Which gives better traction, four-wheel drive, or two-wheel drive with snow tires?

by Bernie McGroarty on December 11, 2013, 10:36 pm
”snowway”

Car and Driver recently did some testing to figure out which is better, four-wheel drive, or two-wheel drive with snow tires. You might quickly say to yourself, four-wheel drive, but that wouldn't be completely right. Read on.

A pair of Mercedes E320s and a pair of Audi A6s were used for testing. One of each was four-wheel drive, the other Audi was front-wheel drive, and the other Mercedes was a rear drive. Each car would use both winter and stock tires and be evaluated through a series of driving tests under winter condition. Tests included; hill-climbing traction, straight-line performance, and handling.

What did they come up with? Four-wheel drive is great for getting the car moving. Also, if you live in a hilly area that actually gets some snow, the climbing capability of the four-wheel drive is a big help. However, as I have found out with our Subaru, four-wheel drive only gets you so far. 'When it comes time to brake or change direction on low-traction surfaces, the extra mass of the driveline becomes more of a detriment.' If there is actually snow accumulation on the road, stock tires just don't cut it, braking and direction changes suffer. I put a set of winter tires on, (Blizzaks) and spirited driving was improved greatly. Cue the rally snow stage.

Front-wheel drive suffers when getting moving in the slick stuff. The vehicles weight shifts to the back, front gets light and tires spin. They also get pushy in turns. Adding a set of winter tires made a big improvement in handling and lateral grip. 'Two-wheel drive and winter tires -- in the slippery stuff -- are the safer bets.' So, that's the answer there, but four-wheel drive AND winter tires is the ultimate choice.

As for the rear driver, 'Winter tires boosted the rwd Benz's acceleration times more than they did the fwd Audi's, but in almost every other test, the inherently front-heavy Audis derived more benefit from the winter rubber than did the more evenly balanced Benzes. This finding certainly suggests that front-drive cars benefit from winter tires as much or more than rear-drivers do.'

And finally, unless snow or ice covers your roads many times in a winter, the snow benefits of winter tires may not outweigh their drawbacks on dry pavement.


Make your vehicle more fun in the snow, see Tire Rack for winter tire options.

Read the full article from Car and Driver here.


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29 responses to Which gives better traction, four-wheel drive, or two-wheel drive with snow tires?

skier commented:
January 6, 2014, 2:12 pm

Interesting test. No need for all wheel drive for most folks, winter tires are sufficient.
gkr778 commented:
January 6, 2014, 4:19 pm

Since that Car and Driver article was written nearly 15 years ago, automakers and dealerships have been quite successful in convincing prospective premium car customers to waste money on AWD, even in areas such as metropolitan Washington, DC that have mild winters.
pilotman commented:
January 7, 2014, 1:38 pm

what a strange thread, referencing a very old article.

Really went out on a limb with these conclusions: a) AWD is better for climbing snow covered hills/grades than RWD/FWD; b) AWD doesn't help you turn/stop; and c) AWD with snow tires is best.

Well, gee, no sh!t. No one ever claimed AWD brings a car to a stop more quickly, etc.

There is a big difference between AWD and 4 wheel drive. This article is a joke.

Here in Metro Detroit/Michigan, we just got dumped on with 10" of snow. Our AWD 2011 Toyota Highlander went thru that without even blinking. I was able to drive neighbor's sick child to urgent care (his RWD 328 wouldn't move in more than 3-4 inches of snow).

I'm tired of everyone bagging on AWD, how it isn't all its cracked up to be, how it sucks, etc.

I just spent a considerable amount of time driving our AWD vehicle and the neighbor's FWD SUV, and there is a HUGE difference in stability and control, period (my neighbor is auto engineer for Nissan, yes we're dorks but wanted to have some fun in the snow)

I was able to drive, in a straight line, with zero drama, down my unplowed street with 10" of snow in the AWD vehicle, whereas the FWD vehicle got stuck every 20-30 feet, (open diff on front), was spinning, wandering and generally much more difficult to control. The AWD vehicle just goes, with moderate throttle, just claws its way in a straight line, whereas the FWD vehicle requires much more throttle modulation, trying to stay in a track, much more side to side motion, etc.

Yes, people who drive AWD/4WD vehicles like a-holes and think it will provide them with better stopping distances etc are just plain dumb. However, driven correctly, I would put my family in a capable AWD/4WD vehicle in a bad storm over a RWD/FWD ANY DAY OF THE WEEK, based upon 20 years of experience in driving in snow, ice etc. in Canada and Michigan.

