Icy roads a challenge for any tire
"We wanted to go someplace were we would be virtually guaranteed to experience winter conditions."
Katie Bjoerk, assistant manager of product communications for Buick, explains why we're traveling the slippery back roads near Montreal, Canada, alongside the frozen Ottawa River. The car is a 2014 Regal GS equipped with all-wheel-drive. It's mid-February and it will be another six to eight weeks before the river ice is completely gone. By then a ferry will have replaced the ice "bridge" (in reality just a clean sheet of glassy ice that's maintained by the ferry owner during the winter). The cost of passage, $6.50 in Canadian funds, is the same whether you cross on ice in the winter or over water in the summer.
It seems a bit extreme, but winter testing is a necessity. Really cold weather is tough on a drivetrains, brakes, electrical systems and related components. It's especially critical that they pass muster on any new model before it enters full production.
It's a growing trend to invite auto writers from all over North America to visit these frozen climes to closely examine (as in beat up on) all-wheel-drive systems. Product demonstrations involve subjecting vehicles to the kind of rigorous driving that most owners would never attempt on their own, simply because they can't go out of bounds in real-world driving.
In the past few weeks, no fewer than four automakers have organized such events in the Montreal region. In fact a couple of tracks that are used for motocross, drag racing and go-karting now cater to such manufacturer-sponsored gatherings. Their specially groomed facilities provide a way to explore AWD capabilities in ways that would be impossible to do on public roads.
Katie Bjoerk has arranged Buick's sub-zero field trip to demonstrate the capabilities of the Regal's new all-wheel-drive system that has been added to the option sheet for 2014.
The Regal proves to be a steady, stable performer on some typical (for the region) snow-packed roads. Its road holding is helped by the electronic intervention hardware, along with a set of super-grippy Michelin snow tires. The province of Quebec's enlightened transportation authority has made snow tires mandatory during the winter months and for good reason. Mother Nature can be downright cruel and conditions dangerous at this time of year.
The weather is downright miserable at the "ICAR" track for the test trials. The temperature is somewhere around -10 F and strong northerly gusts make it feel much colder. In other words, it's Bjoerk's idea of perfection.
A half-dozen or so Regal GS AWD models are on hand and have been thoughtfully pre-warmed. The test schedule includes a single and figure eight skid pad (more accurately, a slide pad), a slalom course, a short, but twisty road course with blind turns (thanks to high banks of plowed snow) and a timed loop to test the driver's mastery of winter conditions.
The GS is fully qualified for the proceedings. The car weighs close to 4,000 pounds, yet it feels surprisingly light on its feet, thanks to its new turbocharged 2.0-liter four-cylinder engine that makes 259 horsepower and 295 pound feet of torque. The power is impressive, but at Le Circuit ICAR it's all about traction and finesse here both will get a workout.
The AWD apportions 90 percent of the available torque to the front wheels under normal driving conditions. But when loss of traction is detected it can reverse the front-to-back torque and vary it from left to right at the rear wheels, which helps to guide the car precisely through a corner.
The AWD is assisted by the Regal's limited-slip differential (LSD) and traction/stability controls to reduce skids and spins. When both systems are in play, the Regal can maneuver around the slide pad and track with aplomb. Even so, they can't override the laws of physics and aggressive driving is frequently rewarded with a grille full of snow bank.
The contrast comes with both the LSD and the traction/stability controls turned off. At that point the Regal becomes nearly impossible to steer, stop, or even gain any forward momentum over ICAR's super-slick surfaces. Since you can't mess around on public roads to fully explore the limits, or lack thereof, the experience here is proof that modern electronics actually work. And that's the point.