Tips & Guides

Winter Tires vs All-wheel drive: Is AWD effective for Winter Driving?

Winter driving often sparks spirited discussions, and let’s admit, much of it isn’t always rooted in pure logic.

 Amidst the advertising frenzy for all-wheel-drive (AWD) models, questions arise around their actual effectiveness in snow. Is the premium for an AWD vehicle justified, or could outfitting a two-wheel drive (2WD) vehicle with winter tires be a sensible alternative?

Or consider this scenario: you’re a proud owner of a Four Wheel Drive (4WD) or All Wheel Drive (AWD) vehicle, and you’re contemplating whether it’s necessary to invest in high-quality winter tires. Given the surge in popularity of these advanced drivetrains, it’s a valid consideration.

Consider this: Forty-one percent of weather-related car crashes in the U.S. result from snow, sleet, ice, or slush. We believe any misconception on this topic could prove life-threatening. So, here’s a simple yet in-depth guide, where we unravel all the chaos around winter driving.

Is AWD effective for Winter driving?

Is AWD the ultimate solution for snow driving? Not quite. Consumer Reports conducted comprehensive tests to address this very question. Let’s decipher the practical implications of AWD use during winter driving based on their findings.

Benefits with AWD

  • Desiring optimal traction during acceleration on slippery roads? In such scenarios, all-wheel drive (AWD) proves to be exceptionally effective. The AWD system will not only provide enhanced acceleration on slippery surfaces but also make sure you aren’t stuck in snowed-in parking spots or unplowed roads.

Shortcomings with AWD

  • Granted, AWD enhances power distribution to the ground, but acceleration constitutes only one-third of the driving equation. In snowy conditions, AWD offers minimal assistance in turning and negligible benefits for stopping.
  • It’s a common pitfall for individuals to become overly confident in snowy conditions solely because they have an all-wheel-drive vehicle. However, the reality is that, in many instances, the right tires matter far more than having an AWD system.

How effective are Winter Tires in Snow Driving?

While all-season tires are meant to serve a variety of purposes, winter or snow tires are tailor-made for freezing temperatures. 

  • Treads with increased depth crafted to guide snow and inhibit buildup.
  • Distinctive tread designs ensure efficient dispersal of water, slush, and snow.
  • Unlike all-season tires, prone to stiffening in cold weather, snow tires employ specially-formulated rubber, maintaining flexibility even in subzero conditions.

Essentially, winter tires establish a superior connection with the road during adverse weather, significantly enhancing available grip. Whether your car directs power to the front or rear wheels, the improved traction afforded by winter tires is noteworthy, boasting a 25-50% enhancement over all-season counterparts.

While all-wheel drive crossovers might find themselves lodged in hedges or crashing through storefronts, your vehicle equipped with winter tires keeps moving forward. Crucially, the benefits of winter tires extend beyond aiding mobility in deep snow and freezing weather—they also contribute to steering and stopping once your vehicle is in motion.

In moments of panic on slippery or snowy roads, where slamming on the brakes is a common reaction, winter tires shine. 

2WD Winter Tires vs AWD All-Season Tires: Head-to-Head Comparison 

Jonathan Benson from Tyre Reviews conducted a precise comparison to settle the debate. Two Mini Countryman S models took center stage, with one featuring Mini’s on-demand AWD system. The AWD variant was equipped with UK-spec Goodyear Vector 4Season Gen 3 all-season tires, while its front-wheel-drive (FWD) counterpart sported Goodyear UltraGrip Performance+ snow tires.

The extensive tests included acceleration trials on both flat surfaces and hills, braking assessments, and a handling test on a snow-covered road course. The results are revealing:

  • Acceleration Tests

The AWD-equipped Mini with all-season tires demonstrated a noteworthy advantage in acceleration tests—whether pulling away on level ground or tackling a hill start.

  • Snow-Covered Braking Test

The FWD Mini with winter tires showcased the pivotal role of grip, achieving an impressive car-length shorter braking distance. This can be critical in emergency braking situations.

  • Handling Course

While the all-wheel-drive vehicle spent less time exiting corners due to all four wheels converting traction into acceleration, its braking and turn-in performance lagged. In contrast, the 2WD vehicle exhibited superior control and predictable grip while navigating corners.

Winter Tires vs All-Wheel drive: What do you really need? 

In assessing the winter road dilemma, two critical elements take precedence: traction and grip. 

You want high traction when you’re accelerating on slick roads, and all wheel drive or 4WD work brilliantly in this case. 

Yet, an unsettling reality emerges — how many accidents occur not due to a lack of speed but when halting or maneuvering? Grip, paramount in stopping and turning, becomes the true essence of winter driving.

This is where winter tires come into their own. Both Consumer Reports and True Reviews have unequivocally affirmed that winter tires provide optimal grip and assurance for acceleration, deceleration, and cornering during extreme snow conditions. All-wheel drive, on the other hand, offers no advantage when you’re not on the throttle.

In fact, winter tires significantly enhance braking (up to 25%) and collision avoidance (by approximately 38%) compared to all-season radials. The extra cost of winter tires becomes justifiable when weighed against the substantial premium associated with all-wheel drive.

Do I need winter tires for my AWD vehicle?

It’s a valid concern for anyone with an AWD or 4WD (4X4) vehicle.

While all-season tires suffice for general year-round driving, their efficacy diminishes notably in cold and icy conditions. Even top-tier AWD or 4WD systems struggle when faced with the traction limitations posed by worn or unsuitable tires for snowy, icy, or extremely cold conditions.

The installation of winter tires significantly enhances vehicle control, proving beneficial irrespective of the drive system. In a braking test, Consumers Report found that an AWD CRV equipped with all-season tires required almost twice the stopping distance compared to the same vehicle fitted with winter tires.

Exceptions exist; if you encounter minimal snow infrequently and benefit from regular plowing, your reliable AWD vehicle may suffice. However, in regions where snow is more common and road conditions pose risks, investing in snow tires becomes the safest choice, though it is an additional expense.

Notably, these tires, used for eight months annually, extend their lifespan. Moreover, having a dedicated set of winter tires allows you to swap in more grippy summer tires during warmer months, rendering the compromise of “all-season” tires.

As winter approaches, prioritize safety on the roads. Drive safe, everyone!

Also Check out: Best Cars in the Snow


Are All-Season Tires Suitable for Snow Driving?

All-season tires, a staple on numerous vehicles, are crafted to handle diverse road conditions, offering proficient performance on both wet and dry surfaces, and even in light snow. Yet, owing to their broad adaptability, they might fall short in delivering exceptional handling and traction on slippery roads and in the rigors of extreme winter conditions.

Can Snow Tires Be Used Year-Round?

No, snow tires are not suitable for year-round use. The softer rubber in snow tires wears out quickly in warm temperatures, leading to decreased performance and handling. While changing tires might seem inconvenient, it is crucial to avoid keeping snow tires on during seasons with milder weather.

Is 4WD the Same as AWD?

No, 4WD and AWD serve different purposes. While both offer additional traction, 4WD is optimized for off-road scenarios, not just wet road conditions. If off-roading isn’t on your agenda, AWD is likely sufficient. A key distinction lies in how power is distributed: 4WD allocates power equally to all wheels, while AWD adjusts power based on traction.

What Sets Winter Tires Apart from All-Season Tires?

Winter tires differ from all-season tires in key aspects. They feature softer rubber for enhanced grip on snow, sipes for added traction, and deeper treads to prevent snow buildup. Unique tread patterns efficiently channel water, slush, and snow.