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Prius in the Snow--Hybrid or Hazard?

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Flickr user Geognerd took this lovely photo of his Prius in the snow in December 2007.

Flickr user Geognerd took this lovely photo of his Prius in the snow in December 2007.

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Most Toyota Prius owners love their cars--not just love, but LUV. And Priuses are thick and fast on the ground in California locales like San Francisco, Silicon Valley, and Santa Monica.

None of those places gets snow more than once every, say, 20 years.

But large swathes of the rest of the country endure snow falling from the sky on a regular basis. So how does the Prius do in snow? Some recent comments indicate the answer may be, "not so good ... to downright awful". And it's a regular topic on Prius chat boards.

The problem is twofold; first, performance of the nickel-metal-hydride hybrid battery declines somewhat with temperature (just as it does for regular 12-Volt lead-acid starter batteries). The less time the Prius runs on battery power, the more gas it burns, meaning fuel economy declines. Anecdotal reports say the summer's 50-mpg average may fall to somewhere between 33 and 40 miles per gallon. That's not really that much extra gasoline (up to 1 gallon extra every 100 miles), but Prius owners take their fuel economy seriously.

Second, and more problematic, the traction control sometimes works against the owner in icy conditions. The purpose of the system is to prevent wheel slip and loss of traction, but because electric motors provide maximum torque from 0 rpm, on slippery roads the wheels spin easily--whereupon the traction control promptly brakes the spinning wheel. The result, is halting acceleration with beeping from the skid alert, say owners, as the wheels lose traction, are slowed down, and then the cycle repeats once the car stabilizes.

Moreover, the traction control can't be switched off in a Prius, unlike other cars.

But often when the topic comes up, the Prius faithful weigh in, questioning why drivers would want to spin their wheels in the first place and disputing claims of lower winter mileage.

So we'd like to hear from Prius owners in snowy climes (that means you, Maine, Colorado, and the Plains States!): How does your Prius do during the depths of winter?

Here's one opinion to get you started, from our colleague Joe Brezny at AllCarsElectric.

[Photo taken by Flickr user Geognerd; Flickr has many more photos of Priuses in the snow.]

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Comments (23)
  1. "text"

    The problem with traction control isn't so much with the torque curve as with the front-wheel drive. A bumpy upslope with snow and ice is exactly where you don't want your drive wheels cutting in and out. But then in serious snow and ice (rural New England) any two-wheel-drive car is asking for trouble. There are a lot of prius owners in our neck of the woods, and they don't seem to have trouble in any but the most extreme conditions. Where and when allowed, studded tires are also a good idea.
     
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  2. "text"

    The gas mileage thing is harder to tell -- in the hard-winter states driving patterns change a lot winter to summer, and waiting for the heater to come to temperature hits mileages something fierce.
     
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  3. "Expert"

    This car is really junk in the snow. Mileage sucks, and it bogs down anytime is snows more than an inch.
     
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  4. "Snow"

    All Prius owners need is winter is a good set of winter tires.
     
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  5. "Snow"

    All Prius owners need in winter is a good set of winter tires.
     
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  6. "No snow"

    I have a Prius and I really like it when it is nice weather or rain. I really don't like it in the snow. I grew up in Montana, have lived in North Dakota and Alaska and know how to drive in the snow. I can't get the Prius to do anything the way I want when there is a little bit of snow or ice. I don't know about the mileage, because I start driving something else when it snows.
     
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  7. I learned to drive in Michigan and lived there and Minnesota for 17 years so I know how to drive in snow. That being said, I had to abandon our Prius and borrow a friend's Subaru to get home because the Prius would do NOTHING in a few inches of slush, even with snow tires and chains. The "traction control" system rendered the car immobile. As winter now approaches again, we are seriously considering selling this Prius, which we love in all other respects, because I don't trust it to perform under those conditions.
     
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  8. 2010 Prius Owned since 7/27. First snowfall this morning. First stop sign on a side street, slowing from 25 mph? Wheels locked up and I slid right into the intersection. Gently applied brakes in the middle of an empty street and slid much farther than I would have prepared for coming to an intersection at that slow speed. I am worried!
     
