in low-grip situations. The larger XC90 is a long-term favourite with the ski set, but is beginning to look a bit tired after nearly a decade in service. The XC60,meanwhile, is a former winner of the best SUV over $40,000 award in Drive’s annual Car of the Year gongs, with excellent all-round ability and a suite of optional safety features that is second to none. Seat heaters cost only an extra $325, too. Distinctive looks and a Euro badge do not hurt its cause with brand-aware buyers, either.
4. Nissan X-Trail
If BMWs and Volvos are a bit of a stretch then the versatile X-Trail could come into calculations. Its great selling point for extreme sport enthusiasts of all sorts is a tough, no-nonsense interior into which you can throw just about anything from skis to bikes and surfboards without risk of damaging carpets or plastic panels. Under-floor storage trays are a great place to stash wet clothes. The X-Trail might lack some of the bells and whistles of premium SUVs but kicks off for less than $30,000 for a front-wheel-drive, petrol-driven model that will handle light snow duties. More expensive models feature a switchable AWD mode and an economical diesel engine.
5.Subaru Impreza Hatch
Smaller and with less ground clearance than most SUV options, the Impreza is nonetheless thoroughly capable of handling a day trip to the snow with the help of Subaru’s renowned full-time all-wheel-drive system and its low, wide stance. Decent rear-seat real estate means you can fit four in comfort, although that extra weight will present a significant challenge to the smallish engine, especially on the climb to the resort car park. The upside is pricing that starts just below $24,000 and includes a decent level of equipment and the versatility of a hatch.