Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Is All-Wheel Drive/Four-Wheel Drive Good for Winter Driving

I just finished reading an article called "Do you Really Need AWD in the Snow?" The gist of the article was that a good set of snow tires on a car with front or real-wheel drive can be better than all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive without snow tires.

What's the difference between all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD)? AWD is permanent, all the time. It is designed to operate in all conditions including dry pavement.  4WD can be turned on and off. It is usually designed only for off-road or slick roads. It used to be (still might be) you could damage a vehicle by using 4WD on dry pavement.

(And why is four-wheel drive abbreviated "4WD" and not FWD? Because FWD means "Front Wheel Drive.")

I currently own a car that is AWD. I didn't buy it because it had AWD. I bought it because, well, I wanted it. The AWD was an added bonus (the car doesn't come any other way).

Last year I put snow tires on it and happened to drive over Snoqualmie Pass on what turned out to be the worst weather day of the year. The State Patrol had turned on the "Chains Required" sign. But, if you have AWD or 4WD and snow tires, you don't have to put chains on. So I didn't (I don't even own chains for that car). At one point I was going uphill in a lane that hand not been plowed or driven in recently and I was passing people (I was doing about 45 mph). It was great. I've never had more confidence going over that pass in bad weather. (And I've done it in a car with fat summer tires with chains required.)

At one point a Dodge Durango passed us going what I thought was too fast. And I was apparently right, because about a mile down the road, he was wrecked, having ran off the road and into the mountain side and bounced back into the road. He managed to stay on his wheels but there were pieces of sheet metal scattered about.

Which brings me to my point. AWD and 4WD will get your car moving in slick conditions. But you still need to be able to stop and turn. And for that you need snow tires. Some people with AWD/4WD think it makes them invincible in slick conditions. It doesn't. It helps, but snow tires help more.

So while the article argued that snow tires might be a better option (and cheaper in the long run), I think it more has do with the driver and their skill and intelligence level. As I said, I took a car with fat summer tires over Snoqualmie Pass when chains were required and didn't put on chains or anything. Because I knew how to drive in snow (having grown up in snowing Southeast Idaho) I could do that. That, and I was young and crazy.

Snow tires help a lot, and are cheaper than AWD/4WD. And AWD/4WD helps, but even still you'll probably want to put on snow tires.

But driver attitude and skill are going to trump technology every time. As we used to say on the racetrack, money can buy a nice car, but it can't buy skill or talent. The same is true for winter driving.

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