Are compact SUVs any good in snow?
The first winter that followed my move from sunny Kent to a remote, mountainside village in North Wales, was a stark lesson in just how easy it is to become isolated when it snows and you drive a rear-wheel-drive saloon with summer tyres. The second winter, which saw many weeks of ice and heavy snow, helped me realise why most of my neighbours drive Land Rovers or big 4x4s. Finally, with yet another cold winter looming, I set about choosing a compact SUV with sporty performance, that would look equally at home in a city environment, as it would negotiating escaped sheep and parked-up tractors on narrow muddy tracks.
Hours of internet research turned into days of visits to car dealerships, before my girlfriend and I fell in love with the newly released Mercedes GLA 250 4Matic, a compact SUV that looks not unlike a large but plush 'hot hatch'. And hot it certainly is, with a 2 litre turbocharged petrol engine that develops 208 bhp whilst holding the road like it's on rails. We were dubious that this plush, big-wheeled hatchback would fair any better in the snow than our outgoing saloon, but were assured by our friendly Mercedes salesman, Joe, that it would cope with the rigours of snow covered hills and mountain tracks with aplomb. Was he right?
After an overnight fall of three inches of the winter's first snow, we donned our winter clothing, got the GLA out (complete with its winter wheels and ContiWinterContact TS830P tyres), and headed for the hills to find out. The road we took is a rough, single-track pass, predominantly used by farmers in their 4x4 pick-ups and tractors as they set about feeding or rounding up their sheep. Traversing the Llantysilio Mountain, the pass is not for the faint hearted, even on the best of summer days, but it has some breathtaking views of the Dee Valley and Snowdonia.
So off we set, wondering if the GLA would make it to the cattle-grid mountain boundary, let alone any further. Up steep hillside roads we went as the snow got thicker and our playful sense of adventure became tinged with anxiety. We prayed that nothing was coming the other way as the only passing places were boggy field entrances flanked by snow covered ditches. As we climbed the steepest hills, the car took it all in its stride, just occasionally slipping very slightly as it wondered where on earth we were taking it.
Across the cattle grid and we were on our own - quite literally. The virgin snow suggested that not a single vehicle had passed this way in the last 24 hours, probably because the locals know what a treacherous road it is in the winter. I checked that my girlfriend was still happy to proceed …"Go on; live dangerously" she said with a mischievous smile on her face as I hit the 'off road mode' button to change the traction control's throttle and gearbox mappings.
The exact course of the single-track road was a mystery thanks to the drifting snow, and the ditches either side were equally as shy to be seen thanks to even deeper drifting snow. The adrenaline coursed as I did my best to remember which way the road went relative to the banks of hibernating heather. As we approached a solitary pile of snow in the road ahead, it suddenly got to its feet, shook its wooly head, bleated, then wandered off to find the rest of its flock. Dare I push the car any harder, I thought, as I approached a rutted but reasonably flat area used by sightseers to pull over in the summer. Of course, I thought, as I left the track and climbed a steep incline to take a photo by the precipice to a panoramic view of a distant Snowdonia.
Getting back onto the track was tricky as I had to negotiate deep ruts and banks that were completely hidden by drifting snow. At one point, the offside front wheel dropped into a pile of nothingness and the car slid down a bank on its belly, leaving behind a trench of mud and snow but no exhaust parts - how clever of Mercedes to hide all the underbelly parts above plastic guards. Next, the real test: very steep inclines, both up and down, next to a small but deep frozen lake. On went the 'descent control' as we meandered down over the tyre marks from a farmer's truck that had tried unsuccessfully to make it to the top of the mountain. The GLA 250 scoffed and laughed with its exhaust note as we piled on through another drift of snow. I'll swear the grill had a bigger grin than normal!
Our descent down the Llangollen side of the mountain got trickier as the inclines got steeper (in excess of 40%) and the snow became slushier as we moved away from the mountain's 2,000 ft peak. We passed a couple of farmers in their 4x4 pick-ups - I wonder what they thought of the sight of a sporty little Mercedes hatchback threading its way down from where they had failed to get to!
As we rounded a bend, the narrow road was blocked by a 4x4 Skoda. Its owner had assumed that because her car had an 'off road' button, that she would be okay taking her two little girls to see the views. Unfortunately, she hadn't realised that winter tyres were also essential de rigueur for such treacherous terrain. The farmer trying to help push her SUV off the track, just two feet next to an un-guarded killer drop down the mountainside (see picture below, taken in the summer), seemed totally bemused at the apparent sight of the Mercedes sports car that had clearly made it over the mountain top.
Half an hour later, after mutterings from the farmer about how many cars had slid over the edge in recent years, and with a police 4x4 on its way to rescue the lady and her children, we had managed to push her SUV off the track to be abandoned, while she waited in the farmer's truck. So, brimming with confidence, and retrospectively relieved that we hadn't come across any other vehicles blocking the way, we put the GLA into 'descent control' mode and carried on our merry way, staring down the steep drop to our right.
As a footnote to this story, a few weeks later we found out what the GLA is like in deeper snow. We needed to get to the far side of the LLantysilio Mountain at night, and the snow was light in our village so we took the same mountain pass without any thought about how deep the snow might be higher up - hindsight is a wonderful thing! We drove in the compressed-ice snow-ruts made by tractors but as we got near the top, the underfloor was constantly scrapping the snow between the ruts. More ground clearance would have been nice, but the underbelly trays did their job.
Because the sun had given the days-old snow an icy crust, it sounded quite noisy in the cabin, so I drove out of the ruts in the deeper snow, which was fun. The car slid about a little, but we didn't even come close to getting stuck, and the car climbed and descended all the very steep inclines without a hitch. The adrenaline was pumping at some stages, because the sky, had we been able to see it, would have been a subtly dark tone of extremely black, and the car's headlights lit the edges of the track, making the drops beyond look very scary thanks to the complete lack of anything ground-like within our view.
Conclusions: (1) Whatever car you drive, fit winter tyres when the temperature drops below 7 degrees - not just for the snow, as they are a lifesaver in heavy rain too; and (2) to all those Mercedes GLA 250 reviewers who postulated that, "of course this wannabe-SUV won't be any good off-road": think again!