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Driving a BMW Rear Wheel Drive in the Winter Snow and Ice

Why Are BMWs Rubbish in Winter?

How come the world’s best car is rubbish, dangerous, and useless when a bit of snow and ice appears?

This article explores some of the reality of BMW winter driving, looks at reasons for their poor performance, and considers the solutions.

It is written from a UK perspective where we have occasional snow. Winter tyres are an unfamiliar concept, and the four wheel drive BMW is a rarity rather than the norm.

Have Your Say

Two Disappointed Owners

First of all, a couple of experiences of the trickery that a BMW on ice represents.

My neighbour attempts to drive to the shops in her BMW One Series.

She gets stuck on the camber of the road with the car sliding all over the place. It is going sideways rather than forward, and cannot get over the massive incline that a normal road camber suddenly represents.

She gives up, car is in the middle of the road, and asks me for help. I am a reasonably confident and experienced driver but I don’t own a rear wheel drive.

After five or ten minutes of gently trying to persuade the BMW to navigate the icy road I give up. I reverse it into a passable imitation of a deliberate piece of parking – it’s off to the side of the road, no longer blocking it – and there is no hope of driving it anywhere or putting it back on her drive.

When I use my front wheel drive Toyota, no problem at all. Any skidding is purely for fun – I love doing handbrake turns when the roads are iced up. Yeah OK, I’m just a big kid – but when no one is about and the roads are sheet ice – it’s an opportunity to practice controlled slides.

The Million Mile Driver

A colleague of mine has driven about one million miles over thirty years.

If I were to point to what I would call an experienced driver, he would be it.

He has had a variety of company cars – one every three years for thirty years – and does thirty thousand odd miles a year.

Two years ago he got a BMW 3 series – good mileage, low CO2 and all round ticks the boxes for company taxation benefits.

He says he will never get a BMW again. In winter it is an absolute menace with loss of grip, a no goer in the ice and snow – he sees it as dangerous.

His company won’t stump up the extra money for winter tyres so he will suffer this car until it is time for the next model.

"Brother Gary's Beemer is stuck on the M25 in one inch of snow but he hopes we have a good supper"

"Brother Gary's Beemer is stuck on the M25 in one inch of snow but he hopes we have a good supper"

What’s the Problem?

I can’t believe that BMW’s are rubbish cars. They are desired by many drivers and they are great to drive.

So why do they turn into an object of ridicule over winter?

The BMW driver is the one parked up or sliding across the road – while the theoretically crappy 1.1 Panda sails serenely along – unaffected by a bit of snow or ice.

One theory is that BMW drivers are badge obsessed idiots who don’t know how to drive properly.

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Well that’s a theory but it doesn’t help when you have gently tried to negotiate a road camber in the ice using years of driving experience.

Let’s ignore that and put it down to the opposite of badge obsession – badge jealousy.

The main problems are…

Rubber - the compound for summer tyres is effective down to about 7 degrees Celcius. Below that it hardens rapidly. The winter tyre silica rubber mix is optimised for lower temperatures.

Rear wheel drive – an eye opener for someone like me who drives a front wheel drive. I could not believe how much harder to control a spinning back wheel is compared to a spinning front wheel.

Weight distribution – the perfect 50/50 of the BMW’s is not as good as the engine over the front wheel drive arrangement for winter conditions.

Tyre width – there are complex arguments about grip distribution and the actions on snow. I am not a physicist.

Run flat tyres – I am dubious about these anyway. They seem like a compromise to me, or maybe I am just being old fashioned.

Performance – the BMW tends not to be a gentle car to drive, it is a power machine.

One of the key elements, and one that is hard to get round, is that in cold weather the rubber of the summer tyre hardens. It becomes naturally less grippy, at a time of year with leaves, wet, ice and snow when you need it most.

Every rear wheel drive BMW should come with a free snow shovel

Every rear wheel drive BMW should come with a free snow shovel

What Is That Juddering Sound?

That sound is the noise made when the automatic anti-slip systems come into play.

If a wheel loses grip - either when braking or accelerating - the power or brake will be temporarily interrupted.

This enables the worst of the slipping to be controlled.

It is a sign that you are driving too hard or the roads are particularly slippy. In any case you should take it as a warning and be as gentle as possible.

Danger - BMW Ahead!

Danger - BMW Ahead!

Cheap Solutions

There are a few short cuts which might improve things, or might make your car even more dangerous.

These are purely down to you, and your experimentation.

Driving technique. All the old boring stuff about starting in second gear, being gentle, leaving lots of space, anticipation. All very well and good, but if the car cannot negotiate an icy camber on a road, it doesn’t really matter how skilled a driver you are.

