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With the adoption of front-wheel drive as the mainstream power delivery system of choice, the semi-annual ritual of swapping snow tires has largely disappeared for most Americans. In many northern areas, all-wheel drive has become an increasingly popular choice when offered as an option. But as much help as putting power through all four wheels can be, it simply can't substitute for a good set of snow tires.

Ultimately, grip comes down to four patches of rubber and if they're unable to make solid contact, the number of drive wheels becomes irrelevant. This became abundantly clear this past weekend while driving a new 2010 Subaru Legacy. The Legacy is a plush, roomy mid-size sedan with excellent outward visibility and Subaru makes an excellent symmetrical all wheel drive. Unfortunately, its all-season tires lacked traction. Read on after the jump for more.

On dry pavement all-wheel drive can be a major boon by splitting the tractive workload and leaving the front wheels to take handle steering. In the snowy conditions we endured this past weekend, it can also help claw its way through the snow. However, most cars can put out more drive torque than the tires can transmit. That means it's not at hard to spin up all four wheels when accelerating, at least until the traction control kicks in.



Now as much as we enjoy to exploit slip angles, it's best to keep the car within the limits of adhesion. Lack of grip is a fundamental problem with all season rubber and all-wheel drive won't help you get around an icy corner or halt forward progress at a stop sign. Without traction, the Subaru still had trouble turning and it was pretty easy to get sideways before the stability management kicked in.

The only solution to is fit tires that maximize grip in these conditions. All the major tire manufacturers produce winter tires and we highly recommend them to anyone living in areas subject to snowy winters no matter how many wheels are driven. The easiest thing to do is just by an extra set of rims and have the tires mounted. When winter arrives, put on the snows and stack the summer tires in the corner of the garage or basement, then reverse the process in the spring. It's money well spent, and certainly cheaper than body repairs and hiked up insurance premiums.


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  • 70 Comments
      • 5 Years Ago
      My WRX on all seasons was awful compared to my old rwd Volvo on snows, or my GTI on snows. I wish I had the chance to try a proper set of snows on the WRX before I sold it, but that was not to be.

      The most fun ive had in the winter has been on my long-gone Volvo 760. With a set of Nokias on it, I cornered accurately and safely with the throttle as much as the steering. It only got stuck once, and that was going up a narrow somewhat-shoveled driveway with 4 foot drifts around it. I'm guessing my WRX woulda eaten that situation up on the same Nokias.

      In 12 years of car ownership I've found AWD is pretty awesome - only with the right tires. But it also tends to add a lot of drag to the driveline, bogging the engine down if caught off boost, etc. Its a better performance aid than safety system - therefore for normal driving good tires still trump awd in my experience.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Its amazing how many Subaru's I see off the road every winter. It seems like every other person here owns one. And probably 10% (rough guesstimation) actually put snow tires or studded tires on them. The others run the stock style all-season or summer tires that they come with. And we have no lack of steep twisting roads here where the conditions can get bad enough to require chaining up 4wd's.

      Snow tires are a MUST.

      I do find it odd that the article writer says the car actually gets sideways before the computer kicks in. My Wrangler won't let me get sideways at ALL unless I turn off the ESP. The system works amazingly good.
        • 5 Years Ago
        I've owned a Subaru, and FWD Mazdas with winter tires all seasons.

        With either, and as is the case with a lot of people who own 4WD's find out, it's easy to get overconfident.

        I actually found the Mazdas (Protege, 3) more predictable and easier to drive in the snow. Good traction, and easier to keep on a straight path. Felt more in control. The Saaburu I never felt in control of, although this was most likely because it had an autotranny (ugh). Also it was VERY easy to lose control of the rear end of that thing, and the ABS seemed too sensitive.
      • 5 Years Ago
      As someone who lives on the Canadian prairies I have plenty of experience driving in snow. My current vehicle (2007 For Ranger 4x2) is still running on the factory Goodyear all seasons. On paper this should be just about the worst thing on wheels in the snow ,and yet I can drive it just fine on snow or ice. Its quite an upgrade from my first car (1981 Olds full size on the cheapest all seasons I could find) Winter driving isn't about what you drive, its about how you drive. Know your limits and you'll be fine.
      • 5 Years Ago
      AWD gives you a false sense of security: because you can get going without wheelspin, you drive with more confidence than is warranted. I know a number of Subaru drivers (in north/central Ontario, no less) as well as a few 4X4 owners who make this mistake. Traction from a start is very different, and much less critical, than steering or stopping: far fewer fenders are bent by not being able to start than by not being able to steer or stop.

      Front-wheel drive does well in the snow partly because of the same standing-start traction, but also because you feel, very distinctly, when the car begins to lose grip. The natural reactions of most inexperienced drivers (eg, backing off the accelerator and slowing down) works well with FWD, and you get those warnings very early in the game because you do start to slip and/or feel the steering lighten up.

      Rear-drive can get an inexperienced driver into real trouble if they lose traction. A front-driver will, universally, plow and transfer weight forward, at worst doing a simple skid and at best getting traction back. A rear-driver can spin, which is much harder for the inexperienced to handle.

