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 winter tires on your regular old two-wheel-drive (including front-wheel-drive and rear-wheel-drive) cars is better than all-season tires on an AWD ride from any tire brand.
It seems that most people truly think that all-season tires and AWD are what takes the cake. They figure that the more wheels you have to make the car go forward, the more likely you will get traction on one of them. This seems logical, right?
Well, it is only partly true.
From the information that I gathered and experienced, there are a few (limited) situations where AWD or four-wheel-drive systems with the right all-season tires (I’m just going to say “AWD” from now on) works better than 2WD with snow or winter tires in the snow and ice. A lot of this depends on which all-seasons and snow tires you are testing, but the general results are like this.
When is an AWD System Better?
AWD systems work better to launch the car forward on snowy conditions 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 when you get some snow (a few inches) and no ice or general slippery conditions.
Ice is where the data starts to swing (heavily) into the winter tires’ favor.
When are Snow Tires Better?
Accelerating on icy roads without proper tires just isn’t going to happen, no matter what-wheel-drive configuration you have. 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 winter tires on your front-wheel-drive or rear-wheel-drive 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 in ice & snow is important, I would say handling and stopping (traction) 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 due to the lack of traction.
The winter tires will allow you to turn and stop much easier regardless of the number of wheels under power. TireRack has done some testing 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 in a two-wheel-drive vehicle on all-season tires took an additional 40 feet further than the winter tire-equipped vehicle. That easily puts you in the middle of an intersection or in another vehicle’s bumper.
The 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. You can then run sticky summer tires for the rest of the year to really have some fun!
What Should I Buy?
Speaking of buying a set of winter or snow tires, we do have a couple suggestions.