12 Oct 2012

Winter fun - ideal cars for those low grip moments

The leaves are starting to curl on the trees, the temperature is dropping rapidly and the roads are slippery.  Autumn is well and truly upon us and winter is just around the corner.

The hedgerows will soon be alive with that regular winter visitor - the BMW.

As our early morning commuter, in his rear wheel drive Ultimate Driving Machine equipped with DTC and DSC, knows only too well you cannot defy the laws of physics.  The power, directed to the rear wheels, will cause the tail end to lose a little grip on a dry road and provide a controllable but rather visceral thrill.

Attempt to replicate that same move on a greasy roundabout or country lane and, once the grip is lost,  momentum takes over - despite the best attempts by the Dynamic Stability Control to prevent it from doing so.  The BMW is then dumped unceremoniously in a hedge or, even worse, a lamp-post.

So powerful, rear wheel drive, cars can be a little bit of a handful on a wet road.  Once the snow arrives they are utterly useless.  Porsches, Mercedes, Jaguars all stay in their drives whilst the smug Mondeo owner (with the weight of the engine over the driven wheels) pootles along at 20mph on their way to wherever they need to go.

But Speedmonkey is not about pootling along.  We are about having fun.  We set out to find the most fun cars on wet, greasy, snowy and muddy roads.  What's called for is light weight, a great chassis, a pliable engine, steering with feedback and front or all wheel drive.

And not too much power.  Exciting driving in slippery conditions is all about achieving the correct balance between having fun and not crashing.  300bhp to the front wheels is overkill.

Our budget is £5,000 - but some of the cars cost considerably less.

Subaru Impreza

Perfect for winter driving.  You can buy anything from a 1995 first generation Impreza through to a 2005 second generation with or without turbo and in saloon or estate form.  Any combination will do.  The most powerful (non-chipped) turbo engine in our budget has 225 bhp, which is easily accommodated by Subaru's permanent four wheel drive system.  The first gen Impreza was a hardcore,  lightweight bruiser with beautiful throttle and steering control.  Boot the throttle out of a wet corner and the wheels will shimmy a little as they find the grip - but find it they will.  Just don't forget that a four wheel drive car brakes just the same as any other.  It is easy to brake too late and slide, ungracefully, into a ditch.

Volkswagen Lupo 1.6 GTi

A Mk2 Golf Gti provides a similar power to weight ratio but the old 1.8 litre engines can feel a little wheezy now.  A 2003 Lupo GTi with 125bhp through the front wheels, a six speed manual gearbox, largely unfettered by traction control and weighing just over 1100kg, is fantastic fun in the wet.  In a car as small and light as this it is possible to feel the front wheels losing grip with the tips of your fingers on the steering wheel enabling the driver to make small, positive adjustments to throttle and steering.  The satisfaction derived from such inputs can give as much as a thrill as driving a supercar.  Of course the whole sensation is dulled on a dry, grippy road when 125bhp feels like it won't pull the skin off a rice pudding.  Thus, the Lupo is a great winter car.

Ford Focus ST170

The first generation Focus is a great little car.  Ford's engineers are amongst the best in the business at producing well a balanced chassis with light, direct steering.  Ford tend to make rather dull looking cars that handle well and the 1998-2005 Focus was the perfect embodiment of this.  Go for a 2005 ST170 (for about £4,000) and you have an utterly marvellous winter driving machine.  The engine has just enough power to enable the driver to squeeze the throttle nice and early coming out of a corner and to feel the front wheels find the grip and pick the car up.  With such a compliant chassis the rear wheels just follow obediently.  Having said that it is possible to induce a lovely bit of controlled oversteer in a Focus, with a little Scandinavian flick.  Don't be too violent with your inputs though or you'll end up in a hedge with the BMWs.

Mitsubishi Evo

Tommi Mäkinen won the World Rally Championship in 1996, 7,8 & 9 in a Mitsubishi Evo.  Similar in spirit to the Subaru Impreza but considered to be a better driver's car.  The Evo was, and still is, a massively popular and capable thoroughbred machine.  You need to look hard to find a decent unmolested example but a IV, V or VI can be had for the budget.  280bhp, four wheel drive, a rally bred chassis and steering and oodles of naughty, exuberant thrills can be extracted from an Evo.  Controllable, sideways slides round wet roundabouts, tail-out drifting action on motorway slip roads and simple hard-driving, white knuckle action.  The Evo is the rawest and most keenly focussed of our winter car selection.

