Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Ill chill

An ideal environment in more ways than one. Photo: Tesla
I'm glad I'm not forced to take a side in the whole Tesla vs. New York Times gripefest going on right now, because I can definitely see where both sides have their points - and I don't think anyone has done anything at all wrong.

We all know the story by now: NYT's John Broder drove a Model S from Washington DC to Norwich, CT, and back to NYC - and suffered from serious battery-charge issues through most of the drive. When the story ran, Tesla founder and head Elon Musk had a conniption, accusing the Times of faking the story and worse. Many bad vibes remain in the air.

A couple things: No, I don't think that the Times set out to disparage or smear the Model S. They put the car through a fairly normal test and took notes on what happened and what could have been done differently (making it very clear that some better information would have made a difference). Also, I do understand Musk's outrage; even if he's coming off as a bit thin-skinned and snappish, Tesla is his baby and it has to hurt hard to see his efforts, from the car to the Supercharger network, portrayed so negatively.

I really like the Model S. It looks fantastic, it's supposed to be great to drive, it is a massive step forward for electric cars in general. That said, this episode highlights two very important points: First, EVs are still a new technology with some understandable limitations. They will likely improve significantly even in the near future, but for now they're still more or less a work in progress.

Second, and this isn't just about EVs: Driving in winter sucks.
The view from home, Saturday, February 9, 2013
It's more of a case with EVs, to be sure, because the cold plays hell with battery storage. But in general, winter weather and enthusiastic driving do not mix well.

Fine, go turn your favorite parking lot into a donut shop for a while. Past that, you run into all kinds of concerns beyond comfort levels for us wimpy cosmopolitan bourgeois types. (And no, I've never really had a standing need for seat heaters.)

Start with snow. A little bit is okay; it's not a major inconvenience, it's fun to feel things slide a bit at normal speeds, it's a good way to learn some control skills. Get much over half a foot and things start to get difficult in a hurry. One of the most disillusioning and depressing things I've seen in the past few years was an Audi A4 Quattro hopelessly stuck in snow up to its bumpers along 33rd Street, waiting for a pull from a Jeep. All-wheel drive is nice; ground clearance is maybe more important. And if you live your life on two wheels, whether motorized or pedaled, at this point you're probably stoking the fire and pouring a drink and finding a good book because ain't no way you're going out in this. Especially knowing what comes next.

After the snow, inevitably, you deal with ice, and that's when things get nasty. Grip is nonexistent. Surfaces can be very hard to judge. An object in motion tends to stay in motion because the ability to act upon it has just been severely limited or removed entirely. And consider how cars are weighted unevenly, which brings its own dynamic thrills and chills. Rear-engined cars (Raphael's Bug, Mom's old Porsche 912) do okay on snow; on ice, they're the worst.

Then you face the changes that the cold causes independent of precipitation. Tires don't warm up right. Neither does the rest of a car, from recalcitrant starting onward. It can even cause weird changes in the vehicle itself; Dad once said that when it got really cold cold his Saturn SC2 had a totally different set of body-panel rattles than it did during the rest of the year. (He apparently found this oddly endearing.) Corvette owners might understand this.

Photo: Cam Riley

Or at least the Corvette owners that drive their fiberglass missiles in the chill and ice know this, which of course brings up the most blatant point: A lot of really wonderful machines manage winter weather about as well as they do rock trails. I used to have a running list of worst possible snow cars, which tended towards three headings: exotics, especially Italians (Countach, F40, 930); American V8 hot rods (Cobra, early big-block Camaro); and affordable roadsters (Spitfire, Seven, Spiders both Fiat and Alfa Romeo). I eventually stopped contemplating that category when I realized that it basically meant that most of the cars I wanted to own were grossly unsuited to my continuing life in places that had real winters. As noted, this is especially true regarding motorcycles.

Which likely plays into some greater truths about the automotive marketplace as a whole. Not everyone who buys an SUV or crossover does so with considerations about winter driving in mind, but for a lot of folks it's definitely a part of the decision. (If it isn't initially, the friendly salesperson will doubtless be happy to remind the prospective buyer of the advantages of this higher-profit - I mean, higher-capability vehicle.) And the fact that sports cars remain a small cult movement in much of the country may be due in significant part to this as well. (Although maybe the success of the Subaru WRX/STi and Mitsubishi Evo ironically owe something to this.)

Not that a monster lumbering SUV or mallmobile crossover is necessary to handle frozen precipitation. Best snow car I've ever driven without qualification is a 2005 VW Passat sedan with the 1.8 turbo 4 and autobox driving the front wheels and standard Continental WhateverContact tires. (This would be Anna's mom's car, for what it's worth.) Not sure how much more advantage 4Motion would provide, because it has so far proven to be unstoppable. Yes, it's bigger than I'd prefer and kind of boring on an everyday basis, but in snow it is well-balanced and brilliantly effective. And I wonder if the blunt numbness of a lot of older American cars isn't the flip side of creating something that can handle whatever crazy conditions North America cooks up. (Addendum: See also Volvos.)

I guess instead of just succumbing to the dreary lure of a big barge truck derivative, I'd rather spend my time finding common ground between the longing for speed and the realities of snow and ice. The Evo and STi have some potential if not much ground clearance. Water-cooled VWs have their appeal. (Also, earlier A1 platform cars are renowned for having one of the all-time great heater systems, as if almost to compensate for a perennial concern of the air-cooled cars.) And even if they aren't totally invincible, Audi Quattros have their following for a reason.

Maybe it's best to just get what you want and face the consequences as bravely as possible. Sometimes a really good car can surprise you. Right after I trudged past that stuck Audi a few years ago I cheered an NC Miata going by on a plowed but still slick 1st Avenue. And I've heard whispers about how great a 308/328 is on dedicated snow tires.
Then again, maybe that Jeep isn't such a bad idea.

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