If you’re searching for an example of the efforts that go into developing a modern car, look no further than the European winter testing season. During the coldest months of the year, manufacturers migrate north to Sweden, Finland and Norway, in search of snow-covered forests and frozen lakes.
Here they conduct exhaustive tests on how cars work in the most extreme conditions. You can thank this exercise for your car’s ability to always start, even when it’s -40 degrees; for its ABS to work on icy roads; for the door handles to open when frozen over; for the stability system to have you covered, even when swerving to avoid a stray elk on a snow-covered road.
“If it works here it can work anywhere,” says Joakim Rydholm, head of chassis development at Polestar, a Swedish electric car company owned by Chinese automotive giant Geely.
I’m behind the wheel of a Polestar 2 to put that claim to the test. Ahead of me are a series of snow- and ice-covered test tracks, carved between the tall fir trees that smother the outskirts of Rovaniemi, in northern Finland and just a few miles south of the Arctic Circle.
Today it’s unusually mild, with temperatures hovering around zero celsius (32F) instead of the usual -10 (14F) or lower. This has turned the ice circuit slushy as the surface melts, but the snow routes are still covered in relatively fresh powder.
I head out with an instructor in the passenger seat who first asks me to lap the short, tree-lined circuit with the Polestar 2’s stability systems enabled. Driving at regular speeds, the car’s brain team up with its studded winter tyres to provide so much grip and stability that it’s easy to forget we’re not driving on a dry, paved road.
Next, we turn the stability control off. The car is now much more willing to slide into oversteer when accelerating – hardly a surprise given the Polestar’s 397 horsepower and 487 lbs-ft of torque. Sent to all four wheels, it’s enough to make me feel like a pro rally driver, countering slides with a full turn or more of steering correction. But, truth be told, the inherent balance of the chassis (and those tires) are doing the majority of the work. This is the result of a car that has undergone years of winter testing, but also one that benefits dynamically from being electric, and therefore having a big, heavy battery in its floor.
EV fans will tell you how this setup gives battery-powered cars an incredibly low center-of-gravity, which helps to prevent roll in the corners and improves stability when changing direction. Heavy batteries might not be the ultimate answer, but weight low down is always better than weight high up.
Later, I’m tasked with replicating the elk test. Once infamously failed by the original Mercedes A-Class, which toppled onto its roof, this test replicates the sudden swerve needed to avoid an elk wandering into your path. Replace elk with deer, cow, kangaroo, or whatever local wildlife might be ready to jump on on your commute.
I’m asked to drive at an obstacle, downhill on a snow-covered piece of test track, at about 35 mph. This doesn’t sound like much, but on a snowy road my inexperience of these conditions (and tires) makes it feel like we’re going far too quickly. I genuinely doubt we’ll make it through the cones used to show our elk-avoidance route.
And yet, after understeering for a split-second while the computer works out what to do, we sail through just fine. No braking, no spinning out and no impact. With its stability systems enabled, the Polestar 2 works hard to go where I point the wheel, braking individual wheels where necessary and precisely controlling exactly how much energy is deployed by each of its two motors. The car’s brain does this constantly, moving torque around and applying the disc brakes depending on the driver’s power, braking and steering inputs, and real-time grip level.
Rydholm later tells me how power is sent to the rear wheels to help turn the car, but to the front axle when braking. “That’s the nice thing with electric cars,” he says. “The benefits of instant torque compared to [cars powered by internal combustion engines] with turbo lag etc.”.
I’m asked to perform the ek test again, only this time with the stability control switched off. Approaching more quickly than before, I quickly turn the wheel right then left and, while there’s significantly more rotation from the rear end, the car doesn’t spin out. I apply about a turn-and-a-half of opposite lock to catch the slide, but never feel out of control – and hitting the ‘elk’ never crosses my mind.
While I’d like to claim sheer skill saved the day, the car’s low centre of gravity, natural balance, all-wheel-drive and studded tires are the real heroes here. Simple enough to explain in hindsight, but utterly remarkable to experience for real.
Lastly, I perform a third elk test and this time hit the brake before steering. I’d expected even more rotation from the rear as slowing pushes the car’s weight forwards and away from the back tires. Instead, the car steers just as keenly as before and doesn’t spin out.
I’m also clamped down with serious force by the seat belt pre-tensioner – something that is especially needed in this climate, as people tend to drive wearing thick coats which cause the seat belt to rest further from their body. The tensioner ensures you are held firmly (very firmly) into the seat before a collision and ahead of the airbags deploying. They remain tight for a while after too, in case of multiple impacts. I avoid the imaginary elk, head back to the parking lot and regain my breath as the seat belt releases its vice-like grip.
It has been a brief but fascinating morning. As I head to Rovaniemi airport for the two-flight journey back to London I feel reassured.
Reassured that car manufacturers spend a serious amount of time testing their vehicles in every conceivable situation – they also take learnings from elk tests conducted on summer tires, just to be sure. And also reassured that, when called upon, the safety systems of a modern car are quite extraordinary; capable of performing life-saving changes of direction in the blink of an eye, no driver skill required.
On top of all this, there’s the absolute precision of an electric drive system capable of shuffling power and torque around to do exactly what the driver asks. The Polestar 2 is by no means unique here, but this experience served to demonstrate the benefits of electric cars, and the power of a modern stability control system, in the harshest of environments.
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