Forget what T.S. Eliot once wrote: January is the cruel month. At least in Ohio, and at least this year. One day it will be eight degrees Fahrenheit and snowing; the next day it will be sixty degrees and raining. And the moment the salt washes off the roads and makes me think it would be a good idea to take my CB1100 out for a spin, the temperature drops and the existing water on the roads freezes solid. Wednesday morning, walking out to the Accord, I ended up falling on my ass and then sliding all the way down to the end of the driveway. It would have been great fun if I hadn’t ruined a set of pants in the process.
I wonder if this is part of the oft-discussed “climate change”. Believe me, I’m no science denier. I mean, of course I deny all of the scientific research about IQ and heritable characteristics. Recently, my son asked me why one of the kids on his football team was “so stupid.” I was tempted to explain to John that while he is the descendant of multiple WAIS-pegging generations, his teammate’s father is a 300-pound mouth-breather whom I occasionally see just starting at the wall with his lower lip quivering slightly. Instead, I said that all human beings were of equal intellectual potential, regardless of their genetic history. My son snorted at me in response. I worry about him. How will he get into Yale if he can’t learn crimestop now?
Any way, climate change is totally real. What I’m confused about is this: Is there such a thing as “good CO2” and “bad CO2”, like there’s “good cholesterol” and “bad cholesterol”? And if so, is that why the Chinese are building two coal plants a week while the average London businessman is forced to drive a 1.2-liter diesel due to CO2 regulations? Like the Chinese CO2 is the good stuff, maybe? But I digress.
Anyway. You’d think snow tires would be ace stuff in the rain, because rain is nothing but melted snow. Plus, the deep grooves and relatively low land/sea ratio should clear water in a hurry. By that last phrase, I mean the ratio of tread space to groove space. A 4×4 tire has a low land/sea ratio; a racing slick has a very, very high land/sea ratio.
All of that is true, but winter tires also have tread compounds that are specifically formulated to work in low temperatures and grip a certain type of surface. Raise the temp to fifty-five ambient and cover the road with a sort of water/salt mixture? That’s outside their performance brief. In those conditions, the mighty Accord V6 becomes a sort of spiritual successor to a big-block Chevelle, capable of spinning the tires under power all the way through the first three gears. Top-notch fun. But the significantly reduced cornering grip is less fun, particularly at freeway speeds or close to it. So I’m a little careful.
Which brings us to the fast six-lane divided road heading west out of downtown Columbus. I could describe it to the nth degree, but it would be just like the descriptions of gardens and whatnot in Lady Chatterly’s Lover; you’d want to skip it so you can get to the fuck scenes. If you’re a Columbus local, we’re talking about Vine Street heading towards 670/315.
I’d left work early and was heading west at about 70 mph. The limit is 45 but if you do 45 on that road any at time even close to rush hour you will find that your rearview mirror is now showing a close-up of a Yukon Denali’s grille. And I wasn’t even the fastest dude out there. That dubious honor belonged to the previous-gen Malibu that was tailgating me in the left lane. I moved over. He zipped past.
It was raining pretty hard. There was some standing water on the road. Right before the exit to the freeway that was my goal and probably the goal of the Malibu driver as well, the road curves to the right. Not hard, mind you. Just enough to cause me to breathe off the throttle of my ZX-14R when I’m approaching it at triple digits in the dry. Based on the slightly worrisome way the Accord was surfing the deeper puddles, I decided that I would slow down to about 50 mph for this turn. The Malibu did not slow at all.
Any club racer can tell you about the odd feeling you get when somebody passes you on the way into a corner. You get this sort of burning shame in your gut. How is he able to make that turn at that speed? I can tell you from experience that there are just two reasons:
- You, the slower racer, are a total kittycat;
- He’s not gonna make it.
As the Malibu rocketed away from me towards the right-hander, I figured that the answer in this case was a solid example of the first answer. Which was okay. It wasn’t a club race; it was my commute. Discretion, as Falstaff once said, is the better part of valor. But remember, please, that the audience was meant to laugh at Falstaff. That saying, along with anything Polonius says in Hamlet, is intended to be contemptible. Still. I lay back in the cut, as my urban brothers and sisters like to say, and watched the Malibu enter the turn.
Turns out I was wrong; this was a solid example of the second answer, after all. Over the space of about half a second, the following things happened:
- The Malibu’s nose slid wide a foot or so.
- The driver, amazingly, did not step on the brake, which was admirable.
- Instead, he cranked the wheel harder, which was not.
- The rear of the car began a sort of high-speed oscillation.
- Which settled after maybe three “wipes” left-and-right.
- The Malibu exited the corner very close to the median curb, not quite close enough to cause damage.
- The driver then unwound his steering and slowed down to maybe 30 mph, out of sheer delayed terror.
- A Yukon Denali started tailgating him.
- I passed them both and entered the on-ramp for the freeway.
- The end.
It was edifying, fascinating, and amusing all at once. And it reminded me that any modern production automobile, even my least favorite kind of Malibu, is a splendid and thoroughly impressive device, engineered by hundreds of people to highly precise standards and painstakingly tested in a variety of conditions. Somebody out there grew that Malibu stability control, fed it honey and nightshade, so to speak. Loved it. Worked hard. So it would one day save some dumbass from having a curb-trip rollover at seventy-plus miles per hour. So that dumbass could go home and play with his children instead of snapping his neck under the pressure of a collapsed roof.
Criticizing an automobile is a much easier task than building one, the same way that offering my opinion on Boston’s Third Stage (too much filler on the B-side) is much easier than the tortuous process of actually creating Boston’s Third Stage. Which is not to say that we shouldn’t criticize automobiles. But it’s worthwhile to keep some perspective about the whole enterprise.
In other words: Let’s not take anything for granted. Have some respect and wonder for the era in which we live. Watch those road conditions. And leave your stability control turned on unless you’re on a racetrack. Thanks for reading.
[Image: © 2016 Bark M./The Truth About Cars]
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