One other point often overlooked in such tests, the ability to get the vehicle started from a stop should not be underestimated. This is very common in suburban America, dealing with an unplowed/slick side street and pulling onto a larger/main street. FWD/RWD can get you t-boned. I can pull out of an unplowed subdivison onto a better maintained street with plenty of grip to spare, and not worry if I'm going to make it or not, get stuck, etc.
gkr778 commented:
January 8, 2014, 10:59 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by pilotman View Post
what a strange thread, referencing a very old article.
When I saw the words "Car and Driver recently did some testing", I thought the publication wrote a new article on the topics of winter tires and AWD/4WD. Alas, the thread references the same excellent article I read nearly a decade and half ago.

I remained firmly convinced regarding the following three points implied in the article:

1.) The enhancement in drivability provided by winter tires in cold, snowy, and/or icy conditions is dramatic.
2.) There are demerits associated with specifying the all-wheel-drive option on many vehicles including, but not limited to, increased cost, an increase in vehicle mass, and diminished handling dynamics.
3.) Potential customers should pay attention to both points #1 and #2 before blindly choosing an AWD vehicle and skipping winter tires, as many in the U.S. seem to do.
M&K commented:
January 8, 2014, 11:21 am

After my first winter with Blizzaks, I swore I'd never use all-seasons again, and I stand by that comment to this day 7 years later. They make such a difference in snow and on ice, that my Nissan goes through most everything my wife's Jeep does, as long as ground clearance isn't the deciding factor -
ed325i commented:
January 8, 2014, 4:56 pm

I think the weight penalty for xDrive is around 150 lbs. It's not a lot of difference, and some guys carry that around their bellies.

AWD is not a cure all, but with heavy snow / ice, I found that when combined with snow tires, does indeed help with keeping the car going in the direction you want to go. I found that that my xDrive BMWs fish tail a lot less than my old RWD BMWs though both vehicle types were equipped with winter tires.
STS42 commented:
January 9, 2014, 11:28 am

I will take four snows and RWD with DSC anyday. As noted above the only limitation i've ever had is when the snow is too deep for my E46. I live in Boston and ski up north, AWD is extra weight and something else to break.
damyankee commented:
January 9, 2014, 4:43 pm

Proper winter tires & driver skill are much more important than how many/which wheels drive the car.
sno_duc commented:
January 9, 2014, 10:07 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by gkr778 View Post
When I saw the words "Car and Driver recently did some testing", I thought the publication wrote a new article on the topics of winter tires and AWD/4WD. Alas, the thread references the same excellent article I read nearly a decade and half ago.

I remained firmly convinced regarding the following three points implied in the article:

1.) The enhancement in drivability provided by winter tires in cold, snowy, and/or icy conditions is dramatic.
2.) There are demerits associated with specifying the all-wheel-drive option on many vehicles including, but not limited to, increased cost, an increase in vehicle mass, and diminished handling dynamics.
3.) Potential customers should pay attention to both points #1 and #2 before blindly choosing an AWD vehicle and skipping winter tires, as many in the U.S. seem to do.
Quote:
Originally Posted by damyankee View Post
Proper winter tires & driver skill are much more important than how many/which wheels drive the car.
Every year in Alaska we get what is locally know as "ditch diving", 90% of the time it's a SUV.

I drive a 135 as my daily driver, I know worst possible choice rwd sports car. It's interesting going down Funny river road all the pick-ups and SUV that tailgate me by the airport suddenly fade away once we get to the twisty part. (especially in the winter) So much for the AWD advantage.
50/50 weight balance and Blizzaks trumps AWD every time on plowed roads.

Another point, in the summer I run 18" rims, in the winter 17" (I'd love to go 16", will not clear the brake calibers), and down size to 205's. Tread width and aspect ratio make a big difference in winter traction, wide tires with no side walls look cool and are worthless in the snow.
Geekenstein commented:
January 10, 2014, 12:52 am

