The Fiat barchetta owners guide to winter motoring
These notes contain hints and tips for winter driving in the barchetta. It started with a list of barchetta tips that I published on the international mailing list, but other people quickly responded with questions, stories and sound advice about other aspects of winter motoring so I have expanded it into a general guide to winter driving for barchetta owners. A lot of the additional information came from Albert Reid and Philip Imperiale who both live in Scotland and have plenty of experience of winter driving. I apologise if some of the stuff is rather obvious, but I hope most readers will find something useful here.
I have been driving for more years than many Barchetta owners, having learned in an era when front wheel drive was the exception rather than the rule. Living in rural areas without the benefit of mobile phones and driving rear-wheel drive cars on un-gritted roads, part of being a driver was learning how to cope with different road conditions – something that seems to be actively discouraged no. We just get lots of fatuous advice about “not travelling if our journey isn’t really necessary” instead.
I rather enjoy driving in challenging conditions so I make a point of finding a suitable country road or car park whenever there’s a decent covering of snow, to get a feel for the handling of whatever car I’m driving at the time. To quote Philip Imperiale: “Wait until it starts snowing – find your favourite bit of quiet country road, get some suitable music and go and enjoy – its a great sensation, the sounds are muffled, the bumps are gone and you can come much closer to (but not reach) the limits of slipping etc at ridiculously slow speeds – must have been what it was like in the old days !!!”
Preparing the car for winter driving
In continental countries where winter weather happens every year it is common for drivers to keep an extra set of wheels fitted with winter tyres. I have seen Fiat dealers in Germany offering sets of four steel wheels complete with winter tyres at very reasonable prices, and would imagine that this is common practice on the continent. Winter tyres have a different tread pattern, and are smaller in section and diameter, allowing snow chains to be used on the front wheels. According to the barchetta owners handbook snow chains must be used with 185/55R15 tyres, as there is insufficient clearance between a standard 195/55R15 tyre and the wheel arches. I assume that this clearance is reduced further if the car’s suspension has been lowered, so you might want to check before investing in a set of snow chains.
Snow chains cannot be used with the spare wheel either, so life gets complicated if you puncture a front tyre when using snow chains: you have to replace a rear tyre with the spare, then put it on the front to replace the punctured one.
It has been suggested that you can save some money by just fitting winter tyres to the driven front wheels. I am not sure that this would be legal in the UK – or advisable for normal motoring, so I wouldn’t like to recommend it. It certainly adds to the complications if you puncture a front tyre…
On the other hand I fully endorse the suggestion that you check the depth of tread on your tyres in November and think about replacing the most worn tyres with new ones before winter sets in. I know that some people recommend putting the least worn tyres on the rear wheels to prevent the car from over-steering under hard cornering but, for winter driving, I prefer to put the best tyres on the front wheels, as this gives me more traction on slippery roads and reduces the chance of locking the front wheels under braking
How old is your battery? If it’s getting old and losing its efficiency, cold morning starts will probably kill it – often without any warning. Putting the battery on charge once a week, just for a few hours overnight, will make a big difference to cold starting in the morning. Batteries don’t work at their best when cold, and modern cars tend to have a lot of electrics to power. On short journeys in particular, the battery can really take a pounding. One recent suggestion (that I haven’t tried) is to turn the lights on for a few seconds before starting the engine. The reasoning is that this gets the battery warm before you try to start the engine.
If you’re buying a new battery charger, go for one that automatically stops charging when the battery’s full. Then you can just leave it connected when you’re not using the car, without worrying about over-charging the battery
If you don’t trust your dealer to maintain the correct concentration of antifreeze in your radiator you can purchase a small tester from Halfords for a couple of pounds. A cheaper method suggested by Bert Reid is to draw some coolant off the expansion tank (a turkey baster is ideal for this) and place it in an ice cube tray in your freezer. If the coolant freezes or starts to gel then you need a higher concentration of antifreeze. Apparently, normal domestic freezers work at about -18 Celsius, so if it can handle that then you should be OK.
Windscreen and lights
Always check your washer bottle is full, with a decent concentration of screen wash. Use a screen wash that includes antifreeze, in the proportions stated on the bottle. Don’t use the anti-freeze that you put in your radiator – it could damage your paint-work and windscreen wipers.
Remember that the windscreen washer bottle is tucked under the near-side wheel wing well away from the engine, so it will stay cold. If the water doesn’t have enough anti-freeze, it could freeze and split the bottle.
Even with plenty of screen wash you’ll probably find that the washers don’t work, as the wind keeps the nozzles frozen, and they don’t get much heat from the engine. Make sure that the windscreen, side windows and mirrors are clean before you start, and carry paper towels or a cloth in case you have to stop and clean them again on the journey.
There are various ways of clearing an iced up windscreen first thing in the morning, including de-icer sprays, hair dryers, and plastic scrapers. I usually start the engine and let the car heater do the work for a few minutes before I set off. If the ice is really hard, I might use a plastic scraper, but I don’t recommend pouring boiling water onto a cold windscreen – this seems like an excellent way of introducing stresses that could crack it in the future.
Don’t forget to wipe all the lights clean too – it’s surprising how much difference it makes both to seeing and to being seen. Don’t use a scraper on the headlights – you could permanently damage the protective film on the plastic covers
Never leave the house with less than half a tank of fuel – all that wheel-spinning uses fuel !
Apart from the first aid kit, fire extinguisher, warning triangle and spare light bulb kit that I’m sure you all carry (?) check that the spare wheel is inflated, that you have the correct wheel bolts and that the jack and tool kit are complete – including the screw-on towing hook: you’ll need that if a kind farmer in a Land Rover offers to tow you up an icy hill….