Weight in the boot. Sandbags, cement, kerbstones – anything that gives a degree of extra weight over the rear wheels will probably help traction. At first I thought that would be a great idea until I read about weight distribution and the need to be able to steer as well as move forward!

If you overload the rear weight, you may compromise the steering at the other end.

Deflate the tyres slightly. It might help, but it is not an area I would want to get into. You buy a perfectly made balanced driving machine, and then fiddle about with it to persuade it to run ‘safely’ in winter conditions. I don’t believe this is a sensible or safe solution.

Wheel gloves. These are emergency, get you home, solutions for a bit of snow. They do not offer months of safe winter driving, they will last for a few miles that’s all.

Do not overdo the additional weight in the rear or you can affect front-wheel steering

Do not overdo the additional weight in the rear or you can affect front-wheel steering

Solutions – Winter Tyres – Expensive

I believe a set of winter tyres for a One series comes in at about one thousand pounds. That includes wheels as well, because run flats cannot be swapped over like normal tyres. More on run flats further down.

At first glance that seems ridiculous, and of course it is, but then you get used to an amount of excessive pricing with BMW. It’s how they make their money.

Winter tyres would appear to be the right solution, although costly.

In Germany, they are required by law to change to winter tyres for several months. Overall the tyre wear is half as much as normal, because you change twice a year, so the total cost is not much more than just using one set of normal tyres.

There is no such law in the UK, and winter tyres are still a bit of a rarity. Unless you have been struggling with your BMW over the last couple of hard UK winters.

It might be possible to pick up a set of second hand winter tyres for your model, or to cut a more reasonable deal with a local garage.

In my opinion, having read as much information as I can bear on the subject, winter tyres are the only option to keep running through the bad winter periods.

A set of winter tyres for the BMW is astronomically expensive

A set of winter tyres for the BMW is astronomically expensive

Other Less Likely Solutions

Get rid of your BMW and buy something else. After the experience of winter driving this is an attractive idea. But it’s costly to change for something that should just work.

Buy a winter runabout – a secondhand front wheel drive anything – that works in bad conditions. In all seriousness, a piece of ‘crap’ like a 1.1 Fiat will out perform your Beemer. Five hundred pounds and up, plus road tax, insurance, and so on.

Don’t go anywhere. “I won’t be in today, I have a BMW” – a great excuse (not) for avoiding work and social engagements during the winter months.

If only you could test drive a rear-wheel drive BMW in the snow before buying...

If only you could test drive a rear-wheel drive BMW in the snow before buying...

Run Flat Winter Tyres

A little bit more info on these.

Why do you have to buy steel wheels, steels, when it would seem all you need to do is swap the summer tyres with the winter ones and then back again?

It is because run flats are special. They 'might' come off and back on again perfectly well. Or they might not.

So the proper way to do it is to get a spare set of wheels with the winter tyres on, and swap the whole lot come spring or autumn.

The price these tyres are anyway who would want to risk having a few fail when it comes to putting them back on?

Traction Tip

From Dom in the comments.

If you need extra wheel grip to get out of a stuck situation, try turning off the traction control.

This should give you more control over what the wheels are doing.

Another Traction Tip

If you are stuck on an incline with loss of traction it ‘might’ be possible to gain extra traction by using the handbrake.

Apparently it is possible that one rear wheel can be slipping, while the other is not doing anything due to the slip differential (whatever that is).

By using the handbrake, gently!, it can slow down the spinning wheel and divert some power towards the non moving wheel.

In theory this might enable both rear wheels to put some effort in.

I haven’t tried this, it sounds a bit ‘rally’ style to me, but I am prepared to be very impressed if someone masters it.

Emergency Supplies

A lot of cat litter was sold last year. And salt.

Buy now while stocks last.

The cat litter is not for use inside your car if you are, er, stuck without a toilet – it’s for scattering under the rear drive wheels to get some quick grip and get moving.

I’ll add to this list when I get stuck and remember the things I should have brought with me.

Winter coat, drinks, something to wee in, torch, charged phone, keep that fuel topped up, and so on.

Is It Snowing Near Me?

  • #uksnow Map - UK Snow Twitter Mashup
    This useful link from Twitter is built by people tweeting in their local snowfall. Handy if you are thinking of a trip and not sure if it is actually snowing or not. More accurate picture than the official weather maps.
It would be madness to drive out when there is an inch of snow on the ground

It would be madness to drive out when there is an inch of snow on the ground

UK Weather Note

For overseas visitors.

The UK does not normally get a lot of snow so we are unable to deal with it.

One inch is enough to cause absolute traffic chaos.

We had TWO whole inches a while back and some unlucky drivers were stuck in their cars overnight for twelve miserable hours.