      In all cases, you want snow tires, even if you're somewhere it doesn't snow heavily (but is still cold enough to freeze). The rubber compound is softer and handles ice and slush better. I wouldn't use all-seasons unless I lived somewhere where the temperature never dropped below 0C. If you live somewhere where it snows a lot, get chains or studs: you can get quick-removable strap-like pseudochains that attach to the hub. I had a set of these back when I was doing work in northern Ontario and snapped them off and on as needed.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Oh that's a good one. Common sense. Ha!

      No. It's far from it. All wheel drive sure is nice... but as plainly as it's laid out, it will still get you nowhere without grip.

      Also demonstrated by this Tire Rack video (not AWD, but about the tires):
      http://www.tirerack.com/videos/index.jsp?video=26&tab=winter
      • 5 Years Ago
      Appropriate tires will always be an important factor when testing cars. That's why I always take car comparisons with a grain of salt. Magazines will test cars on oem tires and report how 1 car gripped so much better than another - rarely mentioning that the "better" car had summer tires while the other had all-seasons. Of course, this is what magazine's have to do because people want stock for stock comparisons and not a comparison on performance 20k miles from now when the tires need to be replaced.

      Anyway, I find I do okay in my SVT focus with all seasons when put up against a Chicago winter. I've lived here long enough to know that I should take it easy and give myself plenty of braking distance. Also, snow get's plowed here within a day. If it's snowing hard I either take it easy or just decide to stay in (or work from home). It will be fine tomorrow.

      I thought it was ridiculous when I lived in Atlanta and they barely got an inch of snow. I didn't realize then that 1)They didn't have the infrastructure set up to plow and salt the roads and 2) Most of the cars were running on summer or all season tires. I just assumed that southerners couldn't handle driving in the snow (which is, of course, part of it due to lack of practice).
      • 5 Years Ago
      I learned to drive in the winter in a 1978 Mercury Cougar. It was about 45m long, weighed 62 tonnes, and had the engine out of a WWII battleship up front. It was RWD, and we always just used all-season tyres. In Edmonton, AB, where -40C isn't an out-of-the-question temperature.

      It was fun, and I learned how to control a slide and all that, but I much prefer my VW with traction control and Hankook Icebears on it.

      For years, I drove a Saturn Ion with all-season tyres, and the difference is unbelievable. Even just trying to handbrake turn on the snow with winter tyres will show you the difference. Swinging the rear end out on snow and ice actually doesn't work as well as you'd expect; it's a heck of a surprise. The all-seasons let me really whip the car around, even at pretty low speed. My stopping distance is much, much less with winter tyres.

      It's one of the few things that I can think of that isn't just marketing hype. I'm glad there's a law here in Quebec (where I live now) that forces everyone to put winter tyres on if they're going to drive. I'm SURE it reduces accidents. It's the one thing that I can think of that everyone can do that will immediately improve safety, all other things being equal. (Though, frankly, I think it should be impossible to get a car without at least ABS in this climate.)
      • 5 Years Ago
      You could have all the drive wheels in the world but they won't help you stop and they won't help you turn. I wish the average SUV driver understood that.

      Also, AB mentioning slip angles?? Love it!
        • 5 Years Ago
        Drive wheels actually help you turn. A lot.
        Especially when they aren't the same ones doing the turning...

        Hope that helps!
        Happy new year!
      • 5 Years Ago
      There are good All Seasons out there. I have Good Year Fortera Triple Treads (dry, wet, snow), and they are rated for mountain snow. I get excellent grip on snow and ice. Combine that with all wheel drive in my trailblazer and I've gotten out of some tought situations. However, the tires are very expensive, not the most comfortable or quietest. Guess there are sacrifices to be made...
      • 5 Years Ago
      As the owner of a Subaru Legacy in Winterpeg, Manitoba Canada; I agree with the author. I've owned both cheap as well as expensive winter tires on 2 different legacys. I highly suggest, as capable as awd is, that people do not settle for lesser winter rubber.

      With that said, I believe that testing your grips limits in a parking lot or vacant street whenever weather conditions change is probably the best method of keeping your vehicle in 1 fully funtional peice.
      • 5 Years Ago
      Was the Legacy fitted with all-seasons or summer tires?

      I seem to get by better grip with all-seasons and AWD than I ever did with snows and RWD.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Not necessarily... I used to own a 91 thunderbird 5.0L. It was RWD with a limited slip. With a set of blizzaks on that thing and a full tank of gas (no need for bag of sand in the trunk) it would plow though any amount of snow. I took a drive in a foot of snow in college to get to the grocery store and it never got stuck or had a problem.
        • 5 Years Ago
        Steve_S, you might have answered my question. I may be forced to drive from the mid-Atlantic to New England in some snow and bad weather in the next few days. Do I take my RWD G35S, with Bridgestone Blizzaks, or my wife's AWD Outback, with all seasons?
        • 5 Years Ago
        yea a 4x4 with good all seasons > a mustang with snows
      • 5 Years Ago
      uhhh try dropping some weight in the trunk. why do you think FWDs handle so well in the snow?
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