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  9. I recently bought a 2010 Prius after owning a 4wd Jeep Wrangler for all of my adult life. Living in the San Bernardino forest in California, I dont have much experience with 2 or 4wd cars in the snow.
    After the storm we just got the last few days and the simple $30 cables i bought for the front tires (and the 5 minutes it took my inexperienced hands to put them on) i'm pretty impressed. I didnt drive more than 30 mph up the mountain, nor did i drive up anything too steep, but considering we got nearly a foot of snow tonight and the plow didnt come through until about 2 hours ago, i'm pretty impressed.
    I lost traction and had the indicator pop up about 3 times in my 45 minute drive, but i never slid more than 6 inches in either direction while climbing the mountain. Furthermore, i drove over some very slushy roads in less than 30 degrees and never slid.
    I heard some awful things about the previous year Prius in the Winter, but with my lack of ability to drive in the snow added to my only experience being a 4wd with snow tires, i'm pretty pleased.
     
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  10. 2005 Prius. When I first got it, the traction control drove me nuts with all season tires. Put some good winter tires on, and it's a totally different car. I barely ever see the traction control, VSC or ABS come on with winter tires. It's a great car in winter once you have good winter tires on.
     
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  11. Hi Amber,
    Hi Amber
    Where did you get your cables to put in the front
    wheels for driving your 2010 Prius in the snow.
    I live in Canada and if you tell me where to buy them in the States, I will order them
     
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  12. I've had my '09 Prius since April and have 18K miles on it already. I line in Minnesota, so have plenty of cold, snow and ice to deal with. First off, I have not issues with it in the snow. Like any car, it takes some getting used to to know how it will handle on snow and ice. I even had issues with my AWD Saturn Vue the first time I drove it in snow. I thought about putting snow tires on, but have deferred until I really think it's an issue. So far, it's not (and we've gotten probably 2' of snow this season so far). Mileage-wise, it seems par for the course from every forum that I've read that mileage drops into the 30's. Best in the cold was low 40's on a trip that involved mostly highway miles. Otherwise, back and forth to work (mixed highway/city), it's mid-30's.
    In your cold-weather climate, your 'mileage' may very (both literally and figuratively).
     
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  13. I have a 2006 Prius and live in the the San Bernardino Mountains of Calif. We have steep streets and snow and ice in the winter.I ended up buying another car to drive in the winter,it's performance was so poor.It does not work with cables going up steep icy streets with good OEM LRR style tires,so I bought some Pereli Winter Carvers for it,(no studs),and that helps alot,but needs chains on icy or packed snow.Then I bought Dunlap Graspic 3's,studless tires,a little better,but even as you get the car going up a hill as soon as traction control hits it shuts you down after a few slips.So I bought spider spikes,this really helped.But I got tired of always putting them on. My 08 sentra, does fine with these tires without the the spikes,except in the worst conditions.We like the Prius and still use it in family trips,but the traction control is to protect the electric drivetrain, not to help you get the car going.
    About winter mileage,using non-LRR tires for winter driving drops your milage aprox 3mpg,and the heater keeps the engine on alot more which drops mileage another 2mpg, for an average for me around 38-40mpg in winter.
     
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  14. Live in Worcester county in MA. Have a 2007 Prius and 2004 Accord. I have been driving in NE winter weather for 45 years in 2wd sedans. The greatest improvement in winter driving since radials and fwd for me is when I started using using snow/ice tires (Ultragrips on Accord, Blizzaks on Prius) last winter. The Prius is every bit as good as the Accord--or Civics I used to have--in the winter, and the traction control makes it better than the Accord going up my steep, long driveway. The traction control brakes the slipping wheel, so the Prius will work its way up (albeit slowly) the hill, switching drive from side to side as needed; whereas once one wheel starts slipping on the Accord it comes to a stop. Note that a good running start helps both of them, but only the Prius without one. And finally, of course the most important factor in winter driving is the operator--a good driver learns and adapts to the limits and capabilities of the vehicle and can drive just about anything in the winter.
     
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  15. Hmm, maybe I am very conservative in my driving now that I have a hybrid, but I just got a used '07 Prius a few weeks back - my first car ever so I'm really trying to get better at driving it and taking advantage of the hybrid system.
    Our little post-Christmas blizzard just started here in the Northeast today, and I drove home this morning on not yet plowed, messy roads and got 55.1mpg over 28 miles with careful driving and glides at a safe distance from other cars. I should add that half of this route is quite hilly with two large bridges to climb as well. I just wanted to chime in since I just googled "Prius snow" for some tips on driving better, and stumbled across people saying they get 30's mileage or low 40's at best.
    For anyone looking into the car out there, it is definitely possible to do much better in the snow if you're careful.
     