I've had arguments with people who really think AWD corners and brakes better. They basically think Subarus are magic. The marketing hype has been going strong since the 80's, so the brainwashing really runs deep. Don't get me wrong, Subaru makes great cars. But they just have 4-wheel brakes and two-wheel steering like a normal car.
sno_duc commented:
January 10, 2014, 9:01 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by Geekenstein View Post
I've had arguments with people who really think AWD corners and brakes better. They basically think Subarus are magic. The marketing hype has been going strong since the 80's, so the brainwashing really runs deep. Don't get me wrong, Subaru makes great cars. But they just have 4-wheel brakes and two-wheel steering like a normal car.
tell those people to come on up to Alaska anytime from November thru March and I'll take them for a ride down Funny River road (every possible technical corner, up hill, down hill, off camber, decreasing radius,....) in my 135, as long as you agree to fix the finger nail marks in the passenger side dash board.
Speaking as someone who just drove Soldotna -> Anchorage -> Soldotna (~ 300 miles), Subaru is Japanese for "slow". Anytime it was twisty what car brand was holding up traffic? (hint it wasn't German)
I did get passed once at 6:30 am by a pick-up running 20 billion lumens worth of driving lights / light bars, 65 to 70 was borderline with my stock high beams.
swchang commented:
January 11, 2014, 1:19 am

I keep reading on here and other forums about how RWD with snows > AWD, but I fishtail a lot on flat ground and can barely make it up hills in my 330i. I have to make sure not to stop when hill climbing lest I get stuck...
Chris90 commented:
January 11, 2014, 7:10 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by swchang View Post
I keep reading on here and other forums about how RWD with snows > AWD, but I fishtail a lot on flat ground and can barely make it up hills in my 330i. I have to make sure not to stop when hill climbing lest I get stuck...
What tires do you have? You really need hardcore snows like Blizzaks, Nokians etc. I have Conti WinterExtremes.

Performance snows aren't good enough for a rear drive BMW imo.
WannabeX5 commented:
January 11, 2014, 9:40 pm

I have a BMW X5D, a RWD BMW 550i and an AWD G37x that replaced a RWD G35.

Basically, what I have discovered is this: I don't care how many wheels spin the car as long as it has winter tires.

We tried the whole all season thing on the X5 last winter with the OEM Bridgestone Runflats and quite honestly, it was the stupidest decision of my life. This winter it has Nokian WRG2 SUV tires on it. Our 550i, while not being the best, runs Dunlop Wintersport M3s and gets around with little troubles. These tires are going to be shot after this year and if we end up keeping the car until next winter, I am going to buy a set of 17s with Nordic style winter tires for it to make it better in the snow.

The AWD G37x runs General Altimax Arctic. Great tire for the money, but honestly, If I were to do it all again I would skip the AWD and just put winter tires on. Even though this car drives up and at just about anything, so did our 08 G35S sedan 6MT with Continental ExtremeWintercontacts. No, I couldn't stop that car on the hill and restart in 6" of snow like I can with this one, but it never got us stuck and it made it through everything without batting an eye. And honestly, that car felt like it had more control because I could steer it with my right foot vs plowing around corners in understeer.

I am just not sold on AWD. in the X5 it is nice because we tow a snowmobile trailer with it, but for the cars? just save the money and weight and skip AWD. It is such a marketing hype IMO. I would put my old G35 or the 550i on new tires up against just about ANY new AWD car with the ****ty OEM rubber they put on them that nobody refuses to replace until it is gone. I bet the RWD would win any day over those cars with their bad factory tires.
Chris90 commented:
January 12, 2014, 9:26 am

AWD is great for my wife's cars. She doesnt want to store and swap winter wheels.
WannabeX5 commented:
January 12, 2014, 3:24 pm

Even with our AWD vehicles we still swap tires. It is embarrassing if the RWDs are better in the snow.
gkr778 commented:
January 12, 2014, 8:26 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris90 View Post
AWD is great for my wife's cars. She doesnt want to store and swap winter wheels.
I hope your wife doesn't have to drive in cold, snowy, and/or icy winter conditions often!
swchang commented:
January 12, 2014, 10:55 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris90 View Post
What tires do you have? You really need hardcore snows like Blizzaks, Nokians etc. I have Conti WinterExtremes.

Performance snows aren't good enough for a rear drive BMW imo.
I have Dunlop WinterSport M3s, I think.
swchang commented:
January 13, 2014, 12:32 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by WannabeX5 View Post
Even with our AWD vehicles we still swap tires. It is embarrassing if the RWDs are better in the snow.
I'm getting a Mercedes E350 wagon because BMW stopped bringing the 5er wagon to the US. That is AWD and I also plan to put winters on it.
swchang commented:
January 13, 2014, 12:34 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris90 View Post
AWD is great for my wife's cars. She doesnt want to store and swap winter wheels.
BTW, good to see you're still around. I haven't read or posted in a pretty long time, and haven't routinely perused the forums in an even longer time, unfortunately.
Chris90 commented:
January 13, 2014, 11:04 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by swchang View Post
I have Dunlop WinterSport M3s, I think.
I had Dunlop M2s, they sucked in snow, but I hear the M3s are better. But I'd guess since it's still a performance snow tire that it's closer to an All season than a hardcore snow tire.

