Rear-wheel, front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive on snow and ice?

image of suv driving on snow packed mountain roadEach drivetrain has its pros and cons, but some are better for winter.

Rear-wheel drive cars handle poorly in winter conditions.

Because of a rear wheel drive car’s layout and weight distribution, it handles poorly in slippery conditions. There is less weight over the rear drive wheels, which results in loss of traction. Loss of traction results in oversteer, where the car slides sideways or fishtails, and can potentially spin completely around. The point is that it’s easy to lose control of a rear wheel drive car on slick roads. It takes a highly skilled and experienced driver to get around in harsh winter conditions in a rear-wheel drive vehicle.

Front-wheel drive cars generally perform better in winter conditions.

Front-wheel drive cars have better weight distribution. Because the engine sites directly over the drive (front) wheels, they get better traction on slippery roads. The front wheels are responsible for steering and also handle most of the braking. FWD cars tend to understeer when they lose traction and start to slide. When you turn the wheel the car keeps going forward.

Related: The Difference Between Front and Rear-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive – sometimes called full-time four-wheel drive – vehicles perform better than front wheel drive in winter conditions, but AWD has its limitations.

All-wheel drive provides a marked advantage when you need to get going. Accelerating is made easier due to all four wheels being engaged at the same time. Four different wheels seeking traction are better than two (whether they are rear or front), but they don’t make any difference when it comes to steering or stopping. A good AWD vehicle with computerized traction control and other features helps maintain traction, power, and momentum through different conditions, instantly adjusting from dry “grippy” conditions to slippery rain, heavy snow and ice.

Four-wheel drive vehicles offer added stability and agility in rough and adverse conditions.

What it really comes down to for four-wheel drive to truly work is distribution of power, or torque, to all four wheels. A full-fledged 4WD vehicle has front and rear differentials and a transfer case to provide power evenly to all four wheels. Unlike AWD, 4WD does not have a center differential that allows for dynamic “on the fly” traction control and torque distribution. The driver must manually select 4WD high or low range. Some vehicles don’t have a high range option, so they are considered two-wheel drive or part-time four-wheel drive because they cannot be driven on the street in 4WD low.

Related: What is the Difference Between AWD and 4WD?

Rear-wheel, front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive don’t help you stop.

Ice doesn’t care what drive you’ve got.

Rear-wheel, front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive will not help your car stop better on ice or snowy, slick roads. They all can get you going, some better than others – but none of them offer any advantages over the others when it comes to slowing or stopping your vehicle. In fact, all-wheel and four-wheel drive vehicles are involved in more accidents in icy, snowy weather than smaller, two-wheel front or rear-wheel drive cars. People think they are unstoppable in a big SUV with four-wheel drive. Well, basically, they are unstoppable when they’re on ice! And they require longer stopping distances even on dry pavement.

Rear-wheel, front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive – it really all comes down to the tires.

image of car driving on snow packed road pov tireThe best thing to have for driving in winter weather is good winter tires.

Winter tires are made of a softer rubber than all-season tires. They are more pliable in colder temperatures and provide better continuous traction when cold. The treads are also designed to dig or bite into the snow, and then spit it out from tires and the vehicle’s path, essentially eating their way through the snow. Look for a three peak mountain and snowflake symbol on the sidewall to tell if the tire is rated for winter and meets required snow testing performance standards.

Rear-wheel, front-wheel, all-wheel, or four-wheel drive – which is right for you?

Think about the weather and road conditions you drive in most, where you live, and what you really need.

Rear-Wheel Drive

RWD is good if you’re into performance and live in a warm, dry climate that doesn’t present regular weather or seasonal challenges.

Front-Wheel Drive

FWD is a good combination of efficiency, performance, and winter/seasonal capability. It will get you through most common winter weather conditions, and might even surprise you (depending on make and model).

All-Wheel Drive

AWD and 4WD are heavy, less efficient, cost more to buy and maintain, and are more difficult to repair.

If you’re buying a new or used car and you can check off the following things when it comes to your driving needs, then AWD is probably a good choice.

  • You live in an area where winter is an actual season with cold rain, snow, and ice.
  • You can’t just stay home whenever the conditions are bad, but have to drive in bad weather sometimes.
  • You live around or might have to drive in light off-road conditions.
  • You have the money for higher maintenance, repair, and fuel costs.
Four-Wheel Drive

image of red pickup truck 4x4 spinning wheels snowy icy streetAgain, a 4WD is heavier and not as efficient as a smaller car, or even an AWD. If you’re considering a four-wheel drive vehicle, you’re probably already aware of the conditions in which you live and drive. City dweller? Not so much. Mountain commute, harsh winters and severe driving conditions? Need for towing, hauling, and plowing? Help others getting unstuck? Check. You’re in line for a 4WD.

Related: 5 Things Every SUV Owner Needs to Know

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