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  16. Prius bad engineering design of traction control on ice or slick surface. What the engineers left out. I have a Prius 2008 and have driven it for 3 winters now. This post Jan 1, 2011. When one front wheel of the car starts to slip on the surface the traction control (SCM Skid control module) applies the brake to that wheel so the other front wheel can drive the car. If the other wheel slips the brake is applied to it also and the car won't move hardly. You can back up My Ford Windstar does exactly the same thing. A hill with ice or a flat drive way with snow and ice to push thru all cause this problem. The traction control on dry surfaces may be fantastic but on ice it sucks. What they left out? My Ford Windstar has a "traction control off" button. When both front tires slip the computer applies the brakes, the car stops, I turn traction control off and then the wheels spin all they want. What happens is the tires spin down thru the snow or ice and find dirt, concrete, or asphalt and keeps moving. Or it spin forward and finds traction. Traction control off works great. Wish the Prius had it. Defrost has trouble keeping up at 10 degrees F. and lower. Very low clearance. But I love my car.
     
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  17. If I were to buy a green vehicle I drive 35 miles one way in the winter temps 0f to 32f with 3 other 200 pound guys that I car pool with. There are lots of hills and with snow and ice condx. It has to warm and confortable for the comute. It takes abot 45-55 mins depending on traffic. I drive a 1/2 ton suburban with a 3.40 rear and gets about 20 mpg on the highway with real gas. Not with alcohol in the gas wich takes off abot 30%. So the real carpool milage is 60-80 mpg driving every 4 th day in a dependable vehicle. that stays on the road with real traction on snow, slush and ice. What green vehicle do you recomend? Oh, if it is to be my only vehicle it must be able to tow at least 5000 pounds from time to time.
     
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  18. Comparing the Prius to other cars with similar tires (the only fair comparison), it's actually very good in the snow. No, it's not an SUV, but with all weathers I've done just fine. Hills are trickier in the snow - you need to keep moving - but still, better than any other car I've driven in the snow. No, you're not going to get through a foot of unplowed snow, but I've gotten through 6 - 7 inches of wet snow without a huge amount of difficulty, but on a hill that much snow may not happen. I've passed a lot of other cars, and even SUVs, in ditches in this car. It's very heavy, and that helps - just use your judgement and go slow.
     
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  19. Oh - and gas mileage. Look, any car will take a dip in gas mileage when it's cold. The difference is Prius owners tend to be more obsessed with gas mileage so the dip in this car is more noticeable and discussed. With poor tires with low rolling resistance I was getting a little more than 50mpg on the highway in the summer, and 42/43 in the dead of winter. With better tires I've gone down a few mpg in the summer but not really taken a further dip in the winter.

    Also, remember there tend to be a lot of anti-Prius (and other hybrid) people out there who will just come to these comment boards and trash the vehicle without ever owning one.
     
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  20. Bought 2013 Prius in June. Been getting 55 to 57 mpg until last week when the weather went into the 30s here in Cleveland, OH. I thought something was terribly wrong with my car as I am now getting 43 mpg. Our first snowstorm here in the snowbelt and I was sliding all over the place. I definitely need winter tires. Any recommendations?
     
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  21. Hey Donna. I'm in PA and we just got our first snowfall with at least six inches. Last night, I drove home on some unplowed roads and around corners uphill where the plow had deposited amounts much taller than six inches. I'm happy to tell you my 2013 Prius did just fine.

    The traction control light did flash on going up some steep grades, but it did not interfere with my progress.

    I'm honestly relieved that this car performed as it did. Many online comments had me fearing it would be unmanageable. That said, I did replace the stock tires with some very good all season tires that are known for their snow and wet weather capabilities.
     
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  22. My 2011 Prius slips and slides in the snow. This is my third winter. I'm just north of Cincinnati. We've had about 4 inches of snow today. I also get the slips going over bumps. And I know not to try speedily entering traffic from a stop or from a very slow speed. I'm going to experiment with turning off the traction control now. I'll probably invest in different tires. To Donna in Cleveland, I got 55 to 59 mpg roundtrip to Elyria during Spring of 2012. I do love my Prius. Just gotta learn how to make in safe in snow conditions.
     
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  23. I live in Salida, CO and had the 'pleasure' of getting stuck in I-70 traffic one Sunday afternoon and after the 3 lanes turned into a slushy, dirty skating rink of wrecks, my 2010 Prius was the only front wheel drive to make it out of the mess under it's own power. I popped the beast into "B", put the power mode on, and kept a steady foot on the gas (much to the shegrin of the car and it's antislip lights and rerouting torque) and honked for others to get out of the way!! If I had to have stopped it wouldn't have turned out so well. People were rolling down their windows in amazement and one guys said his Prius always did very well in the snow. Of course the clearance blows, but this car has been very good to me otherwise!
     
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