Faraway Farm: All the wheels go round and round


Dreading winter? Admittedly, here in Vermont it can be a rough time, especially the driving part. We've all had more than one white knuckle experience. To me, there are two variables that are critically important to winter driving; the equipment, and the driver's attitude. Nothing inspires an attitude of confidence like the correct equipment, and that's a double-edged sword. My first sustained four wheel drive vehicle experiences were courtesy of an Isuzu Trooper with a diesel engine. It belonged to my employer and it was one of the best all-around vehicles I've ever driven. Comfortable, spacious, fuel efficient, and capable. However, the first time it went all squirrelly on me while in four wheel drive was a heart-stopping five seconds of sheer terror.

I can't recall all of the specific conditions other than the fact that we'd just had a snowfall of maybe three inches, over icy roads. I was accelerating, then felt some wheel slippage and backed off the throttle, and that's when the laws of motive dynamics stopped making sense. The Isuzu began to spin, and all of the corrective steering inputs I made simply added to the lack of control. Something I'd read in a car magazine occurred to me while in that panicked state and I decisively applied a healthy dose of throttle and accelerated out of my predicament.

Was my speed excessive leading up to that scare? Of course it was. With the type of four-wheel drive I was using, my speed had exceeded the intended engineering parameters of the system. The Isuzu had to be shifted into four-wheel drive, and once in, it stayed in. That type of system was designed to get you up to a speed of, say, fifty miles per hour and then you are supposed to take the vehicle out of four wheel drive. A seventy mile per hour blast down I-91 in a snowstorm in four wheel drive with that particular system was almost certainly the fastest way to end up on your roof that I know. After my haywire incident in the Isuzu, I used the four wheel drive system to get up nearly impossible hills in snow and ice, but once at the top, I took it out of four wheel drive.

The "symmetrical" drive system of a modern day Subaru is a completely different animal. There is no four wheel drive lever or switch with this type of system, but when the vehicle senses wheel spin it kicks into it's all wheel drive mode. The Subaru system works almost seamlessly, as do most of the similar systems on other "all wheel drive" vehicles. The manufacturer that offers the most choices and the most sophistication in four wheel drive systems is Jeep. As you have probably gathered, different four-wheel drive systems are designed for different applications. For the serious off-roader, there are systems that can lock up the differentials for exceptional traction. At the other end of the spectrum is the part-time all-wheel drive systems that are used on most vehicles designed for everyday, general use in climates like ours. All of these systems have their own specific strengths and weaknesses and intended purpose. When you are shopping for an all-weather vehicle it really pays to do your research and talk to people who are knowledgeable. Once you've identified your individual needs you can get the system that works best for you.

I currently own two four-wheel drive vehicles. One is a nearly new pickup truck, and the other is a 15-year-old Jeep. Quite honestly I prefer driving the Jeep most of the time. It has more than enough power from its four-liter inline six cylinder engine, it has all of the expected amenities like cruise, AC, power windows, etc. This particular one is "built" for the extremes, with a mild lift, big wheels and tires, specialized armored pieces, and bumpers, along with a 9,000-pound capacity winch. I can't wait for our first big snowstorm. There's nothing like knowing that you are fully prepared for extreme conditions. It removes a number of anxieties that come with bad roads. As long as it is well maintained and I carry things like jumper cables and tow straps I'm willing to go just about anywhere in any weather. That's because all the wheels go round and round under power.


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