Assume that punctures and breakdowns will always happen on the coldest nights and on the darkest roads (mine do…) and take at least one torch with a fresh battery, some old gloves and a high-visibility jacket. If there’s snow and ice about, chuck in some suitable footwear and a shovel – if you can find one short enough to fit in the barchetta’s boot.
And if you’re embarking on a long journey, far from habitation, think about taking extra warm clothing, a hot flask, some food and a blanket
Winter driving technique
Don’t expect a barchetta to handle like a Range Rover on snow and ice, or even like an average family hatchback. It’s a light car with relatively fat tyres, which probably have treads designed for smooth dry roads. On snow, the wheels will tend to skate across the surface instead of pressing through the snow to the road beneath
You can have a lot of fun driving a barchetta on a slippery road, but you will find little traction to get you started or to cope with hills – especially if your technique is wrong. On a slippery/snowy surface try pulling away in second rather than first, using the engine’s torque rather than revs to pull away. If the wheels spin, gently reduce and increase power to let the wheels get some traction – use third if the wheels still spin in second.
Drive as if you had a wine glass between your feet and the pedals – use gentle movements of the pedals and steering and you are guaranteed not to break traction, unless you’re on a steep slope. If you get really stuck, try reversing up a hill. The low gear makes it hard to avoid wheel spin but there’ll be more weight over the front wheels, so you might get better traction
As with any driving, manage the space around you. Drop well back from the car in front so that you have options if/when the driver loses control. If you need some momentum to carry you up a slippery hill, make sure it’s clear before you take a run at it – you don’t want to find a stalled car in your way…
Descending a hill can be tricky. Don’t follow the car in front closely as you probably won’t stop if it loses control or brakes more effectively than you can. Control your speed with your gears rather than your brakes, but don’t allow any wheel to lock up
When braking, your technique will depend on whether you have ABS or not. If you have it, just keep the pedal pressed hard to the floor, and the ABS will do its best to prevent the front wheels from locking. If you don’t have it, keep pressing and releasing the pedal as fast as you can to have the same effect
Don’t expect ABS to work miracles though. As long as there is some friction between the wheels and the road ABS will help you control the car when braking in a straight line, but it can’t create grip on very slippery snow or sheet-ice, and it does absolutely nothing if you’re in a skid and the wheels are slipping sideways
Finally, remember that the barchetta is front wheel drive. I have had people trying to help me get up a hill by shoveling sand under my back tyres – after all, the barchetta looks as if it should be rear-wheel drive!
The barchetta outside in winter
Here’s my list of winter tips for people who park their barchetta out of doors in sub-zero temperatures:
Don’t raise or lower the roof when it’s very cold as the back window gets brittle and can crack. If I’ve parked overnight with the roof up, I leave it up and drive with the heater at a high setting for the first few miles, then I stop and check that the back window is warm enough to be flexible before I lower the roof
Don’t scrape ice off the back window – you will scratch it. You can use hot air or warm water on a chamois, but I tend not to bother as the door mirrors give a better view behind than the back window anyway. I just make sure the side mirrors and windows are clean
If it’s practical, don’t lock the car at night as the door locks can freeze. There is also a tendency for the handles to freeze into their slots as moisture turns to ice, so I usually place a twig or matchstick behind one of the handles so that I have something to pull on in the morning. I’ve heard that placing a condom over the handle is also effective!
A very common problem is finding the handbrake frozen on in the morning. This can be caused by slush collecting on the handbrake mechanism on the back wheels then freezing overnight, or it may be caused a split in the small rubber boot at the end of the handbrake cable which lets water collect in the “U-bend” between the caliper and the brake mechanism (Thanks to Bert Reid for working that one out). If you’re expecting a cold night after a wet or slushy day, leave the handbrake off. Put the car into gear, turn the wheels into the kerb and put a brick under the tyre instead
If your handbrake does freeze up, don’t bother crawling under the car with a kettle of hot water, as it’s hard to pour water upwards (believe it or not his has been attempted…). A hair dryer on an extension lead is more likely to succeed, but don’t leave the hair dryer where it can be run over – again, this has been done!
Don’t expect the driver’s window to work. The window gets very sluggish when cold, usually because the lubricant on the window guides thickens at low temperatures. The window motor isn’t very powerful, and it’s quite easy to burn it out if you keep using it when it’s slow. The fix is to remove the door trim and use a light lubricant (WD40 works, but a teflon or silicon spray is better) on the window guides
If your car is left outside frequently, consider getting a tailored cover for the car – mine’s by Covercraft, at a price of about GBP200, but similar products are available (at a similar price) from several suppliers
The barchetta has a good heater, and a small cockpit which warms up very quickly despite the fabric roof. Air Conditioning is a worthwhile option in the winter, as it’s very effective at demisting and defrosting all the windows. In fact I use it more in the winter than the summer
For real luxury you could buy a hardtop. The main benefits are a quieter car, and a wide, heated rear windscreen which will be appreciated when joining a motorway from a slip road on a dark, wet evening. The main disadvantages, apart from the outrageous price, are the hassle of putting it on and off the car (a two person job) for the few days of the winter that you actually need it, and finding somewhere to store it when it’s off the car.
When I bought my car I intended to get a hardtop eventually, but I thought I’d try the car without it first. After three winters, I haven’t felt the need for a hardtop yet. Even in winter there are very few days when it’s too wet or too cold to drive top-down, and it’s just too much hassle putting a hardtop on and off for those few days
Finally, you could take Bert’s advice and lay your barchetta up in a nice warm garage for the winter – if you can really bear to be without your barchetta for 4-5 months of the year!
UK barchetta Owners Club
1 January 2001
© on behalf of the UK barchetta Owners Club. 2001.