It was -35°F (-31°C) with a biting wind that tore through down-filled jackets and insulated pants, boots and gloves as if they were made of tissue paper.

Nippy. Even by the standards of an American northerner accustomed to freezing, sometimes sub-zero, temperatures during long winter months.

But this wasn't the U.S. It was northern Sweden near the Arctic Circle, where the mercury seldom climbs above zero for months on end.

In the small towns the locals pull sleighs when they go shopping, and on every block they feed logs to roaring outdoor fireplaces — oases of warmth in a cold, cold land.

It's not a region you'd choose for a winter vacation, but it has lured auto makers from around the world for decades: It's an ideal locale for serious cold-weather testing.

That's especially true for developing antilock braking systems. The area abounds in deep lakes that freeze solid in late fall and remain so until early spring. Ice 5-to 10-feet (1.5-to 3-m) thick, strong as steel, is common, and there's no mid-winter thaw. Planes land on it. Buses and heavy equipment can't cause a crack. And, when the surface is cleared of snow, it's usually as smooth as an Olympic ice rink.

In short, it's an ideal place to take cars and trucks equipped with — and without — ABS to test the systems, install new software to do the math, and literally take them out for a spin.

I visited these icy lakes several times during the 1980s and 1990s to check out various ABS and traction control layouts in both cars and light trucks. On one trip we tried the old Lucas mechanical antilock unit. Later we tested other devices developed by Teves and its competitors.

Typically we'd take cars lacking ABS, accelerate to around 50 or 60 mph (80 to 96 km/h), then hit the brakes and enjoy a series of delightful figure eights, sometimes winding up harmlessly in a snowdrift. Fun stuff.

Next we'd take identical cars equipped with ABS. We were told to “steer straight” and let the electronics go to work. We could feel the brake pedal pulsating, sending signals to the brakes in milliseconds, providing the “pumping” action no human could possibly duplicate.

It wasn't as much fun, but it was convincing proof that ABS works — that it keeps vehicles from spinning out of control with potentially dire results. You still have to stop, but you stop basically straight, and therefore intrinsically more safely.

ABS 20 years ago was costly, and mainly optional. German auto makers pioneered the technology and charged $1,000 or more for it, either on the sticker or hidden in the total price. Their American counterparts took an early whirl at ABS in the 1970s, but they didn't embrace the systems fully until the 1990s as the technology blossomed, costs came down and safety became all the rage.

Except for some high-priced models, they charged extra for ABS. Because it still was not fully understood, buyers didn't rush to open their pocketbooks. One ABS supplier even mounted a consumer-type advertising campaign to “sell” people on the devices.

Eventually, ABS became “the price of admission” as auto makers tried to get a leg up on their competitors, and gradually it spread as standard equipment on even lower-price models, where recouping its costs is a tough challenge.

So much for history. Now General Motors Corp. reportedly plans to make ABS and side airbags optional on many of its 2003 cars and trucks in a cost-saving move said to be instigated by Vice Chairman Bob Lutz.

ABS is standard on 52 of GM's 58 models, and side airbags are installed on 31 model lines. ABS costs GM $160 per vehicle and side airbags $60. That's big money in an industry that clutches a single dollar bill like it's a precious stone.

Maybe Lutz looked at the statistics and discovered GM, compared to most competitors, is giving away too much. Ward's figures for the 2000 model year (latest available) show GM installed ABS on 85% of its cars compared with 52.4% at Ford Motor Co., only 34% at DaimlerChrysler AG's Chrysler Group, 55.7% at Honda Motor Co. Ltd., and 44.8% at Toyota Motor Corp. And it was 100% at Volkswagen AG and BMW AG 2000-model cars sold in the U.S., as were side airbags, versus 16.7% at GM, 9% at Ford and 0% at Chrysler. Honda (34%) and Toyota (25.5%) were well ahead of the Big Three.

I realize GM needs to reduce costs, but not by tinkering with ABS or side bags. Both are vital safety features, and to take a step backward could cost GM more in the long haul in terms of its reputation and liability issues.

Instead, Lutz should use GM's strong ABS position — and growing inclusion of side airbags — as standard content that makes sense by using his considerable salesmanship to ballyhoo the fact that GM's cars as a group are safer than anyone else's, VW and BMW notwithstanding.

Lutz is already de-cladding GM's overly decorated cars, theoretically trimming costs. I'm sure he can find other savings. Not everyone is enthralled with posh CD players, for example.

But don't mess with ABS and side airbags, Bob. They work, save lives and reduces injuries.