Winter Storm Jonas arrived last weekend with a degree of fury that caught most of the East Coast by surprise. When big snowstorms strike, I usually hunker down inside with booze, a fire, mountains of consumer electronics, and my lovely wife and daughters. I’m a big believer that if the weather is treacherous, you stay inside. Otherwise, you’ll only get in the way of road crews, overconfident psychos in Jeeps, and front-drive zealots who think their ’96 Hyundai Excels can handle two feet of snow.
This morning, though, a temporary visitor beckoned from the garage: the new Lexus RX 350 SUV, complete with all-wheel-drive. I decided to go out and play with it, just to see how the most mainstream of SUVs — and by extension other similar current SUVs — can manage truly treacherous conditions.
First, a few words about tires. Every year, the automotive press publishes articles extolling the life- (and sanity-) saving virtues of snow tires, and admonishing readers to swap out their factory rubber at the beginning of winter and then revert back to the original-equipment tires when spring finally rears its head. Correct snow tires are engineered to dig into snow more effectively and even grip it in their precision-cut sipes and treads to generate a little snow-on-snow friction. They’re also made of a more pliable rubber that stays flexible in colder temperatures, generating more grip than summer or all-season tires that harden when the temperature drops.
Do people do this, though? No. Swapping tires is inconvenient, they’ll tell you. The stacks of rubber (two if you’re a two-vehicle household) take up room in the garage. Plus, it’s expensive to buy extra tires — even though using winter tires obviously extends the life of your all-seasons, which sit shelved for three of four months. So few average consumers will keep a set of winter tires handy and actually put them on their cars when December rolls around. Instead, they take the term “all-season tire” at face value, and assume the tires will do just fine all year. After all, they’re not rally drivers, right?
2016 Lexus RX 350 Specs
Engine: Supercharged 3.0-liter V6
Transmission: Eight-speed ZF Automatic
Torque: 332 lb-ft
Drive System: RWD
0-60 mph: 5.2 seconds
MPG (City/Hwy): 20/30
MSRP: $60,650 R-Sport base; $72,285 as tested
True, but there’s only so much that an all-season tire can do. The RX 350 sitting in my garage came equipped with Michelin Premier LTX A-S’s, which deploy as much technological knowhow as possible to keep you pointed in the right direction in slick, snowy conditions. This includes sunflower oil in the rubber compound, to keep the tire flexible and abundant tread blocking and siping to encourage traction. The tires still have to be long-lasting and equally good in the summer, though, so the compound is made more durable, which allows them to last longer and grip better in warmer temperatures than winter tires. (The LTX’s are also good for 60,000 miles — a relatively long warranty that represents a similar consumer-behavior problem but, alas, that for another time.)
The lesson for manufacturers when it comes to balancing winter/summer performance against a market that wishes to remain largely unbothered, therefore, has become quite simple: you meet them where they are. Speccing as-good-as-possible all-season tires is the first step for a public that overwhelmingly refuses to take a few necessary measures to ensure maximum performance and safety. The engineers take up the responsibility, and they’ve risen to the challenge over the years. Anti-lock brakes, traction control, and even super-fine-tuned all-wheel-drive systems include a slew of settings adjustments for everything from gravel and mud to snow and rain. But again, most of these are ignored by less savvy consumers, who routinely default to the “AUTO” setting. (I admit myself that sometimes even I will get in a car in the snow and just start driving, forgetting if the vehicle has alternate settings.)
The lesson for manufacturers when it comes to balancing winter/summer performance against a market that wishes to remain largely unbothered, therefore, has become quite simple: you meet them where they are.
As a result, many carmakers aren’t even bothering with tunable settings anymore. In the case of the Lexus RX, there’s little in the way of tinkering options available to you. You can dial some settings back, such as traction control, and in doing so can indeed help yourself in certain snowy situations, such as trying to blast your way out of a parking spot when otherwise the traction control would prevent your wheels from spinning. But most drivers don’t know enough to do even that. The bulk of the work, therefore, lies in the computerized oversight of the traction control/ABS system and the all-wheel-drive, which Lexus tellingly began referring to as “all-weather-drive” a few years ago. The system simply figures out what’s going on and decides how to configure the torque distribution and wheel-spin mitigation to deal with it.
So, at long last, how did the Lexus RX 350 do in the snow? Pretty good overall, frankly. I could tell within seconds that the tires were all-seasons. When I approached a plow-generated berm at the end of my block and tried to scale it, I was instantly met with endless traction-control vibration and whatever wheelspin the system let through. Snow tires would have dug in with little fuss and launched me through it. But instead, I simply backed up, went at it with a little more energy, and got through. When the front tires lost traction, the all-wheel-drive — sorry, all-weather-drive — system’s Dynamic Torque Control shifted power to the rear wheels to maintain momentum. No big deal. All modern systems basically work like this, and the difference is in the fine-tuning about when, where, and how the systems are activated. The Lexus system was absolutely competent. Coupled with the car’s slightly elevated ride height, this made Saturday morning’s crazily inclement weather a manageable thing. I never truly felt I was in a situation where I’d be stuck.
But for the triumphant moves of the AWD, there’s still the underbelly of this truth: I most definitely cut my trip short. I was hoping to go out for a long day of shooting pictures in the snow, but the conditions were simply too much — the snow already too deep, the rate of accumulation too great. Had the RX had snow tires, I would have been more inclined to stay out and have some fun, and venture down an unplowed road or two at least for a little while longer. On its own, the Lexus performed great, but it had to remain within reasonable limits. So I simply played the common-sense card, went home, sat down by the fire with a glass of wine, and started pricing snow tires for my own cars.