Driving Ruby on April Grease
March 24, 2017
For years I have told anyone who would listen that the most hazardous driving conditions of the winter occur in April, when a quick fall of snow is saturated by rain at 32 degrees F. I even had a name for the phenomenon, April grease.
We drove into some on the way home from Merrickville today. I was mildly curious to see how Ruby would do on zero-traction slush, but primarily I was eager to get her home without damage.
The trip began bravely enough, with very little traffic on the back roads. The few winter- hardy drivers plowed along, their pickups in 4WD and loaded tanks of sap in the back.
As long as I was exactly in their wheel ruts, things were normal. But if the right wheels climbed a 1″ pile of slush, Ruby let me know with a stutter-step to the right, the same as any other car I’ve driven in this stuff.
On a side note: because of this slush I quit using a Volkswagen for winter commutes. A light FWD like our Jetta would lose control for as long as both front wheels were floating on slush — in passing situations, for example. I opted for a series of Volvo sedans, those of the skinny, tall Michelins. They were pretty good, though I managed the odd front-wheel skid with them, as well. When the new 4Runner came along I learned just to drive it in 4WD through thick and thin. It was very stable in the passing lane unless in 2WD, at which point it behaved like an annoyed pig on ice.
Back to Ruby and the unfamiliar April slush. As we passed Toledo things became greasier, though I noticed that most drivers were still holding a pace for dry pavement. Then one guy braked to turn. His SUV split-arsed a bit, but he recovered neatly and continued into a barn yard. Though well back, I tried my brakes on the tricky surface. To my surprise nothing happened for a bit. It wasn’t a skid — no machine gun rattle from various corners of the car — but rather it seemed that the brakes just weren’t working. Ice on the rotors, or all wheels with zero traction? Likely ice. I’ve noticed that before on Ruby. This never happens on a Lexus, but Toyota engineers didn’t have to worry about brake cooling on a sedan designed for geezers. Cayennes occasionally find themselves on a track, so the rotors are built to run very cold. 32 degree F slush, a whirling, shiny object and you have a perfect chance for ice to form.
So part of the routine for driving Ruby in near-freezing conditions is frequent touches of the brakes to defrost them.
Once they were dry, I over-applied the brakes as a test. The usual muted machine-guns went off, and the car slowed quickly, dead-straight. A basic safety line established, I experimented with the Goodyear winter tires and the grease. Frankly, I wasn’t all that impressed. The wheels are simply too wide for the weight of the vehicle on grease. The coarse off-road treads of my pickup would grip the asphalt better, I think. I slowed down to just a bit over 80 km/hr.
Why the critical attitude when I certainly should have been driving more slowly in bad conditions? In my wife’s Lexus, a pretty good slush car with a relatively high weight-to-tire width, I know how quickly I’m driving without a look at the speedometer. In Ruby, I really don’t know without instruments. Speed creeps up if I don’t use cruise control. Stealth speed is not what a driver needs in April grease.
Will I leave Ruby at home next time in bad conditions? Naw. I’ll just set the cruise at 80 km and go for it. It’s still by far the best, safest car we’ve ever driven. I just need to adjust the control nut behind the wheel.
And now that I think of it, on one memorable 5 a.m. drive to the Ottawa Airport on April 7th, I refused to drive my Volvo an inch further because I couldn’t keep it on the road. We went in our friend’s Dodge Mini-Van with AWD. It drove like a motorized living room, but it didn’t slide around on grease.