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Tire testing Subaru, Camry and Accord

Published February 1, 2013

Mecaglisse, Que.—I sat facing up on the icy hill with my foot on the brake, and then it was time to go to work on a tire test between a Subaru Legacy, Toyota Camry and Honda Accord at a media invite north of Montreal.

Foot off the brake and then gently onto the gas, a tiny bit of pressure, and a quick burst of sizzling sound came from under the Toyota Camry. First from the right, then from the left front tire, then a clicking noise as the car’s traction control system tried to find some grip.

Then the whole cycle of noise from the car repeated itself over and over as the car started to slowly slide backwards down the steep incline.

Wheels turning forward alternately right and left and the car moving backwards was not a good feeling. The Camry’s traction control cut off power to a wheel as soon as it slipped and tied the other wheel. When there was no purchase there, it cut engine power and tried the whole sequence again.

Obviously, the black Camry was not going up the hill with the traction control turned on. A quick push of the traction control switch on the dash and the icon of a skidding car appeared on the instrument cluster.

It requires some forward motion to actually skid. Without traction control, when the gas was applied even gently both drive wheels made the sizzle of tires spinning on ice: the net result was the car slid down the hill even faster with both front tires spinning.

A Subaru Legacy was up next on the ice polished smooth by the Camry. When the throttle was applied, there was a momentary slip and sizzle, the car twitched and as it transferred power from wheel to wheel and it smartly pulled away up the hill.

What was the difference? Both cars were on state of the art Bridgestone Blizzaks, the difference was the Legacy sedan had full time asymmetric all-wheel drive. It is full time, works seamlessly, and is not driver dependent for any inputs. It puts the car’s power down where it has even a modicum of grip. It maximizes what little traction is available.

Subaru had invited a small group of journalists to Mecaglisse, Que., an ice track near Mont-Tremblant to compare three cars and their drive systems in harsh winter conditions. The point Subaru wanted to make was that for a given price point, you can get more technology with a Subaru Legacy than with a Toyota Camry or a Honda Accord. And to most of us, more technology makes for a safer car in adverse conditions.

A large circular skid pad with some patches of glare polished ice amid hard-packed snow was the next assignment. The Legacy sedan was pitted against the Honda Accord. The two cars were stopped 180 degrees apart on the circle. At the signal, the circle race was on. Both cars clawed for traction. Very gentle steering inputs and just breathing on the throttle were the keys to maintaining grip on the ice. The tendency is to try to go fast to catch the other car, but patience is the key. Driving on ice, less input is more effective.

When the Accord was pushed, it lost traction and understeered for the edge of the circle. When the gas was lifted to keep it out of the snow bank, the back came around. Several drivers actually spun all the way around to face the rapidly gaining Subaru Legacy. When too much power was applied to the Legacy, it just widened its arc but did not attempt to spin. It was easy to control using just the gas pedal. The Legacy won every faceoff within a few laps.

The last test of the day involved a road that made a small-radius hairpin turn, then down a hill and up the other side. At the crest of the uphill lay a slight left and a straightaway and finally a panic braking test.

It was a picturesque country road. We tried the braking test at 40 km/h, then 50 and finally 60. At least that was the plan. Because of the complexity of the turn and the steep uphill, neither the Accord nor Camry made it over 50 km/h. They just lacked the traction to accelerate up the hill. Under the panic stop, braking the stopping distances for all three cars were similar.

Throughout the day, the three cars’ characteristics on slippery surfaces became quite clearly defined. The Toyota’s traction control always came on the earliest in any exercise and was quite invasive in taking control, to the point of annoyance. The Honda, allowed the driver to negotiate the turn a little longer before it tried to take the helm, but recovering control was hardest in the Accord once it started to slide. The Subaru was a happy medium of when the traction control system came on. When it totally lost traction, the Legacy recovered the quickest.

From a fun factor, I have to give credit to the Honda, for having the manual handbrake right next to the driver. It could be used with a smooth gentle tug to help steer the car around tight corners — rally style. But of course we don’t drive like that on the street.

By the end of the day it was very clear that AWD was vastly superior to FWD. on slippery roads. But we all knew that.

Travel for freelance writer John Mahler was provided by the manufacturer. Email: wheels@thestar.ca

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