Stay at Home When It's Snowing

The great thing about owning a rear wheel drive car is that you won't be expected to come into work.

Every one knows they are lethal in the snow and ice. And nobody wants to be stuck behind one while the owner attempts to drive in a straight line.

So do yourself and other drivers a favour and take a day off.

BMW Sales Spiel

"Yes Sir, these are the best cars money can buy.  A drivers machine, engineered, precision, expensive.  Winter driving? Oh well, you'll need to buy another car if you want to do that"

"Yes Sir, these are the best cars money can buy. A drivers machine, engineered, precision, expensive. Winter driving? Oh well, you'll need to buy another car if you want to do that"

Some Hard Questions for BMW Dealers

If you are lucky enough to be purchasing a BMW then you might like to wipe the smile off the dealer's face.

Ask him if they recommend winter tyres for their real wheel drive cars. Watch him squirm.

Ask him how much they cost and whether they will be thrown in as part of the deal.

Once you have negotiated that part then ask how they plan to service your car - swapping the tyres in and out for the winter season.

Where are they going to store the tyres?

They suggested to a friend that she take the tyres home and store them in her garage!

Yes, four tyres and wheels in the back of a One Series - for a lady owner to manhandle in and out of her car. Not what I thought the BMW owner image was about.

Ask them if they think that is the sort of service BMW should be providing? In Germany the garage stores the tyres and swaps them at NO cost.

You would think as BMW have a connection with Germany they would provide the same service for UK drivers.

If you have just realised how poorly a rear wheel drive performs in the snow and ice you might also ask your dealer - why didn't they tell you about winter tyres being a necessity not a luxury?

Yeah well. Good luck with that!

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.


Seventh Dwarf on August 30, 2020:

I remember being on a date. I offered to drop the lady home as we had the “beast from the East” and trains were cancelled. She lived up a hill. Say a 20% gradient. In front, a BMW 730 Li fish tailing and unable to get over. The driver baffled as he got out and said: “I don’t understand it has all the power.” It started to slide back down so he got back in. The car went through a three point turn of sorts with all the slipping and sliding. He then proceeded to reverse up the hill but struggled quite a bit. Looking at me, the good lady was worried and asked whether she should walk a mile in the freezing snow. I told her not to worry and the front wheel drive VW Golf on all season tyres just glided up the hill. I then spent the next 5 minutes explaining to her about rear wheel drive. I married her in the end and she wanted a Mercedes. I bought winter tyres and she’s never had a problem in winter. We see other rear wheel drive cars parked up and some on the road we keep well away from! The winter tyres have seen three winters so far and still have sufficient tread. It’s a rural area with adverse camber and no grit on the roads come winter.

Snowey on February 12, 2020:

campaign for a better service from local authorities and the government to keep roads clear of snow and ice...benefits all drivers

charmin99 on November 15, 2019:

dxcuk To be honest, if you had to put up with the utter drivel we have on here about BWM's in the snow you would be pissed off as well, people like yourself can't even be bothered to read back through the thread, you will see your response and almost every other piece of crap people mention is has already been covered and often many times, of course we condone winter tyres, but what has that got to do with a BMW being rubbish in the winter...

if I fitted a tracked caterpillar wheel system to it it would also be better.... if you bothered to read back you will see myself and many others agree, but why should you have to and more important where do you store them and who fits them for you, in other parts of SNOWY Europe BMW do it as a free service... not here buddy.

This is one of the very reasons Mark started this blog... and as far as I'm concerned idiots like yourself should keep it to themselves, I know more about winter tyres, compounds, pressures and sizes, four wheel drive or not... than an owl who has just passed an owl I know everything course...

dxcuk on November 14, 2019:

Two comments.

First, Charmin99 is anything but - his/her comments are consistently dismissive of others views. A sad inditement of attitude.

Second, my own experience of driving a BMW Z3 for the past 10 years as well as many other cars alongside this, is that winter tyres do work. I have a set of Nokian winter tyres with wheels bought on eBay that I keep in my garage and change twice a year. It is a pain but a worthwhile one.

Snow is rare in the UK but has a major impact when it arrives. I choose to be prepared for it when it does. Last winter my Z3 was one of very few cars on the road that was not 4WD that I saw in the NE of England over a number of days of proper snow. I got many surprised (and sometimes worried) looks from the other drivers on the road that I was able to drive a car that is well known to be challenging in winter weather. With good winter tyres - I use Nokian - it is entirely possible though care is needed.

In Switzerland I understand that vehicle insurance is invalid if winter tyres are not used in winter. And my son, who has lived and worked there as a professional driver, tells me that most cars get through in most situations. Winter tyres are the answer. All you need to do is be prepared to make the effort and pay the price for them, dependent on how many days you expect them to be truly needed.