Hybrid Drivers Cope with Snow and Ice

Prius in Snow

As winter storms tear through the Midwest and New England, new hybrid drivers are getting their first taste of hybrid driving in frigid weather. The twittersphere is chirping with tweets like, “The Prius and blizzards do not mix!” And “Prius in the snow, not working for me. Any advice?”

For years, some Prius drivers have been complaining about and discussing traction problems in the snow, especially when trying to drive up a steep incline. The conversations usually turn toward the issue of snow tires. Folks driving in tundra conditions, and hypermilers willing to put in extra effort, go even further with techniques such as blocking the grille opening.

Besides traction issues, the biggest complaint is a decrease in fuel economy. In this case, a little bit of common sense goes a long way. All vehicles—not just hybrid cars—get less mileage to the gallon on cold winter days. By most accounts, the drop-off in efficiency is somewhere between 10 and 20 percent. If you’re driving a 15 mpg SUV, you might not notice the drop to 13 mpg. But, if you’ve come to expect 50 mpg from your Prius, and you paid the premium to reach that level, then the drop to the low-40s will seem much more dramatic.

What causes the decrease in fuel economy during the winter? Engines take longer to warm up. Roads covered in snow and ice add resistance. Heaters suck energy. And
winter-blend gasoline is cut with various additives. That all adds up.

What can you do? The same things you should be doing all year round. Combine shorter trips into longer ones. Keep your car maintained and your tire pressure up. Don’t speed. If you can, don’t drive until the road is clear and the day warms up a bit.

Here’s a clear case where hybrid drivers can learn from each other. What are you doing to get through blizzards in your hybrid?


  • hchIIluv

    Get rid of your llr tires, and get something with better traction. It was not worth it for me with the llr. I use kumo kr21, and lost less then 1 mpg, but gain so much more safety with normal tires. Rain and snow(richmond, va.) are no longer a white knuckle experience.

  • David

    I once had to do something a bit drastic to get up a 1-block hill on an unplowed road in NH. No matter how slow and steady I went up the hill, I could only go so far before losing all traction. With my daughter wondering how on earth we were going to get anywhere (dead-end road, it was the only way out and I was picking her up at a friend’s house there), went back to the bottom, turned the car around and drove it in reverse up the hill. The driving wheels were now in the rear with all the engine weight on them and I made it up to the top, turned around, and proceeded home.

    I told my daughter that was a lesson in physics :)

  • Corby

    I wonder if this is an issue with the Insight as well, or if this is primarily a Prius issue. I guess I’ll find out this weekend when I drive my Insight up to Flagstaff. I think my tires look pretty decent.

  • shellock

    Got Snow tires for the prius. I use Vikings they made al the differnce in the world for driving in CT winter

  • AP

    Corby, it doesn’t matter what the tires look like, or their tread pattern or depth. It’s the type of rubber in low rolling resistance tires. It has very little internal friction, which helps mileage (slightly) but kills grip. I’d get rid of them as quick as possible.

  • steved28

    I was pretty pleased with my Altima (and traction control) during yesterday mornings snow. I miss my 4WD truck in these cases, but I got by just fine.

  • Samie

    If only there was a Hybrid 4wd Subaru Outback……..

    Too bad they don’t have the capital to pull it off, OR the vision to create a niche market within hybrid market.

  • Karkus

    Overall I’m quite pleased with my 2004 Prius snow driving performance. I go skiing in Colorado with it almost every weekend in the winter. It’s really no different than your typical front wheel drive car.
    Yes, the traction control is a bit aggressive, so carry some sand or gravel. (most modern cars have traction control, by the way, it just not as aggressive).
    Yes, the MPG drops in winter (a little more than in typical cars), but you can learn to minimize that.

    Ground clearance is typical for a car like that. (so carry a shovel if driving in deep snow and a passenger to help push).
    Stability control is a nice safety factor and has helped me a couple of times.

