Do hybrid cars perform well in cold weather?

Hybrid Car Performance on Snow and Ice

Hybrid cars perform well in most climates, but how do they fare when the temperature dips below freezing?
Hybrid cars perform well in most climates, but how do they fare when the temperature dips below freezing?
AP Photo/David Zalubowski

Now that you've seen how cold weather can negatively impact a hybrid's fuel economy, let's explore how hybrids actually perform on snow an ice. It's a legitimate concern when you're still trying to do a little eco-friendly driving during the cold winter months. Many consumers in colder climates buy large trucks and SUVs specifically because those vehicles handle snow and ice well.

Fuel-efficient vehicles, the thinking goes, are at a significant disadvantage when it comes to snow and ice, often because of the very designs that make them perfect for green driving. For instance, a hybrid's lower stance gives it a lower ground clearance and improved aerodynamics, but that also makes it tougher to clear deep snow. As another example, low-rolling-resistance tires are great for fuel efficiency, but they don't offer much grip even on dry pavement. And because hybrids tend to be light, they also slip and slide a little more easily.

But really, how a hybrid performs in snow and ice truly depends on the type of hybrid you own. Hybrid cars now come in all shapes and sizes -- there are even hybrid trucks and SUVs equipped with all-wheel-drive for extra grip in the snow.

Even small hybrid sedans have the potential to do well on snow and ice. Those small hybrids tend to be front-wheel-drive. While not as surefooted on snow as all-wheel drive, front-wheel-drive cars have an advantage over rear-wheel-drive cars because the heaviest part of the car -- the engine -- is on top of the drive wheels, which pushes them down through the snow and gives them better grip. Also, during snowy seasons, drivers can opt to trade a little fuel economy for more traction by putting snow tires on their hybrid. And finally, most new hybrids come with traction control, which monitors, among other things, wheel spin to help the driver maintain control of the car. Basically, traction control helps a driver avoid skids and slips.

So, is a Toyota Prius as good in the snow as a Land Rover? Probably not. But, a GMC Yukon Hybrid will do just as well as a conventional Yukon. And with some careful driving -- and maybe a new set of snow tires -- a Prius will likely get its driver through the snow safely, and use a lot less gas than the Land Rover while doing it, too. And when summer comes around and gas prices spike, the Prius driver will have been happy to put up with a few weeks of careful snow driving to enjoy the benefit of money saved at the fuel pump.