Vehicle drive type and winter driving

Four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or front-wheel drive. Which is best for winter driving?
Four-wheel drive, all-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, or front-wheel drive. Which is best for winter driving?

Every year, just about the time that the snow flies across the northern latitudes, the issue of vehicle capability and drive type comes into focus. Those who spent their last winter season(s) hypertensive behind the wheel begin to worry and ponder possible solutions. Dealership salespeople stand by eager to answer the call for help with vehicles featuring the latest and greatest traction solutions. And on TV, vehicle manufacturers attempt to guide beleaguered winter drivers toward said dealerships with the implication that vehicle drive type – particularly four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive – will help cure winter’s driving woes. 

“For winter driving safety and security you want four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive.”

It’s a message that’s been repeated and promoted so routinely that it’s practically a wintertime driving doctrine.

So is it true? Is vehicle drive type really the key to wintertime driving traction and vehicle performance?

Let’s demystify this often misunderstood topic, and get you equipped to make informed decisions about your vehicle, and how to best deal with the wintertime driving challenge.

Understanding vehicle drive types

Don’t worry, this isn’t going to be a dissertation on the various drive systems, and for the purposes of understanding the connection between vehicle drive type and wintertime traction, a PhD in engineering is definitely not required.

Nevertheless, the basics should be understood.

Four-wheel drive (4WD, 4x4): The fundamental characteristic of this drive system is engine power being sent to all four wheels. Depending on the system design, this occurs with driver selection (a lever or button to engage), or automatically.

There are numerous four-wheel drive systems on the market. Jeep alone has eleven systems across their current vehicle lineup.

All-wheel drive (AWD): There are very few technical differences between many modern all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive systems. Like with 4WD, the fundamental characteristic of AWD is the potential for engine power being sent to all four wheels.

Historically, all-wheel drive systems like Audi’s Quattro have been engineered with slippery on-road conditions as the priority. Four-wheel drive systems are more geared toward off-road conditions and performance.

Rear-wheel drive (RWD): Power is sent only to the rear axle/rear wheel(s) of the vehicle. Under no circumstances is engine power also distributed to the front wheels.

Front-wheel drive (FWD): Power is sent only to the front axle/front wheel(s) of the vehicle. Under no circumstances is engine power also distributed to the rear wheels.

Now that you have a grip on the differences between the systems, forget about them for a second. Time for a forest for the trees moment.

So much time is spent drawing distinctions between these systems that the common theme is sometimes entirely overlooked. That common theme is: Drive.

All of these drive systems move the vehicle forward. This is a crucially important point for the purposes of understanding a drive system’s influence on wintertime driving because it defines both the advantages and limitations.

In slippery winter road conditions and certainly in deep snow, 4WD and AWD systems provide an advantage getting and keeping the vehicle in motion. Drive being sent to both axles and all four wheels helps the vehicle overcome the physical resistance of snow, or heavy wintry precipitation buildup on roadways. RWD and FWD vehicles are at a comparative disadvantage in these circumstances. To put it in terms of a human body analogy, if you’re trying to push a heavy object on a slippery floor, you’re at an advantage with both legs pushing as compared to just one.

Driving through wintry road conditions is definitely a part of the winter driving experience, which includes compact snow, fresh snow and ice. In these environments, 4WD and AWD systems can help power the vehicle through these conditions. Whereas a FWD or RWD vehicle may find itself in trouble.

Most experienced winter drivers put a heavy emphasis on braking performance on slick winter roads. Does drive type have any influence on vehicle braking performance? None whatsoever. None of these systems play a role when you stomp on the brakes.

How about turning/cornering performance? Does drive type significantly improve the ability of the vehicle to turn on wintry roads in response to the driver’s inputs? In certain cornering/turning situations, especially when the vehicle is moving slowly or just starting out, 4WD and AWD will assist in keep the vehicle tracking “on line” (according to the driver’s steering angle/input). But in general, the cornering performance of vehicles on slippery winter roads is not significantly advantaged by drive type. No matter the drive type, all modern vehicles are equipped with traction control systems. These systems have more of an influence on vehicle cornering control than drive type.

So if drive type isn’t really the key to overall winter driving control and safety, what is?

The most significant winter performance advantage for any vehicle, regardless of drive type, is winter tires.

In fact, all vehicle drive types and modern traction control systems require sufficient traction at the road surface to function properly. If tires are mismatched to the road conditions, there isn’t a drive type or traction control system in the world that can overcome the tire traction deficiency.

Winter tires are the only specialized, specifically-engineered solution to all winter’s driving challenges. That means snow of course, but also ice, slush, freezing wet winter roads, subzero dry winter roads, and everything in between. Acceleration (drive), cornering, and braking performance are all determined by tire traction. If you want your vehicle to capably stand up to winter’s driving challenges, proper tires are a must.

In summary

Vehicle drive type is relevant to the wintertime driving/traction discussion insofar as certain drive types confer advantages in select winter conditions. But the winter driving discussion should not be centralized around vehicle drive type. Drive type is definitely not the primary determiner of winter driving control, safety, and security.

Whatever your vehicle and drive type, make sure you’re equipped with a set of winter tires. Consistent tire traction will exponentially improve the overall performance of any vehicle through the season and beyond.

See our Top Ten Reasons You Need Winter Tires for more information.

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