Snow Tires vs AWD: Which Gets Your Ass to Work Alive?

Over the years, many have debated that all wheel drive is the end all for winter weather driving. Others have said that throwing a set of snowshoes on your regular old two wheel drive car is better than all season tires on an AWD ride from any tire brands. It seems that most people truly think that all season tires and AWD is what takes the cake. They figure that the more wheels you have to make the car go forward, the more likely you are to get traction at one of them. This seems logical, right? Well it is only partly true.

From information that I gathered and experienced, there are a few (limited) situations where AWD/all seasons (I’m just going to say AWD from now on) works better than 2WD/winter tires (just winter tires for this). A lot of this depends on what all seasons and winter tires you are testing but the general results are like this.

Winter Tire

AWD works better to launch the car forward on SNOW at no/slight grade. The winter tires take off fairly well but can’t quite compete with the force of four tires spinning with all seasons. AWD is alright if you get some snow (a few inches) and no ice. Ice is where the data starts to swing (heavily) into the winter tires’ favor.

Accelerating on ice without proper tires just isn’t going to happen. You are placed in the worst possible situation for winter driving. This is an area where winter tires really shine. If you have a decent set of snow and ice tires on your 2WD car, you should be capable of making it around on most public roads without too much drama. In this video from Tirerack.com, you can learn about the two types of winter tires and choose which might be better for your needs.

While being able to get your car moving is important, I would say handling and stopping are much more valuable. Avoiding the pickup truck stuck in the middle of the road or the light pole on the outside of that curve is nice, don’t you think? AWD just doesn’t cut it here. The all season tires don’t cut it for these duties; you may end up on the wrong side of the curb because of this.

The winter tires will allow you turn and stop much easier regardless of the number of wheels under power. Tirerack has done some testing (see link at the bottom of the page) to back up what I’m saying. Basically, in all situations where an all season tire is compared to a winter tire, the winter tire wins by large margins. They found that a 30 mph panic stop on all seasons took an additional 40 feet further than the winter tire equipped vehicle. That easily puts you in the middle of an intersection or in someone else’s bumper.

Same thing occurred in a cornering test. At 25 mph, the all season equipped car was in the ditch while the winter tires equipped vehicle kept going without incident. Basically, before you check the AWD box on that new car, think about how you’re going to use it. The additional cost of that option might buy you two or three sets of winter tires that will perform better when it gets cold. Then, you can run sticky summer tires the rest of the year to really have some fun!

Outback in the snow

Tire Rack Test Results

About The Author

Jordan Wheeler has worked directly in the auto industry for over 2 years but has been an avid gear head since first learning about cars. In barely over a decade, Jordan has been through more than 30 cars and several motorcycles. His usual buy is less than $1,000 and has included an '84 Corolla, numerous RWD Nissans, a '63 Willys Jeep, and '93 Toyota 4Runner. His current projects are a '66 Ford Galaxie Convertible, an '81 Toyota Starlet (with some Miata parts thrown in there), and a couple of motorcycles (Triumph ST and GSXR600). Jordan has a grassroots approach the industry and that shows in his writing. He apologizes in advance for any butchery of the English language.

4 Comments on "Snow Tires vs AWD: Which Gets Your Ass to Work Alive?"

  1. Aaron

    A lot of manufactures tout their AWD capabilities but not all manufacurers use the same AWD technology and the results in winter conditions will very widely. Suffice it to say that choosing the right tires for the conditions you will face is imperitive, regardless of your vehicles drivetrain.

  2. Charlestons Gerhard

    Jordan, how about AWD with Anti Lock Braking? To me that would overcome the stopping distance issue but leave the cornering in the ditch, so to speak.

  3. Charles Gerhard

    Jordan, how about AWD with Anti Lock Braking? To me that would overcome the stopping distance issue but leave the cornering in the ditch, so to speak.

Leave a Reply