The next time you put the snowblower away, take a look around the garage before you leave. Somewhere, near the rusting gardening tools and the dust-covered Slip 'n Slide, there's a speed demon in the garage begging to be let out for a drive. And thanks to some dedicated engineers, the day has arrived when it's safe and fun to drive in the snow.
When it gets cold, a large portion of American drivers gives up on performance driving until the spring thaw. This goes double for rear-wheel-drive enthusiasts who can't manage much more than a few donuts in an empty Kmart parking lot in slick conditions.
On the road, ice and snow are the great equalizers, turning sports cars into helpless rafts to be tossed about while the slowpoke four-wheel drives stick neatly to the road.
To combat the hazards of slippery driving, automakers have poured on the research dollars, inventing technologies to prevent loss of control. It started with antilock brakes to prevent skids, continued with traction control to prevent wheel spin and has recently culminated with the implementation of stability control, which coordinates antilock brakes, traction control and various other electronic sensors to keep a car under control no matter the road condition.
For enthusiasts who drive stability-controlled vehicles, however, the system can be a little overbearing, wresting control of the vehicle away at the first sign of fun. Say you're whipping around a corner and get your back end out just enough to slide through the corner. Just as you hit that magic point of drift, you'll feel the gas pedal fall out and the brakes engage until the car is back with all four wheels in firm grip with the snowy road. Sure you're safe, but for car buffs it's still a bummer.
Because of this, some makers are sensing car lovers are avoiding the technology at the dealership or turning it off. But with studies showing that 7,000 lives could be saved annually with stability control on all U.S. cars (impressive when you consider that the gold standard of safety equipment, mandatory seatbelts, saves 13,000 lives annually), they want to find a way to show safety doesn't mean boredom.
And somewhere behind the scenes, the eggheads and the car guys have been quietly fighting over these safety systems.
"A Cadillac shouldn't feel like a Lexus, just like a Buick shouldn't feel like a BMW," the car guys argue.
"But why should a Pontiac driver be trusted to drive like a maniac while a Mercedes driver is kept at a safe traction point at all times?" the safety-conscious worrywarts retort.
The folks at Cadillac want drivers to know that enthusiasts won the argument as far as their brand is concerned. They pitted their lineup of rear-wheel-drive sedans and coupes against some of the most slippery conditions out there — an ice- and snow-covered track outside of Steamboat Springs, Colorado. And they did it with all-season tires and other standard equipment to demonstrate how far the technology has come.
"The goal is to maintain a Cadillac drive feel while providing a safe experience," said Matt Karaba, chassis control development engineer from Cadillac. "And even in rear-wheel drive, that's what you get."
The Delphi Corp.-designed stability control worked like a charm, easily navigating the twists and turns of the track at speeds of 40 or 50 mph. The system was tuned to pull back and let the driver push the limits, only engaging when a spinout becomes imminent.
Similar Lexus and BMW technology was noticeably more conservative, reining in the driver as soon as slip was detected. While they stuck to the track like glue, it drained a lot of the fun from the experience.
"Basically, this Cadillac system makes you feel like you're a really good driver," said Scott LaLonde, special projects director for the Steamboat Springs Driving School. "It has a different feeling from other brands and it comes through out here."
Even the two-seater XLR convertible rallied its way around the course without trouble. It managed to find enough friction to drag itself up hills and shifted power around efficiently enough to quickly maneuver through tight turns on little more than a half-inch of snow on 3 inches of glare ice.
For comparison, a stock Mercedes-Benz SL500 convertible was provided. The Mercedes stability system was very aggressive and basically locked the driver out from the controls during incidents of slip. As a result, the car had the hardest time getting around on hills and crowned curves.
Robert Bosch Corp. is currently fighting to win enthusiasts over for stability control systems. The company predicts the number of cars and trucks with stability control will increase from 11 percent now to 23 percent by 2007. And it hopes novice drivers will be able to use the technology as a helping hand while performance fans will see it as a necessary safety feature that won't get in the way of enthusiast driving.
As such, they are working to keep differentiation among different brands of car; letting Pontiacs slip and motor through snow while Buicks with the same Bosch system can be made to keep the driver on firm footing at all times.
"There is a balance between safety and performance, and it varies from brand to brand," said Martin Borsik, senior vice president for chassis at Bosch. "It's important for us to find that balance and make the customer aware that it exists."