Winter is here, and if you don’t already own a vehicle with all-wheel drive, you are probably getting pressured to buy one. Car commercials, friends, family, well-meaning neighbors… they’ll all implore you to be careful out there. And as the weather gets worse, so will the commentary. That’s just how it goes in northern climates. Foul weather inspires people to look out for each other, even if they sometimes get a little self-righteous in the process. If all this interference makes you second-guess your trusty, easygoing front-wheel drive commuter car, you’re probably not alone, even if that car has gotten you through the previous few winters. Even if you’ve never had an all-wheel drive car and have been fine up until now, it’s never a bad decision.
What’s the real story? Can you get through the winter without all-wheel drive, or are you crazy for even trying it? We’ll let the experts weigh in, so when you kindly ask your nosy neighbors to back off, you can be confident that you have science on your side. Here’s a look at what all-wheel drive actually is, how it’s different from other drive types, and what you can do to make your car — whatever kind you happen to have — safer for winter right now.
Comparing Front-, Rear-, Four-, and All-Wheel Drive
The most common type of vehicle is front-wheel drive, in which the engine’s power is sent to the front wheels. There are a lot of reasons why front-wheel drive is so common — it’s easy and inexpensive to design and build, it’s generally more fuel-efficient than other drive types, and it generally results in an easy-to-drive vehicle with predictable handling and good traction.
Rear-wheel drive is generally reserved for trucks and for performance cars. The engine’s power is sent to the rear wheels, which makes for sporty handling on dry pavement, but can be unpredictable when road conditions are slippery. Ideally, rear-wheel drive vehicles should be left for sunny days.
Four-wheel drive is, generally speaking, best left for serious work vehicles or for all-terrain driving. This drive type uses heavy duty components to customize the driving experience based on the surface being driven. It’s expensive, heavy, and hard on fuel economy. That said, it’s not a bad choice in very difficult climates (such as mountainous regions). Some vehicles, such as some newer SUVs, offer full-time four-wheel drive systems that don’t require as much input from the driver.
All-wheel drive is often found on SUVs and crossovers, and is an option on many regular cars, too, especially luxury or performance vehicles. It’s a full-time system that sends power to all four wheels, although each manufacturer’s system varies somewhat — many are primarily front-drive, and divert power to the rear when the car detects the need for more traction. Experts say that all-wheel drive is genuinely helpful in less-than-optimal driving conditions.
Advantages of All-Wheel Drive
Experts tend to blame car manufacturers for the commonly-cited wisdom that all-wheel drive is a winter necessity, but it’s repeated so often that it seems like truth. To be fair, there is some reasoning behind it. All-wheel drive does improve traction, especially in certain vehicles with systems that constantly monitor and adjust power distribution for optimal traction. It’s particularly useful when you’re starting to accelerate from a stop. And, all things considered, if all-wheel drive is what it takes to get you out of the house in winter, go for it.
Common All-Wheel Drive Myths
Even though many car experts will concede that, yes, all-wheel drive does improve traction, they caution against the idea that all-wheel drive is infallible. Contrary to popular belief, it doesn’t mean your vehicle can literally handle anything, and winter driving still requires caution and skill. Consumer Reports found, after extensive testing at their test facility, that all-wheel drive doesn’t help with braking and it has limited ability to help with cornering when driving in snow.
If seeing is believing, there’s proof on video. AutoExpress, a UK-based car magazine, demonstrated the value of snow tires by testing Ford SUVs side-by-side up a snowy ski slope. The vehicle equipped with front-wheel drive and snow tires was more adept at handling the terrain than the all-wheel drive version on factory tires — enough to show fairly conclusively that front-wheel drive with snow tires performs proficiently.
Furthermore, some experts caution that all-wheel drive can provide a false sense of security when the weather is really bad. Drivers who think that all-wheel drive is absolutely necessary for winter can end up being overconfident in its abilities. All-wheel drive can make the vehicle feel more stable than it actually is, and that tends to result in situations where drivers drive too fast, brake too abruptly, and act like it’s the car’s fault when something goes wrong.
Alternatives to All-Wheel Drive
If you don’t have a car with all-wheel drive and don’t plan to buy one, you can still get through winter and other bad weather just fine. The secret? Good, old-fashioned snow tires. Snow tires are designed to maximize traction specifically for wet and slippery conditions, and they do it really well. Generally, a good set of snow tires will be cheaper than upgrading your entire car. Although, you should also factor in the cost of a second set of wheels to make it easier to swap the snow tires out at the beginning and end of the season.
Believe it or not, if you have a front-wheel drive car, investing a set of winter tires will more than make up for not having all-wheel drive. In fact, a third vehicle in the AutoExpress test, an all-wheel drive Ford equipped with winter rubber, showed that snow tires do their job so well that even if you do have all-wheel drive, you should still swap on a good set of snows every winter.
Consumer Reports says that most people with all-wheel drive cars don’t even think about snow tires, which is a mistake. Just to be clear, no one’s saying that you need to run out and buy an all-wheel drive car, plus snow tires; it’s that whatever you drive, you should still have snow tires. In other words, snow tires are so good at what they do that they’ll significantly improve the winter performance of even the mightiest all-wheel drive vehicle.