Of course you want to turn all the electronic
nannies driver aids off to hoon donuts in snowy parking lots. We Jalops don't need no stinking traction control, right? Many of our cars are so old they don't even have it. And because other people can't even parallel park without driving up a wall, they should never turn traction control off.
But we think nothing of using launch control in a car that's equipped with it. That's just a special traction control program that optimizes acceleration at the expense of melted tires. And the new Mustang is programmed with a line lock setting, for the specific purpose of
melting warming up tires. We think nothing of using those functions. Is traction control really the utter killjoy so many enthusiasts make it out to be?
Having driven through the Boston area's second snowiest winter on record (and counting), and since my BRZ is blessed with multiple levels of traction and stability control that are completely at the control of the driver, I've had a chance to experiment a bit and figure out what works for me. And I've found that there are times that I absolutely want the electronic traction aids on. Does that make me a wuss? I don't think so. I think it's a matter of selecting the appropriate setting based on the conditions you're driving in. It's just like selecting the right gear.
Here's what I've discovered about what traction control mode works best in what conditions. Your mileage may vary depending on what modes, if any, are available in your particular vehicle. If you have an older car without any of these systems, you can stop reading right now and go look at some cat pictures instead.
All Systems Go
When you start the car, traction and stability control are fully activated by default. For everyday street driving, this is fine, and you don't need to change a thing. Hooning on public roads is bad, m'kay?
I also find full traction control handy in changing or uncertain conditions. More than once I've noticed the traction light on the dashboard flash at me unexpectedly when the car caught itself about to slide on ice that I couldn't even see. Conditions like this are where traction control really shines, and does exactly what it's supposed to do.
But running my BRZ's stock Prius tires last year, I noticed traction control kicking in at times I didn't expect it to - in the rain, for example, or even on dry pavement occasionally. On snow tires, dry and wet pavement grip isn't that much different from the stock Prius tires, which is pretty sad. If I'm trying to squeeze into a small break in dense traffic and get the smallest amount of wheelspin, the brakes come on, the power cuts out, and I find myself stopped in the middle of the busy intersection I was trying to get across quickly. I'm hoping some grippy summer tires will help with this problem.
Traction Control Off
In the BRZ, pressing the traction control button briefly will turn off traction control while leaving stability control fully enabled. If you're stuck in the snow, this mode is useful for allowing a limited amount of wheelspin to help you get moving. Especially with snow tires, the spinning wheels can dig into the snow and find some grip - maybe even some bare pavement if you're lucky. This is much better than the brakes stopping the wheelspin and preventing you from going anywhere.
However, there are some limitations. For one thing, traction control will automatically turn back on above 30mph or so - or, at least, an indicated 30mph. This means that if your wheelspin exceeds an indicated 30mph, it'll turn back on again and you'll just bog right down. So you won't be able to spin the wheels up to an indicated 110mph in your driveway like I once did in a Neon. Additionally, stability control is still active, so if you start getting a little bit sideways, it'll catch your drift and automatically turn traction control back on, bringing you to a quick stop.
The BRZ also has a button marked "VSC Sport." This is a more permissive mode of stability control that doesn't turn it all the way off. It allows the car to move around a little bit, but it will still kick in and save your butt if you're getting in over your head. This is a good mode for less experienced drivers. It'll let the car rotate enough to act naturally, teach skills, and be fun, but you likely won't find yourself in a snowbank or wall if you don't happen to catch the slide yourself. It's good for consistently snowy conditions, as well as the first session or two of a track day until you get a good feel for the car yourself.
The downside with this mode is you don't always know when it's going to cut in. In normal mode, you know it's going to activate immediately. When it's off, you know it won't activate at all. But this middle ground can be a bit of a grey area, and tricky to drive around. I've found myself running in VSC Sport, have the car get a little sideways, dial in the appropriate correction, and then have the car also dial in the appropriate correction, which sends us sliding in the opposite direction to do the dance again until we finally work it out. If you already have the skills, this mode may not help you much.
It's also possible to turn off traction control, as described above, in addition to VSC Sport mode. It'll behave the same way, turning off over 30mph, but VSC Sport will allow a little sideways action before it kicks in, which may be handy in certain snowy extraction circumstances.
Traction And Stability Control Off
This is what we enthusiasts like to see - no traction control, no stability control. Hold down the traction control button for five seconds (the procedure varies from car to car), and you're on your own. This is how you make those nice little circles in snowy parking lots like in the top picture. This is the mode you want for autocross, or the track once you're confident in the car and your skills. And if you have the skills, this is the mode I like in consistently snowy conditions. I'm talking about a good packed layer of snow all over the road - a known quantity that you can predict. You won't need to press buttons to get a little wheelspin to accelerate away from a stop sign - you're already there. And if you want to kick the tail out a little bit around a corner, a little goose of the gas will do that quite nicely.
The disadvantage, of course, is that your safety net is gone. The car isn't going to save you from yourself if you screw up and hit a snowbank, or a guardrail. So keep that in mind before hitting the hoon button, and drive within your limits and the car's.
Most cars don't have all of these fancy modes. Many cars don't allow you to fully disable traction control. Some may have a "snow mode," which will allow a little wheelspin but not much. Some cars have traction control but no stability control. So what's best for you and your winter beater? I suggest finding an empty, snow covered parking lot, and experimenting a bit. Try all the modes available to you, and learn how the car handles in each mode. That way, when you run into situations on the street, you can put your car into the proper traction mode for those particular circumstances.
Now all I need is a Pursuit mode for some serious hooning.