Curbside Experience: 2020 Colorado Winter Driving Encounter – Like Being Back In High School But Without Anyone Minding

Who didn’t try to see exactly what their car would do when they were a newly minted driver and it was snowy out?  Lots of fun, lots of learning, but of course always the worry that someone would stop and try to put an end to it all, be it the law, a nosy neighbor or, horror of horrors, a MallCop!  Last week, one of the local media press fleet companies put together a little event with three manufacturers that supplied six vehicles which they brought in for the event, about a dozen folks sort of like me, several manufacturer reps and engineers (enough so at least one person knowledgeable about the car could ride along if requested), a big table with all sorts of caffeinated beverages and snacks, and one large reserved-just-for-us snow and ice covered parking lot at a large ski resort in the Rocky Mountains. 

Ostensibly the event was for us to get a quick taste of a few cars in typical wintry driving conditions and perhaps learn a few things, to that end there was also a crew of semi-pro drivers on hand to assist as needed/desired and coordinate the laying out of tracks and/or challenges.  Of course with a dozen people that like to drive other people’s cars as much as they like to write (or blog, or vlog), things started off very professional and then turned into a fun day of camaraderie and informal competition (while staying professional of course).

The day was divided into three parts – Part 1 saw the organizers lay out a little track in the parking lot that had a starting line (duh), and once flagged away, a driver would accelerate toward a 90 degree right hand turn that then flowed into a sharp left followed by a short straight into a right hand bend that opened into a straight at the end of which was another right hand turn followed by a slalom course and culminating in a “stop box”.  (You are required to come to a full stop IN the box, harder than it seems on a slippery surface after trying to slalom fast).

Normally none of this would be any issue but with snow and ice it became an exercise in how best to launch the various cars and get them to turn back and forth while staying within the course boundaries and avoiding the cones.

We always had a choice of driving alone, or with someone else such as a factory engineer or a PR person, or one of the “drivers” for tips as well as helping to turn off whatever electronics and traction aids that we might want off and got to rotate between cars for as long as we wanted in any car or hop back and forth between them to compare.

The second part of the day consisted of a head to head challenge wherein there were two starting gates set up side by side.  The aim was to accelerate toward the back end of the lot and then either turn left or right (depending on which side one started on), turn around a bit of a sweeping turn and then negotiate a slalom back toward the finish line which again was a stop box.  In this case it immediately turned into a race situation but once completed we crossed over to the other side to make sure that there was no variability between sides of the tracks and competed again.  And then we often switched cars and did the same thing again against the same opponent but the opposite cars.  Much hilarity ensued and some matchups became quite competitive.

Towards the end of the day it all turned into a bit of a free-for-all with the third “set” consisting of a starting gate, a single cone in one corner of the lot, a large circle of cones towards another corner and one car with one driver at a time able to go out and just do whatever, be it figure-eights, or just circles or sliding around or trying whatever we wanted in any of the cars.

We all had as much time as we wanted in each of the cars and it was interesting (or perhaps predictable) which cars got the most attention but also surprising in how some of the cars fared against the others.  I (and I think many of the others) just decided to turn off as many of the nannies as possible in order to try to see what the cars would do “au naturel” which I think turned out to be the best (and most entertaining) call as there was really no danger of anything going pear-shaped.  On the street I would generally not suggest doing so however as there are others to be aware of and responsible toward.  In no particular order here are the vehicular participants:

2020 Nissan Altima SV AWD – This is one of the new generation Altimas in mid-level trim with the standard 182hp 2.5l DOHC 4-cylinder engine backed by a CVT.  Loaded with options, this one stickered at around $32,000 and was equipped with AWD.  I had not driven this car previously (actually can’t recall the last time I drove ANY Altima) and found that while the 9000 foot altitude obviously resulted in a power reduction, it drove well and predictable with its AWD system.  While it would understeer (like all the others really), it was possible to get the rear end to swing around and drift around corners if one used the steering wheel to get the weight of the body to transfer and then vary power and brake inputs at the correct times.

As it has been since its third generation the Altima is quite a large car, and the latest restyle has definitely classed it up inside compared to the previous iteration.  The outside is well designed too with enough character to make it recognizable but not so much that it’s offputting.

