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Jim Bray

Ford Focuses on performance and winter driving skills

A special TechnoFile rant, by Jim Bray
February 5, 2015

How's your winter driving? Naturally, the answer will be affected by where you live and whether or not they have any snow removal – you probably don't need a lot of it if you're reading this from Florida, for example – but here in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains we get snow, and ice.

I live in Calgary, whose city runners believe in something called "snow removal by Chinook," in which the city pays lips service to anything but the major roads. I think my little cul de sac's been plowed maybe four times in the 23 years we've lived here, and usually only after someone complains. Instead, they wait until the snow melts by itself when our famous – and most welcome! – Chinooks blow in off the mountains, raising the temperature remarkably in just a few hours. We were having a pretty decent snowy winter till about a week ago, and a pretty cold one at that, but then a Chinook blew in and raised the temperature to a new record high of 20 degrees Celsius. It was great! It's a merry go round, but it beats having total winter for half the year.

The drawback is that when the Chinooks arrive and the snow melts, a lot of it turns to ice on the roads, partially because many oafish drivers have been spinning their wheels and/or locking their brakes coming into and going out of intersections. It makes for extremely dangerous roads even considering the city's rather sanding/salting efforts, which are half-butted at best.

This wouldn't be a big deal if people would just learn a few simple driving skills and apply them judiciously when the roads get lousy. These skills aren't hard to learn and they make you a better driver - and a more confident driver. And they're skills you'll use every time you're behind the wheel.

Ford is doing its bit to help people get comfortable and efficient in winter driving and they invited me out to their "Winter Driving School" held on a snowy open area at Canada Olympic Park. They set out a course of cones designed so you'd have to brake and/or steer (exploiting their ABS), use their torque vectoring through a slalom, and learn to use their traction control to keep the wheels from spinning uselessly.

Before climbing behind the wheel of a Fusion hybrid and an Escape, Ford gave us a presentation outlining these skills and explaining the reason behind them. Then, after a short demonstration of the kind of stuff you should keep in the car during winter in case you break down (a warm blanket, jumper cables, snacks that don't get all gross, windshield washer fluid, etc.), it was off to the "track" to put the cars - well, to put us - through our paces.

It was also a nice way for Ford to get word out about its various safety technologies, the abovementioned stuff and things like blind spot monitoring and their Sync system.

Here are some of the skills they talked about, starting from before you actually get into the car.

Time to "retire." All-season tires just don't cut it when the temperatures drop below about seven degrees Celsius. Their rubber gets hard and performance drops off. I've seen this demonstrated with cars on a hockey rink (it wasn't at this Ford event) and the fully blown winter (not "snow") tires' performance was much better than the all seasons. I've also noticed this on many review cars under real world conditions when the manufacturers send them out here wearing the wrong rubber for the season.  

Clear snow and ice from the entire vehicle. This includes all of the windows, the roof, the hood and, if your vehicle has it, the trunk. And don't forget to clear off the lights. If you don't do this before you head out, the snow will slide off the roof and cover the rear window, or from the hood and onto the windshield, making any half-butted sweeping/scraping pointless. How many times have you seen some oaf driving with his rear window covered (or worse), oblivious to the fact that he can't see what's going on around him?

Here in the land of the Chinook, we also need to keep our windshield fluid reservoir full because each of the windy little buggers means lots of spray from other vehicles as the snow melts.

Small moves. Well, gentle anyway. Smoothness always pays off – if in nothing other than gas mileage – but it's especially important when the asphalt gets iffy. Don't give your car a reason to break away from you. Be smooth and gentle with the gas and the brake – and the steering. And if a wheel starts spinning, straighten out the steering and ease off on the gas a bit – maybe even shift up to second if you have a transmission that'll let you.

This also applies to when you want to slow down. While some people disagree with me, I like using the transmission to slow down, only applying the brakes when I'm going slowly enough that there's little chance of slipping. This is another argument for manual or manu/matic transmissions, but you can do it with almost any automatic as well, even those weird CVT ones that only have an "engine braking" type of setting (which is meant for just such occasions, as well as going down hills).

Ford disagrees with me here, (how dare they?!!!). Their advice is to jam the brake to the floor and leave it there until the ABS bails you out which, to be fair, is what ABS is for. But I don't think ABS, or any of these nannies/aids in fact, should be used as a crutch. You should be doing the job as a driver and the technology should only be considered as gravy. As the ever tolerant me says, if you don't care about being a good driver, perhaps you should take public transit and leave the cars and trucks for those who do care about driving well.

Eyes forward. Ford says "read the road," which is actually more apt, since your eyes should be aimed wherever it is you want to go (if you're turning left, for example, you should be using the driver's side window as well as the front windshield; that's why it's there). But it also means keep your eyes peeled for trouble – as far down the road as you can. And in winter, you can use this technique to help ensure you aren't going to run into icy sections blissfully unaware, especially on bridge decks, in wooded areas and near water.

Drive where you want to go. By this, I mean if you start to slide, steer the car in the direction you want to go (if the rear end is sliding left, for example, steer left so your front wheels are still heading straight), and don't jam on the brakes or tromp the gas. And if you end up in a snowbank, try switching off the traction control (if possible) so you can spin your wheels to try getting out.

None of this stuff is difficult and with practice you might even find yourself having a lot of fun on snowy roads and parking lots. But don't forget this when spring comes; it's stuff you can use all year, whenever you drive.

You might find yourself getting impatient with the idiots, though.

RS-Whole (World)!

Ford also had a bit of good news this week for enthusiasts. Hot on the heels of announcing its new GT supercar, the company proclaimed the introduction of a highest performing version of the Focus, the RS, which will be the first RS to be sold all around the world, including in Canada and the United States.

The third generation RS features all-new Ford Performance All-Wheel Drive with Dynamic Torque Vectoring control and a 2.3 liter EcoBoost four banger the company says will crank out "well in excess of 315 horsepower."  It'll also sport – pun intended – a six speed manual transmission, which is the only way to fly. Well, not the only (there are some darn fine automatics these days), but the best.

Ford is no stranger to such cars, they're just not seen here very much, but cars such as the Fiesta and Focus ST's show the company can make a good case for enthusiast drivers. Time will tell how the RS is, and how it does in the market, but it sounds like a blast!

I can't wait to try it!

Copyright 2015 Jim Bray

Jim Bray is a member of the Automobile Journalists Association of Canada. His columns are available through the TechnoFile Syndicate.

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