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Land Rover LR3 for First Snow of the Season: To SUV or Not To SUV

After an unusually warm fall, in southeastern Michigan we are experiencing temperatures more typical of January and February than November or December, complete with early snowfall well ahead of the average. By December 11, we had seen more snow than our average for the entire month of December and more snow than we’ve seen in December since 1974, according to a local newscast. Four to eight inches of the month’s ten-plus inches dropped on the evening of December 8, when snow started coming down heavy about 6 p.m. By about 9:30 p.m., it sure seemed as though three-quarters of the total had fallen. I was attending a holiday party and needed to drive about fifteen miles before I could be snug at home, I found myself grateful to be driving a Land Rover LR3. But: Grateful enough to opt for an SUV for our household fleet?


LR3, at Least, Not Challenged by Early Winter Snowfall
An SUV equipped with a good AWD system and electronic aids provides confidence when driving through the snow and ice and assures you that it will easily drive through snow in depths just plain too deep for a snow-shoed Audi TT coupe or Mazda Miata to successfully navigate. The LR3 felt overqualified for this occasion, in fact, as it had capabilities that I did not need. Its AWD system offers a specific setting for slippery surfaces (including snow, gravel, and sand), but the surefooted LR3 did not need to switch out of its most basic AWD mode. The LR3 could take on far worse driving weather, and Thursday’s drive was typical Michigan snow weather: poor visibility and snow falling faster than it can be cleared off the road, leaving the reduced traffic flow to clear the way.
After drives like last Thursday’s, I find myself tempted by the go-anywhere, all-weather power of an AWD-equipped SUV and understanding again why many people choose the perceived confidence of large, AWD vehicles. Many front- and rear-wheel-drive cars, especially when equipped with today’s advanced levels of electronic assistance, perform admirably and safely in bad weather, but they require more input and concentration to handle in those conditions, both things today’s drivers seem to avoid. It is far easier to plow forward with a heavy AWD-equipped SUV. An SUV even feels safer even though it may not be. An SUV lets you know that all four corners are solidly planted and you can drive with minimum fuss. With a front- or a rear-drive car (or two-wheel-drive SUV), the driver is more likely to feel wheels slip and need to adjust steering, braking, or acceleration input to maintain course. A minivan in the snow can gain as much traction, but generally feels more unwieldy. With a vehicle like the Land Rover LR3, one can be secure in the knowledge that if the snow drift in the left lane piles up, the LR3 can still move forward while others may have difficulty with either traction or ground clearance. One also knows that should an evasive maneuver be needed, assuming a safe speed, it can be done as safely and confidently as possible.
The Land Rover was an excellent vehicle for what could have been an unsettling drive and reinforced my understanding of the reason many drivers keep SUVs around: An SUV can provide the feeling that we have the ability to go anywhere, anytime, weather be damned. Never mind how often I drive in the snow, or how deep that snow is. That is not important. What is important is that I can.
No A Change of Heart?
The experience, however, is not likely to alter the makeup of our garage any time soon. Despite having heard the call of the SUV and again reveling in the go-anywhere feeling recently, I am also reminded that the last time I drove through deep snow and had the Snow Hero feeling was during the winter of 2001-2002. In the aftermath of a fourteen-inch snowstorm, I returned an Audi A6 Avant with Quattro and swapped it out for a Saturn S-Series coupe with traction control. While the A6 drove through the ten to fourteen inches of piled-up snow at the end of my street with ease, it took a significant amount of work to get the Saturn back up the street when I returned. Both vehicles succeeded in getting through the snow, but only one with grace.
We’ve had snow and snowstorms since then, but I have either not needed to drive in them or have safely driven our household’s snow-shoed Mazda Miata or Audi TT quattro coupe. While the Snow Hero feeling of AWD can be liberating, knowing I can handle a snowstorm in a Miata has its benefits, too. In general, Michigan’s road-clearing ability is reasonably good and much of the snow seems to fall before or after actual drive times. As I can count on one hand the number of times I have needed to drive through several inches of snow during the past five years, the odds are on my side.


I allow myself the luxury of not maintaining a fleet with extreme capability. Despite my appreciation for the capability of the LR3 last week and the A6 Avant a few years back, I’ll stick with the TT and the Miata for now. We’ll need more than bad weather to bump us up to an SUV at home. After all, the best spot to be in a snowstorm is home, safe and warm and enjoying time with my husband and our cat!
P.S. For Those I-Am-Superman AWD Drivers
With the benefits of a large, AWD SUV on snow-covered roads, there always goes the caveat against the invisible Superman cape that lands so many SUVs in the ditch during snowstorms. AWD and SUVs can be safer and provide a more surefooted drive in snow than front-wheel or rear-wheel drive exclusively. However, as with any tools that help us overcome conditions, common sense must still be applied. Being behind the wheel of SUV is not an excuse to drive at an unsafe speed, and the better drivers understand this. When something goes wrong in wet and icy weather, any driver’s ability to control the vehicle’s reaction to the change is compromised by the conditions. Driving too fast can more quickly change a near miss to a hit when traction is poor, whether ice causes an unexpected slide, one needs to react to an unexpected move from another driver, or Santa Claus lands on the freeway and causes the need to stop and stop quick.


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