Later in the day I used it to “race” someone else’s personal car (keep on reading) and it did fabulously. Additionally in the “open” session I took it out and had a blast with it in the snow, a few wiggles of the wheel resulted in the back coming out and staying out while adjusting the angle of the car with the wheel and throttle (OK, mostly full throttle) was a doddle.  At one point I had it so far sideways on a slightly angled section of the lot that I ended up skimming the snowbank with the rear flank of the car which repositioned me slightly toward the way I was aiming to go…so that ended perfectly.

2020 Fiat 500X Trekking – Very similar but one trim level down from the tester I had a couple of months ago and reviewed here, this one was equipped a little less extravagantly but still had all the style and charisma.

A fairly high and upright seating position still marred somewhat for me by the intrusive headrest but with excellent sightlines made for a good experience navigating around the cones and placing the car.  The 1.3l turbo 4 was in its element here with plenty of power (177hp) coming on strong once underway, consistently turning in quickly this car felt one of the best balanced; while on the tall side, it wasn’t tippy, but turned virtually on a dime once you got the balance moving a bit.

Starting at around $25k and in this case optioned up to around $32k it was well equipped but not over the top.  The general consensus seemed to be that it was surprisingly good in these conditions, quick and nippy with fairly taut controls it was well suited for it, kind of like a slightly tall VW GTI if that makes sense.

2020 Honda CR-V 1.5T AWD Touring – The top of the line CR-V was a welcome addition here as I had not had any seat time in this generation either.  With virtually everything Honda offers in its top trim level this was maxed out at around $35,000 (they obviously start well below that) and painted a very fetching color named Aegean Blue – to my eyes it was similar to the current Subaru Crosstrek’s gray/blue paint option and the Volvo XC40 has a similar hue in its palette as well.

Inside was typical Honda, comfortable with clear controls (and a volume knob!), easy to understand everything, all of it operating in a smooth and quiet fashion.  The little 1.5T mill puts out 190hp and goes about its business with little fuss.

What was most interesting about the CR-V was that at the beginning of the “track” and the “head-to-head” sections, it would seem fastest with everything turned off and allowing one to really slide it, but if you managed to turn the stability control back on just before the slalom started (the button is low on the left side of the wheel right next to the hatch release, the big challenge was to not pop that!), it pretty much drove itself through the slalom with the system engaged without killing the fun – you could for sure feel it working, but it still allowed plenty of chassis movement and control without spoiling anything.

2020 Dodge Charger GT AWD Plus – Starting at just under $35k this package includes AWD laying down the power from the ever-popular Pentastar 3.6 V6 backed by an 8-speed automatic.  Driving it reminded me a lot of my old 2014 Chrysler 300C V8 AWD although that year still had the AWD available with the Hemi V8; the V8 AWD combo for consumer use was axed when the 8-speed auto was introduced (Police cars can still be V8 AWD but with the old 5-speed as mine had).

With an absolute plethora of options (but not leather on the seating surfaces) this one rang in at a sticker of over $46k which surprised me a bit.  While I’m sure that actual transaction prices are lower, this still seemed like a lot of money for a pretty old platform at this point.  However, this is the one that most of the others seemed to gravitate toward as the day went on.  I drove it several times including on my first run of the day and it reminded me of my time in my 300 – just a quite large, very comfortable, old-school type of ride that is though still plenty capable of either just piling the miles on without worry or thought while also being able to have a lot of fun with it.

The big Dodge will be in RWD unless certain parameters are met – (temperature below a certain threshold, obviously slippage, or when the wipers are on due to rain) and then the fronts are driven as well, either way it’s still ostensibly a RWD-biased chassis and lets itself be flung around in tail-out fashion pretty much at will.  While just entering a corner too hot will make it plow, backing off the steering and throttle and readjusting mid-slide will allow it to regain its balance and kick the back around at which point the challenge becomes not to let it come around too far the other way.  After the other cars, you feel kind of small inside a big set of surroundings, it has a lot of mass around you which offers a certain comfort as well though.

