Snow smarts

c: | f: /

An automatic car is a nightmare in the snow. An automatic car that thinks it knows best is worse still. Remind me again why I took the smart car out.

During the recent snow I made a bit of a silly decision. We went on holiday for a few days before Christmas to a place in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by sheep, in -10°C temperatures on icy roads. In the smart car.

Now I love my smart. Despite having the handling prowess of a shopping trolley, and — on Britain’s pot-holed roads — the ride smoothness of a penny farthing, there’s something intensely fun about climbing behind the wheel and effortlessly darting around town. But it sucks in the snow, and I knew this so why did I choose to go out in it? Granted I could have taken the other car, but it’s so old there was a chance it wouldn’t start in the cold weather and I figured reliability trumped grip.

Until I tried it.

We were parked at the holiday property at the bottom of a mild (one degree maybe) incline. Starting on the flat I got the car into second gear and it was plain sailing, if a bit slidey in places, going up the driveway. Everything was going swimmingly until I realised the gate at the top of the drive wasn’t open and had to stop.

Time for the science bit. Every good driver knows that to get a car moving in snow you need one or more of these features, the more the better:

  • front wheel drive / 4×4
  • a heavy vehicle
  • start in second gear to limit wheelspin
  • the ability to temporarily turn off traction control
  • manual override of other car’s features
  • snow chains / a shovel / sand / car mats / anything with grip that can be wedged under the wheels

Here’s where the smart car fails:

  • rear wheel drive
  • weighs the same as three pigeons tied together, dripping wet
  • semi-automatic so it’s impossible to start in anything other than 1st gear
  • traction system cannot be switched off short of pulling out the correct fuse (thereby also losing ABS and some other safety features)
  • the car tries to make all decisions for you, aside from which direction to point it
  • I had no snow chains, no shovel, no sand, it has no car mats and the only thing that could be wedged under the wheels for grip was my wife. She wasn’t game

So, parked on a tiny snowy, icy hill with the gate now open I gently applied the accelerator. The back slid in the tyre groove and the traction light flashed impatiently at me. Car went nowhere.

Ramming my foot to the floor and bouncing up and down in the car did nothing — the traction light not only flashed incessantly, the engine management system detected the fact that the wheels were spinning and not only applied the brakes in succession in a vain attempt to stop me sliding (even though it knew I was stationary, and the gyroscope knew I was on an incline) it limited the engine revs so I couldn’t even dig my way out.

All the while the lights were flashing, the engine was cutting back, the wheels were slipping and my language was worsening, I tried to shove the car into second gear so I could at least gain some semblance of control. But the car would’t let me because the revs were too low and I wasn’t going fast enough to warrant the higher gear (this is the car that automatically drops me to 1st if I go round a corner too slow, causing it to ‘lurch’).

Taking a different tack I managed to reverse it part way down the drive — intending to take a run-up at the slope — but it fishtailed and I got stuck. Thus I was behind the wheel of a motorised roller skate with less grip than a pensioner’s handshake and nothing but sheep staring blankly on.

It was time for the big guns. I climbed from the car and both my wife and I started hacking the ice away from the wheels and for five or ten metres ahead, using the back of our wellies to chip away at it. I eventually chiselled my way down to road and felt warmer as a result of the exertion.

Then I climbed back in and revved as hard as the car would let me, bouncing up and down while my wife shoved the car forward into our grippier trench. It bit! I slid into a few skids but managed to steer into them and kept the revs up enough — despite the traction warning light constantly flashing — to be able to finally get the thing into second gear.

I didn’t want to stop and had visions of my wife racing after the car and diving into the passenger side while I was moving but as it happened the ground levelled off just past the gate and I spun it round the corner and stopped.

The rest of the journey off the estate was pretty easy once I’d got the car into second gear again and kept it moving so it wouldn’t decide to drop me into first. Even up the hills it managed to keep going and when we made it home I treated us all to milk and cookies as a reward (I ended up eating the car’s allocation: yummy).

Morals of the story: electronic systems in cars suck in adverse weather, humans know best, and always carry a shovel.

4 of you gave a toss


    Can a shovel actually fit into a smart™ car with a driver and passenger already onboard?

    Stef Dawson

    Hmm, good question. Maybe diagonally, and if I duck!

    Given their track record it wouldn’t surprise me if smart make their own fold-up shovel at a larger-than-life price.


    Stick it out the sunroof perhaps?

    B&Q trowel might fit. Or an old M.O.D trenching tool.

    Hope it isn’t icy when you go to fetch it.

    Stef Dawson

    Sunroof? I should be so lucky! I think you might be onto something with the trowel though. Functional, and leaves just enough space for me in the car.

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