Don’t ask how, but I managed to wangle myself A 911 over Christmas, and jolly excited I was about it too. GT3 aside, it was my favourite: a Carrera 2S with three pedals and two half-shafts. It even bore the ‘OPR 911’ number plate which, along with ‘911 HUL’, Porsche has been using on its press cars since I was a kid.
On the day it arrived I parked it outside my house and went inside to plan all those wonderful adventures we were going to have together. Then it started to snow. Within an hour the 911 was buried (see above) and now, nearly a month later, and because the only time the temperature rose above zero it resulted in even more snow, it’s still there. Porsche should have had it back on the first working day of the new year, but I doubt that even Stig Blomqvist could get it down my drive, let alone the mile or so to a gritted road; so there it has sat, unused and immobile.
Instead my daily transport is one of few designs still available today that pre-dates the 911. These days and in normal weather you don’t see too many old Land-Rovers, even in a backwater like this corner of Wales, but it appears they are still around, kept lurking in sheds, waiting for a moment like this to shine. And shine they do: mine has no electronics, no diff-locks, no ability to vary the torque split – all it has is the most basic four-wheel drive imaginable, a load of ground clearance and very good tyres. Virgin snow a foot deep concerns it not at all.
But you should see what the weather’s doing to all those so-called ‘soft roaders’ round here. Partly because of the way they’re marketed and partly because in mainstream and, particularly, broadcast journalism cars with four-wheel drive are lumped into the same category, people assume this facility gives them some kind of immunity to the elements. They hear a local radio station reporting that at a certain tricky spot ‘only four-wheel drives are getting through’ and leap into their Honda CR-Vs and Audi Q5s thinking this statement somehow applies to them, when what was actually being referred to were specialist and properly equipped off-road vehicles.
The problem with these cod off-roaders is not that they’re useless in bad conditions, it’s just that they’re not as good as they make you think they are. A modern torque-apportioning four-wheel-drive system can do a very good job of masking just how treacherous are conditions under your tyres, a fact you discover only when you have to stop in a hurry and can’t, or need to turn into a tight corner and don’t. I’ve been driving a Peugeot 4007 recently that allows you to switch between two- and four-wheel drive, and unless conditions are really bad, I’ve found it preferable to stay in front-drive and be left under no illusions about the amount of grip underfoot.
Of course the real answer is winter tyres but I think we’ll need a few more winters like this before they become even popular, let alone mandatory as they are in some European states at this time of year. The last time I drove on them was in a mid-engined RenaultSport Clio, a car that might figure quite high up anyone’s list of vehicles to be avoided in snow. But on mud and snow tyres it was fine: best of all, and unlike four-wheel drive, these tyres improved traction, cornering and braking ability equally, so you always knew how much grip there was.
In the end, and as is so often the case, it’s all about having the right tool for the job, and it’s hard to think of any conditions where any of these soft-roaders could be so described. You’re better off by far just having a normal car and, if you’re worried about these still rare severe weather events, buy a spare set of wheel rims clothed in M+S tyres. Better still, if you’ve got a shed and a spare £1500, chuck an old Landie in it. In weather like we’ve had, I’d not be in anything else.