Acura RD-X SH-AWD A-Spec – This is an interesting trim level as it takes the basic fairly new (second year) of the redesigned RDX imbued with a 272hp 2.0l Turbo 4 backed with a 10-speed auto and packages it with Acura’s “Super-Handling” AWD system which allows it to vary the torque up to 70% to either axle and then up to 100% of that split can go to either of the rear wheels (so for an extreme example it could do 15% of the torque to the Front Left, 15 Front Right, 70 to the Rear Left and none to the Rear Right in perhaps a high power hard right turn); it can effectively predict what you are wanting it to do based on steering, brake and throttle inputs and effectively help to turn the car with the throttle.

Additionally it brings some of the top-level interior features down to this level which sits a bit to the side of the regular entry-level luxury RDX trim levels.  Just looking at the seats makes it obvious that this is the Sporty Spice of the group, but priced in the mid-40’s doesn’t seem unreasonable at all for what one gets.  The engineer had a complicated sequence of buttons and commands to enter to be able to turn off ALL of the electronic assists beyond just the SH-AWD system but once that was done this car was an absolute rocket.

Once off the starting line, it really did accelerate faster and was able to put more power down better than the others once the tires really hooked up, but its height and weight hurt it a bit in tight, slippery corners such as the ones we mostly were working with.  In fact I never really was able to master it as I would have liked to, it’s one I’d love to spend more time with and be able to “play” with more as it certainly had power to spare and I think once explored enough to exploit the power correctly would be a very engaging drive partner.

2020 Nissan Rogue Sport SV AWD – Starting at $26k and fully equipped as ours seemed at around $30k, this is the curiously sized little brother to the regular Rogue (and known elsewhere as the Qashqai).  Barely smaller than the regular Rogue (but larger than the FWD-only Kicks) this small CUV with a 2liter 4-cylinder generating 141hp is loaded up with standard features at this trim level and while not overly powerful left an impression of a solid little companion that would last forever.  It was more of what an old Datsun represented, solid and capable, not flashy or a standout in any particular way but it drove perfectly well for how the vast majority of the market would use it.

It ended up being the one I drove myself and three others to lunch in on regular roads and driven in a normal fashion everything was laid out where I’d expect it, we weren’t cramped, and the power was perfectly adequate.  Again, not really enough time to form lastingly valid impressions but back on the snowy lot it, like the Altima, would safely understeer but could be coaxed into pushing the back out and assisting the driver rather than stubbornly opposing everything.

During the “open” session most people seemed to be ignoring the Rogue Sport in favor of the Acura and Charger but I took it out and frankly when it was pegged at its torque peak with the CVT doing its thing, it was right up there flinging its tail around, kicking up huge rooster tails of snow and delighting me.  I mean, getting a Charger to slide around tail-out is no big challenge, having a Rogue Sport do it is curiously satisfying.

The biggest surprise to most people at the end of the day was how much any power advantage is negated by winter conditions.  The car with the most power did absolutely not have an advantage over the least powerful cars, neither did size really factor all that much into things.  All cars were equipped with good winter tires, and frankly the driver probably made more of a difference than anything else as far as turning the car was concerned.

Acceleration was fairly limited by traction, i.e. the tires, which were comparable if not identical from one car to the next.  Being able to compare and contrast them all in a more or less controlled environment back to back was tremendously interesting and obviously if this was a dry summer day everything would have been vastly different, which I think was the point of the whole thing.  Or at least the point that I took home.

As an example, toward the end of the day, one of our group openly wondered how his personal car, a 2008 or so VW R32 (246hp V6, AWD) would do on the head-to head course, the organizers allowed it and he did a few sessions with it – and so I decided to challenge him in the Altima as that’s the kind of fun we were having.  Now, he had owned this car for many years and was clearly intimately familiar with it and well versed in winter driving, being one of our local bunch as opposed to having flown in.

He pulled out a small lead in the straight drag section but then coming around the first corner we were pretty much neck and neck which continued through the slalom, the Altima just drifted perfectly around the first long turn and then the rear kicked back and forth ideally in the slalom.  In the end he pipped me to the stop box but only by literal fractions of a second.  Adverse weather really is a great equalizer of vehicles, in dry weather there is no way that Altima would be (or should be, that’s not its mission) close to the R32.

In conclusion it was an extremely fun and interesting day and I doff my hat to the manufacturers and the media company for sponsoring this event and supplying everything.  The variety of vehicles made for interesting comparisons, much was learned by everyone and the grouping was very much an ideal size for everyone involved to be able to glean useful material from the day.