Attending the Bridgestone Winter Driving Experience in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, is an eye-opening experience for several reasons. First, the venue is a frozen wonderland with a world-class ice track that challenges and educates even the most experienced driver. Second, attendees acquire hands-on familiarity with the capabilities and limitations of dedicated winter tires. And finally, it’s a practical lesson on just how much Bridgestone has raised the bar on winter tire innovation and technology.
For decades, Bridgestone has taught drivers how to drive in treacherous winter conditions competently and confidently. Its Winter Driving School, which utilizes natural terrain (not a flat frozen lake), offers classes for novices through professionals on a vast, dedicated campus just west of the famous ski resort town. Selected courses provide a curriculum on negotiating snowy and icy winter roads. At the same time, more advanced classes help professionals or aspiring race car drivers study how to navigate a frozen racing circuit. Regardless of skill level, everyone learns and leaves an improved driver.
Last week, I attended a modified class with two special vehicles – a 2022 Acura MDX and a 2021 Acura NSX. The MDX is the best-selling three-row premium luxury crossover in the country, while the NSX is one of the world’s most capable exotic supercars. Both vehicles feature versions of Acura’s acclaimed SH-AWD (Super Handling All-Wheel-Drive). Still, as I learned, even the most proficient powertrain needs to be paired with a set of winter compound tires to maximize traction and grip on frozen low friction surfaces.
Instruction begins in the classroom, where students learn the fundamental differences between summer, all-season, and winter tires. Each type utilizes a rubber compound and tread pattern that aligns with its engineered operating environment. In the most elementary sense, summer tires work in warm temperatures, where they need to tolerate heat and evacuate rain from beneath their tread. On the other hand, winter tires stay soft and compliant in the cold or freezing temperatures, where snow and ice often cover the driving surface. All-Season tires are an all-around compromise between both – and, as expected, that concession has its drawbacks.
After chalk-talk in the yurt, we head over to one of the dedicated ice tracks purpose-built for the school’s exercises. They are much bigger than one would suspect. The one I drove on was more than 50-ft wide and nearly a mile long – and so slick that walking on the surface is challenging.
Some of the Acura MDX models at the school wear Bridgestone Blizzak DM-V2 tires. This dedicated winter tire features much more than the aforementioned unique rubber compounds. The DM-V2 boasts an optimized contact patch to keep the tread surface perpendicular to the road surface and aggressive block edges to ensure it bites into the snow. It also utilizes the latest version of Bridgestone’s proprietary multicell compound, which removes a thin layer of water from the tire’s surface to improve driving on ice. Lastly, the rubber compound has advanced hydrophobic (the ability to repel water) properties to ensure confidence on slippery snow and icy road surfaces.
The remaining Acura MDX models have Bridgestone Alenza AS Ultra tires, a premium all-season product, with a bit of winter technology crafted into the tire to improve grip for those in less severe climates. Unlike the DM-V2 winter tire, the Alenza AS Ultra offers an 80,000-mile treadwear warranty, and it promises a quiet ride. It’s right at home fitted to the family-friendly Acura MDX crossover – yet, as would soon be evident, the tire is a bit out of its element on the slick frozen circuit.
We push the Acura MDXs, fitted with DM-V2 and Alenza tires, through several drills over the next couple of hours. We circled a large skidpad (sloped challengingly downhill), practiced abrupt lane change maneuvers, tested stopping distances to compare ABS against threshold braking, and ran through the course at speed – 30 miles-per-hour feels equivalent to 90 mph when you are spinning helplessly across glistening ice! Back-to-back, the difference between the dedicated winter tire and the all-season tire is striking on the groomed icy surface.
Drive the MDX on the Alenza AS Ultra tires around the course, and every control input has to be anticipated, slow, and methodical. On a positive note, Acura’s SH-AWD makes easy work of accelerating away from a stop as the system transfers power to the corner that has the most grip. Still, velocity is useless when other limits are disturbingly low. There’s more grip than expected, especially when asking the tires to make simple lane changes, but the lateral grip and braking limits are a mere fraction of what they would be on dry pavement. Understeer (when the front wheels plow ahead instead of following the driver’s commanded steering input) is the norm – and frightening.
Yet noticeably, the vehicle’s responses to driver inputs change when I pilot the Acura MDX with the Blizzak DM-V2 tires. The softer rubber and multicell compound, combined with thousands of sipes (minute cuts in the tread surface that gather snow to create even more adhesion), considerably improve driving dynamics. Acceleration occurs with less wheelspin, and the block edges hold the line when turning – yet steering inputs still need to be disciplined. Most impressive is the enhanced braking capability. My derrière dyno senses that the Blizzak winter tires stop in half the distance of all-season tires, which is an accomplishment that increases confidence (and lowers stress) by tenfold.
The school didn’t leave the Acura NSX parked, either. Wrapped around its 20-inch wheels were a set of Bridgestone Potenza RE980AS+ tires, an all-season tire engineered for performance sedans that may see mild winter conditions – credit a new ultra-high silica compound for improved snow traction.
Exotic vehicles do not typically perform well in winter conditions, but the NSX isn’t your everyday supercar. With a gentle foot on the accelerator pedal, its innovative Twin Motor Unit SH-AWD system selectively sends power to each Potenza RE980AS+. The NSX trudges forward, corners, and brakes with poise – ask for too much power, however, and the rear wheels break free as nearly 573 horsepower awaken! (Full disclosure: I was confident enough in the NSX’s ability in the snow on the Potenza tires to grab its keys for a 100-plus mile drive into the frigid Rockies the next day, where it performed splendidly.)
By day’s end, everyone has had a great time – and we leave with a new respect for winter driving and improved knowledge of tire technology.
My main takeaway is just how far winter tire technology has come. I’ve attended “snow driving schools” many times over the past 15 years, and it is evident that innovators, such as Bridgestone, continue to raise the bar – the Blizzak DM-V2 is the best winter tire I have tested to date. And kudos to the all-season Alenza AS Ultra and all-season Potenza RE980AS+, as each delivered a respectable performance when called to duty.
The exercises on the frozen circuit unquestionably help someone become a better driver in snow and ice. Still, they are equally as applicable to someone facing skidding, sliding, and ABS stops in a warmer climate as the friction-free surface at the circuit replicates wet driving dynamics at lower, safer, and more manageable speeds. As I said in my opening, everyone leaves the Bridgestone Winter Driving School an improved and better-educated driver, regardless of skill level.