    The Integrity stock tires were crap, but they weren’t LRR. Get some Michelin Primacy – best rated tire in recent CR, and it tested well for rolling resistance too. And maybe snow tires for the winter (but I haven’t).
    By the way, almost all hybrids today come with REGULAR tires. The LRR misconception is based around hybrids sold 10 years ago.

  • Gerald Shields

    One Suggestion: Get a heated/semi-heated garage. That might help a bit>

  • Gerald Shields

    Another workable tip: Use a car cover for outside snow/ice protection.

  • Mr.Bear

    Two spring snow storms and two winter storms and I haven’t had any traction problems yet.

    However, I’ve pretty much given up trying to hypermile in sub 20F weather. I haven’t lost too much mileage on the uphills but I’m losing a lot on the downhills. The engine runs too much to maintain temperature.

    And even though I’ve gotten used to getting 55mpg, I’m still impressed with 45mpg on a tank where all the driving has been between 0F and 20F.

  • Rayroy

    Just a question…Would having a block heater installed help with the fuel efficiency? ie. plug it in at night whether parked in garage or outside.

  • Mr.Bear

    I’m guessing: yes,but only limited.

    It will pre warm the engine. But as soon as you kick the heater on, it will draw heat away from the engine. Also, once you start driving, the outside cold air will start cooling the engine too.

    My guess it will help for the first 10 or 15 minutes of the drive. After that, you’ll be back to the same conditions you were with a cold start.

    The question is how many gallons of gas have to be saved to be worth it. I’m guessing a bock heater would cost about $1000. That means at $2.60/gal, about 385 gallons of gas would have to be saved.

    Considering that the worst mileage is during the first 5 minutes of driving… That might be achievable over 1 to 3 years.

  • Jerry

    Advice

    Buy Michelline X-Ice 2′s.

    I live in British Columbia, Canada and there’s snow everywhere right now. I have the X-Ice’s and my Prius 2010 drives brilliantly in the snow. It’s a much better driving experience than my old Honda Civic LX 1998. And, I’ve got better handling than my Grand Caravan which has older snow tires.

    It’s the tires.

  • TCS

    We have had a Prius since 2004. The factory tires were crap. They only lasted 40K miles including the five months of the year that they sat in the shed while we ran snow tires. We always use the best possible snow tires on all four corners (for braking and rotation)in the winter. After all, yiur life depends on them when you may be driving on black ice or packed snow, it’s thirty-five miles to the next town and the temperature may go to -30F. We keep them mounted on a seperate set of steel Toyota wheels so it’s an easy matter for our tire dealer to swap them seasonally. We use Michelin’s. They are the best in our estimate. We’ve never had a problem, but we aviod driving the Prius when the snow is so deep we’re plowing with the front bumper. Then we get out the 4wd. Yes your milage will not be as good in the winter, but it will still be better than all the others. Block heaters cost about $120 at your Toyota dealer. If you don’t have a heated garage they save a lot of stress on the engine and battery from cold starts and speed up getting you car habitable on a cold morning.

    TCS in Wyoming

  • Todd in alaska

    There are a lot of Prius here in Alaska and they get around just fine. It is ill advised to maintian higher air pressure in snow and ice condition. I can’t believe you advised that because it lessons the tires traction and braking ability, and indeed, creates a very unsafe driving platform during snowy and icy road conditions. Most Prius owners in Anchorage run studded tires all the way around, and naturally suffer lower winter mileage, yet still far better than standard vehicles. Are people really naive enough to believe that they should get the same mileage all year round in varying conditions?

  • Joe

    I will not sacrifice gas mileage for the safety of my family. I would rather my tires stick to the road then get me a couple of extra mpg and slip and slide.

  • ROM

    Please do understand that all of these issues happen to any car type and the affect is by % loss in efficiency just like it is stated in the story. If you don’t use all season or snow tires in the snow, you won’t get good traction regardless of what 2 wheel drive vehicle you choose.

  • Rom

    It will help with a few winter related issues but not all. Hybrids do have some issues that don’t affect other cars but the overall loss in performance is about the same % as stated above. Here are a few pointers.