Rover Mini Cooper

Not for nothing did Paddy Hopkirk win the 1964 Monte Carlo Rally in a Mini Cooper.  The conditions were awful, snow and slush abound, but the 680kg Mini with only 60bhp dominated.  You can buy a 2001 Mini Cooper and it'll weigh a shade over 700kg and still only produce 64bhp.  The Mini's handling is legendary for good reason.  It is tiny, light and firmly sprung.  You can feel every ounce of grip the car produces through your fingers, feet and backside.  There is no other car more suited to having a ball in the rain than a Mini (as long as the heater still works).  In the snow it will still get you almost anywhere a four wheel drive car will because with it's lack of weight and skinny tyres enough grip can always be found to drive the car forwards.  And if you're feeling naughty a little pull on the handbrake can produce great, easy to control slides - at low speeds of course.

Audi S3

Audi pretty much invented the concept of sticking a powerful engine and four wheel drive in a car in order to tame slippery roads.  The S3 provides the best modern, budget, solution to emulating Stig Blomqvist or Michelle Mouton around our leaf strewn, potholed roads.  Naysayers will tell you a modern quattro provides power to the front wheels and only to the back when it starts to lose grip.  We say that is nonsense.  An S3 quattro sticks to the road like glue unless driven like a hooligan in which case it is quite possible to achieve a lovely four wheel drift.  The 225bhp on offer will not overcome grip in the dry but in the wet can induce that marvellous fidgety feeling as the wheels scrabble for traction.  The S3 is a hoot and there are lots on the market from £2500-£5000.

Ford Puma Racing

The Puma is essentially a Fiesta in coupe body with a 1.7 litre engine.  The Racing special edition looks fantastic in Ford blue and comes with Sparco seats, a front spoiler, a wider body, 150bhp engine and trick suspension - and was put together by Tickford.  In the dry the power struggles to overcome the chassis but after a spell of rain the Puma Racing comes into it's own.  Grip reduces, power overcomes traction and, with it's brilliant chassis and steering, the little Puma enables even the average driver to feel like a rally star.  Much fun can be had when manoeuvring round an empty roundabout in the middle of a fast A road.  A flick of the steering and back end can be brought round in a physics induced slide.  Puma Racing's are pretty rare - only 500 were made - but there are still a few around under our budget.

Subaru Outback

Another Subaru - but that's OK because Subaru were born to make cars for dreadful conditions.  An early 2000s Outback, with it's slightly raised body, flat four 2.5 litre engine and four wheel drive is the thinking driver's alternative to a Land Rover.  It's comfortable, fast in the dry and comes into it's own in the rain and snow.  The steering, despite being a big car, is direct and transfers every contour and surface ripple to the drivers fingers - enabling constant, active feedback.  Oh, and it'll do whatever you want in whatever condition.  The Outback is the Impreza for someone who wants a reasonable level of damping and luxury but loses little of the raw nature of it's smaller sibling.  In an Outback you feel in control, until physics takes over and your enthusiasm, and it's weighty body, induces a sideways slide.  But the point at which you lose control is easy to detect.  It really is easy to to have fun in an Outback.

Ford Capri 2.8i

OK so this goes against everything we have said.  It's long body, big engine and rear wheel drive (with hardly any weight over the rear wheels) is not exactly ideal in the winter.  But we were convinced by Jon Bradbury's (@jonbradbury) tales of derring do in the winter in his old 1.6 Laser.  Jon says it's possible to have full-on rally style fun in the snow and "They're just old school fun. No frills & low grip means all happens at relatively low speeds."  Now, the only Capri we could endorse is the 2.8i and with it's big, lazy engine producing a manageable 160bhp we can see Jon's point.  As long as the speeds are low the Capri is unencumbered with all the modern electronic aids that take over the moment  a problem is detected.  The point of this exercise is to find cars to have fun in when conditions are challenging and the Capri does have the necessary ingredients.  Just don't complain to us when you're travelling backwards towards a ditch.