Quote:
Originally Posted by swchang View Post
BTW, good to see you're still around.
Likewise. We just spent New Year's in the Inner Harbor, watched the fireworks from the Harbor Court hotel, was great to be back in the home town.
Chris90 commented:
January 13, 2014, 11:06 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by gkr778 View Post
I hope your wife doesn't have to drive in cold, snowy, and/or icy winter conditions often!
We're north of Boston, so we drive in snow all the time, although here they put down an inch of salt per inch of snowfall, so we're usually driving on salt.

When my wife bought her Outback, I took the brand new stock all seasons off and put Nokian all seasons on it. They're pretty good in snow.
swchang commented:
January 13, 2014, 11:16 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris90 View Post
I had Dunlop M2s, they sucked in snow, but I hear the M3s are better. But I'd guess since it's still a performance snow tire that it's closer to an All season than a hardcore snow tire.



Likewise. We just spent New Year's in the Inner Harbor, watched the fireworks from the Harbor Court hotel, was great to be back in the home town.
We don't get that much snow in the DC/Baltimore area normally, so I thought the WinterSport M3 performance snows would be best. I got WinterSport 3Ds (think it was the update from the M3?) for an E-class AWD. Haven't used them that much in the snow, so verdict's out on those. The M3s are a little old (I don't think I've changed them since 2004, since the tread is still pretty good), but I've had issues with slipping and fishtailing and inability to get up hills in the 330i since they were brand new. When these M3s die I'll consider harder core snow tires and see if they help. Otherwise, I'm thinking of having two AWDs and one RWD from now on (all with snows).

I didn't know you were from Baltimore. I think as long as I've been on the forums I've seen that you were a Masshole.
Chris90 commented:
January 14, 2014, 7:39 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by swchang View Post
We don't get that much snow in the DC/Baltimore area normally, so I thought the WinterSport M3 performance snows would be best. I got WinterSport 3Ds (think it was the update from the M3?) for an E-class AWD. Haven't used them that much in the snow, so verdict's out on those. The M3s are a little old (I don't think I've changed them since 2004, since the tread is still pretty good), but I've had issues with slipping and fishtailing and inability to get up hills in the 330i since they were brand new. When these M3s die I'll consider harder core snow tires and see if they help. Otherwise, I'm thinking of having two AWDs and one RWD from now on (all with snows).

I didn't know you were from Baltimore. I think as long as I've been on the forums I've seen that you were a Masshole.
My car kicks ass with the Conti WinterExtremes. I also went a little narrower, 215 front and back. My M2s were 225.

I lived in Towson til college. Mom and older brother still live in Baltimore. You probably drive in snow as much as we do cause as soon as it snows up here they pounce on the roads with a thousand salt trucks. It's kind of disappointing.
adgrant commented:
January 14, 2014, 8:06 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by skier View Post
Interesting test. No need for all wheel drive for most folks, winter tires are sufficient.
Winter tires are a lot less convenient than AWD and they don't do so well on dry pavement in temps over 45. If someone lives in the New York area, dramatic temperature swings are common and unplowed roads are uncommon. AWD with decent all seasons might make more sense.

If you live somewhere less developed and consistently colder with large amounts of snow and a long winter, AWD and serious snow tires are probably the way to go.

You can put snow tires on any car but they are more effective on an AWD.


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Chris90 commented:
January 14, 2014, 9:27 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by adgrant View Post
Winter tires are a lot less convenient than AWD and they don't do so well on dry pavement in temps over 45. If someone lives in the New York area, dramatic temperature swings are common and unplowed roads are uncommon. AWD with decent all seasons might make more sense.
I personally don't dare drive fast around corners in winter up here, the 12" deep potholes in winter deter that kind of driving, so snow tires work just fine.
adgrant commented:
January 14, 2014, 2:12 pm

Quote:
Originally Posted by Chris90 View Post
I personally don't dare drive fast around corners in winter up here, the 12" deep potholes in winter deter that kind of driving, so snow tires work just fine.
And for me AWD and all seasons work just fine and I don't have to store an extra set of wheels.


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swchang commented:
January 14, 2014, 9:05 pm

It was threads like these that led me to buy performance snows for my RWD. I guess some debates will just continue forever...
gkr778 commented:
January 15, 2014, 9:30 am

Quote:
Originally Posted by swchang View Post
It was threads like these that led me to buy performance snows for my RWD.
Smart move, swchang!