    Cold batteries have less available amperage so they will drain sooner and cause the engine to engage sooner in the winter. A semi warm garage will help.

    You should also tweak your climate control settings. It will run more by default to try to keep the interior warmer which sucks warmth from the engine. It will also engage the AC in the winter to defog the windows by dehumidifying them.

    Another issue people don’t realize about winter mileage is that the oxygen sensor will not function until the engine reaches optimum temperature. So all the technology involved in optimizing the fuel-air mix is on standby until your engine is warm causing you to run lean and waste fuel.

    In other posts on the web people talk about over inflating tires to get back some of the mileage. Please do not do that. It is true that over inflated tires have less rolling resistance because you slightly reduce surface area in contact with the road and they won’t flex as much when turning but you will be sacrificing safety especially in the winter and your tires will wear out faster.

  • Greg

    My Escape Hybrid is great in deep snow. Good traction and lots of ground clearance; a very stable well balanced vehicle. Down side is that I only get 29 mpg when its really cold. The ethanol in the gas doesn’t help.

  • BillyG

    Gerald was right on about the garage. Not only does it keep the engine warmer but the battery pack as well. There is a big difference between a 50 degree pack and a 20 degree pack.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    And you are right, Mr. Bear, in that after the first five minutes everything starts returning to status quo. But there is a head start in the interior heat and a cost savings that was not there before. The pay off for the block heater occurs much quicker since the cost is around $50 instead of $1000.

  • Lost Prius to wife

    The block heater for the 2004 -2009 Prius was $50 for my associate and me back in 2006. I can hardly imagine that they would have gone up over $60 in price. My associate tracked the savings as a seven to nine mile increase for that first five minutes plus a much quicker start to interior heating. In other words, it will pay for itself in money and comfort. The instructions for dismantling the front end to install one can be avoided by putting the car on a lift and installing the block heater from below. The space for installing is tight, but it only takes 5 to 20 minutes depending on whether you are ambidextrous or all thumbs. Deciding on where you want to route the plug may take you longer than the installation. My associate routed his forward through the grill. I routed my plug directly up, tie wrapped the cord to the existing covered wires inside the engine compartment along the bottom of the windshield, around the fuse box, and tied off to the electrical conduit attached to the middle of the forward plastic engine compartment cover. I just open the hood and plug into the extension cord leading to the timer. In the morning, my wife unplugs, closes the hood, and goes.

  • Anonymous

    For anyone chooses to install a block heater, don’t forget you can save energy by using a timer!

  • Mr.Bear

    If it’s $50 or so, I’ll have to check it out. I’ll have to do the timer thing too because I don’t want to make more trips to the detached garage on a cold morning than I have to.

    I was happy I didn’t have to take the car anywhere yesterday. 18″ of snow in 24 hours. It makes me wonder if anything can be done to increase the efficiency of a snow blower.

  • DakotaWinter

    I want to put in a plug for engiine block heaters. Sure, you have to have a mechanic install them unless you’re paient and mechanically inclined, but they give you the best bang for the buck. Another not yet spoken benefit is less wear on a cold engine. With a timer allow 1 – 2 hours for sufficient warming depending on outside temps. Sub zero temps and high winds may need more. Also, no need to open the hood to plug it in. Most folks tuck the plug through the grille.

  • Mr.Bear

    I’ve found 3 candidates. The first is an oil pan heater pad. I found a 500 Watt one on Amazon for $58. It stickes onto the oil pan. Should be a snap to install.

    The second is a coolant heater You just cut the bottom hose and fit it in there. I found a 600 Watt ones on Amazon for $24 – $35 depending on what size is needed. Installation should be really easy.

    The third is a custom block heater for the prius (400 Watt). It looks like it requires removing the wipers, wiper motor, and a couple other things to install. It saw it listed between $55 and $75 online. Installation sounds like a pain but is probably the most efficient of the three.

    I think I know what my christmas present to myself is this year. I just need to figure out how much effort I want to put into it.

