No, not in deep-chilled Britain, although it might as well have been after the months we’ve just endured. This was in the Alpine region of Austria, where thick snow and frozen roads are routine conditions of every winter. For a timely taste of what a really tough cold season can be like, I have just driven across Germany and Austria to spend a night in a mountaintop ice camp, sleeping in an igloo with the outside temperature dipping below minus 10 degrees. The cost of staying there is 170 Euros a night, and a good night’s sleep isn’t guaranteed. It’s booked a year ahead.
Our destination the next morning was a lake-side proving ground with a twisty ice track marked out in the snow. This is where the locals head to learn and practice techniques for driving efficiently and safely on treacherous surfaces. With only light, whippy poles marking the bends and heaped snow track edges as obstacles, it’s a lot of fun to explore the limits of traction and attempt to make decent progress around the course without completely losing control. Smoothness and sensitivity on the steering, pedals and gears are the key to keeping the car steady in tricky conditions. But the intervention of modern car electronics – traction control and stability aids – takes a lot of the sting out of driving on snow and ice. Ultimately though, the laws of physics always apply: drive too fast on a slippery surface and you’re likely to come unstuck, regardless of all those helpful acronyms like ESP and DSC.
Where a hard winter is an annual fact of life, motorists get into the habit of preparing for it. Not once in the trek across two countries did I spot a single car driven by someone peering hazardously through a letter box-sized gap of inadequately cleared snow. Compare that with the number of times in recent weeks we’ve all seen lazy Brits squinting through a porthole patch of cleared windscreen. But in other ways we’ve been too critical of ourselves. There has been much talk over the past couple of months about British drivers coping less well in an extreme winter than their continental counterparts. That is much too simplistic an analysis. Considering that the vast majority of cars on UK roads run on summer tyres all year round, most of us dealt remarkably well with the snow and ice that swept across the country in December and January.
Elsewhere in Europe, drivers switch to winter tyres when the ambient temperature dips towards zero. A different tread pattern and softer compound with a higher percentage of natural rubber, means that winter tyres remain more flexible and grip more effectively. The crossover point at which the benefit of driving on winter compounds becomes apparent, is around seven degrees. At that temperature, all-season tyres like those routinely fitted to UK cars start to harden. That’s not just relevant to driving in snowy and icy conditions, though. Wet grip performance is also poorer too, and it rains here on average one day in every two. A winter like the one we’ve just had is an exception rather than the rule, so most Brits wouldn’t consider it worthwhile to cough up for a second set of wheels and tyres – let alone face the problem of storing the out-of-season set. But it’s something to think about if climate change brings more bitter winters.