Why It's Insane To Consider Snow When Buying A Car Below The Mason-Dixon Line

March 21, 2018

So here’s the thing: I’m a car guy and I’ve bought about 25 cars in my life. This means I talk to a lot of people about buying cars. People often say they want my opinion about their choices. I’ve noticed that often what they really want is to talk at someone they think knows a lot so they feel more secure about their decision. This is fine; we all do it sometimes. Talking to an “expert” makes people feel better about their decision. It’s just that they usually don’t do much listening, which is the key thing to do when talking to an expert. Something to keep in mind.

I’m also not actually an expert, I’ve just done it enough times to make a lot of mistakes and learn from them. Although maybe that is expertise. Neils Bohr thought so. He said ”An expert is a man who has made all the mistakes which can be made, in a narrow field.” I haven’t made all of them, but a lot.

One of the mistakes I made early on was to consider snow when buying a car. But here in Maryland - and in most places - it is a completely useless factor for car-buying. It is the least relevant thing there is.

Why? Let’s do it by the numbers. In Baltimore, it snows on average about 9 days out of the year, totaling 20 inches average. We average 1.4 days per year with 4” or more of snow, which means most of those days are an inch or less.

On days with an inch of snow or less, the salt and plow crews can generally keep up, and pretty much any car can drive in an inch or less of snow. Seriously, pretty much anything will be fine. You could drive a Corvette in a light coating of snow no problem. You couldn’t in ice, but all cars will pretty much have the same problems there too. The variability in snow performance across cars isn’t near as great as people think. What matters is how well you can drive.

When there’s more snow on the ground - say 3 or 4 inches - the game changes. Not everything can get through that, but a lot more can still drive in it than people expect. When my wife and I were dating, I remember taking her to the hospital where she worked in a 6” snow event. I drove her front wheel drive Toyota Highlander. It had normal All Season tires on it (nothing special), and it cruised through stuff easily. I went over to pick up her grandfather and bring him to her parents house because he lost power. That thing powered up hilly neighborhood roads where no plow had gone, gently spinning the front wheels and pulling itself around just fine. It was a blast actually.

Here’s the other thing: for that once or twice a year fun snow storm where we get 4-12 inches of snow.. do you really drive? Most people around here use it as a fun excuse to hunker down and have a day inside. Kids are off school, a fire sounds like a great idea, and hot chocolate is on the menu. Not many people try to drive anyway. The whole area just kind of shuts down.

Today is one of those days. We’ve got probably 5” of wet snow on the ground, and it’s the first day of spring! I wouldn’t mind heading out in a little while to pickup pizza. We’ve got an all wheel drive minivan now with I-don’t-know-what tires. It’ll do just fine. I already went out this morning to pick up breakfast.

So to recap:

  • It snows on average just over 2% of the days in the year.
  • Almost any car will do just fine on most of these snowy days.
  • 0.2% of the days in a year, some cars may have a problem.
  • On those days, we all just hang out and stay home anyway.

I said it was insane in the title, and I stand by that. It’s not rational to consider snow ability right next to things like price, comfort, reliability, looks, etc. It should be way, WAY down the list. So why do people continue to use snow capability as a major factor in buying a car? I think it comes down to two psychological factors.

First, even though we all just hang out and stay home when it snows, we want to feel like we can go anywhere at anytime. We want the feeling of freedom that a car brings, and we’re so addicted to that feeling that we have to have it any time in any place.

Second, and this one is more interesting, I think people often use snow as an excuse to get something more practical. I think we’re sometimes scared of having the blinders taken off. We can’t possibly get that little sports car, it’s so impractical! Never mind the feeling of freedom and happiness it gives. And it’s probably even less reliable! Of course, these days most brands re-use similar engines and transmissions across their model lines. And it’s less safe too right? Of course, better brakes and suspension let you stop and avoid situations of all sorts.

Nope, our practical logic is broken. We use things like snow as a way to keep our blinders on. We make very minor considerations into major decision points so that we can keep our levels of normalcy and faux-rationality. What, I wonder, do we use as other excuses like this? That’s definitely something I want to think about some more.

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