  • veek

    The automatic stop-engine feature on our Escape hybrid will not work with the defroster on, so we turn the defroster off as soon as we can. Keeping the windshield clean helps us use the defroster less.

    The Escape feels safe in the snow and ice now that we replaced the horrible standard Conti “eco-tires” with Goodyear Forteras (the only redeeming feature of the Contis was that their squirrely feel encouraged us to drive slowly).

    We drove a rented Prius in a freezing snowstorm and had no problems.

    We’ve used an engine block heater and a timer, and although the long-range mileage gain was probably minimal, the early warmth was welcome. I’ve also used an electrically-heated dipstick years ago, which warmed the engine oil and probably reduced engine wear. One caveat: many such after-market devices have poor manufacturing quality control, so it helps to check them out on places like Amazon.com before you pay for installation. If your dealer can install a factory-approved device, it may be worth it.

  • Mr.Bear

    I also talked to my dealer today. Toyota has a factory engine block heater for $40. It has to be shipped in from Canada.

    I don’t know the specifications on it yet.

  • veek

    Again, some of these aftermarket items sure sound risky. Aftermarket accessories often suffer from very poor manufacturing quality control and could damage your engine or electrical system. A coolant heater that requires cutting into your lower coolant hose to install?? If it fails, you are literally “hosed,” and what about your engine warranty? Such devices will almost certainly not work nearly as well as a factory-approved and dealer-installed accessory.

    If you have an older car that you want to install some of these things on, at least read the reviews for these products on websites like Amazon. Caveat emptor.

  • Jinxess

    Trust me, you’re not the only one who wants that. At least, that makes two of us. I want the AWD and power of a Subaru but the fuel economy of a Prius! But we can’t have everything, at least not yet. >:] I’ve always wanted a Prius until I started to read and heard how the Prius does in the snow. I live in Colorado and obviously there are hills everywhere near the foothills of Boulder and Lafayette. I can’t drive a car taking my chances with flooring it just to get up 5-8 hills. My math teacher from high school owns a Prius and she had to do the same thing on a steep hill in her neighborhood one snowy winter; drive in reverse up a hill just to get up there. She had snow tires too (she didn’t say what kind).

    But here is where I can show you Subaru just might have what we what:

    http://www.autoguide.com/auto-news/2009/11/la-preview-subaru-announces-hybrid-engine-for-2012.html

    Take a look at that. If you’re really interested, you should keep yourself updated on this progress even if it is about two years away. :) It should be VERY interesting. Their intentions to keep the system focused on AWD just might hinder the fuel economy a bit more than Prius enthusiasts might like (those who want AWD but don’t want to skimp out on fuel economy).

  • stevepo

    Then there goes your fuel economy!!!!!!!!
    these cars are great for the sunbelt
    But in Chicago? shoulda got a Corolla…. only getting 23mpg with heater running and snow tires

  • byron ward

    batteries lose efficiency as temperature drops, about 50% for every 10 degrees celsius

  • George of the jungle!

    Do what I do. Don’t get stupid and buy a hybrid. Too expensive, mileage isn’t what you think it is and the cars are way too small.

    Best thing to do is drive what I drive. A GMC Yukon. Honkering V8 engine, 4 wheel drive, just an awesome vehicle. I can drive 75 mph down the interstate and the engine is just humming along. Gas mileage is respectable. The whole gas crisis is phoney. It was a result of a hurricane or two in the Gulf that shut down the refineries in Texas. Best thing would be for the oil companies who are making billions in profits to build a couple more refineries in the mid-west.

    And shove those Prius hybrids. Just a waste of money and they get in the way on the freeway.

    Stick with the Big-3 people. They know how to build vehicles; not that Jap-crap from Honda, Toyota and Datsun.

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  • monkeyfurball

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  • reillykane73

    The first serious snow of the season happened this week, and I might as well have strapped ice skates to the bottom of the darned thing, for all the … I am getting a good deal at Discount tire for $190 per tire with a rebate from michelin. …. getting a non-hybrid if you do primarily hwy driving” may not pan out.
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