AWD isn’t enough: why you need winter tires

Whether it’s Audi’s famed Quattro or Acura’s Super Handling All-Wheel Drive, many motorists rely on these types of all-wheel drive (AWD) systems to keep them safe when driving in snow and ice. This is largely because car manufacturers tout all-wheel drive as the end-all be-all winter weather defeater—but the truth is that AWD is only marginally helpful when you’re driving in the snow.

Manufacturers want you to believe otherwise so that you tick that AWD option box for a few extra thousand dollars when you buy a car. Don’t tell the auto manufacturers that I told you, but the truth is that you only need AWD in the most extreme winter weather—like driving up an unplowed mountain road during a blizzard. And even then, you won’t get much benefit from AWD unless you’re using tires designed for winter use. Which brings us to today’s topic: why tires are far more important to winter weather performance than AWD.

We’ll go over why that is in just a minute, but first I want to dispel what is perhaps the largest and certainly the most dangerous myth in the automotive world today: that you need AWD to stay safe on snowy roads.

Why AWD isn’t as important as you think

Before we really dive into this discussion, you should know the difference between AWD, four-wheel drive, and two-wheel drive. Check out our article on the various drive types to learn more about them.

With that out of the way, let’s look at why AWD is not really all it’s purported to be. AWD systems supposedly help you on snowy roads because they use the friction of all four tires, rather than just two, making them superior to 2WD cars. That’s true if both cars are equipped with the same tires.

Where the rubber meets the road…

However, if you put winter tires on the RWD car and leave the all-seasons on the AWD car, there’s almost no benefit to powering all four wheels; the 2WD car will outperform the AWD car in every relevant metric, like handling and braking (because tires are more important than drive type). That’s because when you’re trying to brake or turn, AWD systems don’t help you; they only help you when you accelerate.

So if you need to make a sharp adjustment to avoid an obstacle or potential accident, the car with winter tires will perform better and thus be safer than the AWD car with all-seasons. The actual tire design is far more important than how many wheels your car can power.

In summary, AWD isn’t really that important. That’s because it only helps you when you accelerate from a stop—which is actually unsafe, as gaining speed quickly isn’t a good idea in winter conditions. What’s more important, however, is that no one seems to understand this; people drive AWD cars with all-season tires as though they’re properly equipped to tackle winter conditions, when actually they’re not. So, what’s the solution, you ask? WINTER TIRES!

Why tires are more important than drive type

Now that we can (hopefully) agree that AWD isn’t as important as many people think, let’s talk about what is important: your tires.

The single most important thing you can do to tackle winter conditions is put a proper winter/snow tire on your car. That’s because, as I’ve said before, your tires are the only point of contact between you and the surface you’re driving on. So your car only performs as well as your tires.

image credit: vikingmotors.ca

Manufacturers design winter tires with a different rubber compound and a different tread pattern compared to all-season tires, and they’re both optimized for maximum traction on snowy roads as well as dry roads in cold weather. Additionally, winter tires are more helpful when you’re driving in the snow: you’ll accelerate better, you’ll brake better, and you’ll turn better.

A real-world comparison

In contrast to winter tires, AWD only helps you accelerate, which is the least important of those three performance categories. I’ll sum up this argument with a bit of anecdotal experience:

I had AWD and all-season tires on my previous car—and it was OK at best on snowy roads—but I was routinely disappointed in its ability to come to a stop and turn effectively.

My current car, in contrast, is RWD but is equipped with winter tires, and I was extremely impressed with how it handled the most recent snowstorm (it was much better than my last AWD car with all-seasons). I could brake far more effectively, and turn steadily and confidently as long as I was traveling at a reasonable speed. So if you’re not quite on board with me yet, try a proper set of winter tires and experience the difference for yourself!

Final thoughts

If you want maximum safety in wintery road conditions, don’t just rely on your car’s AWD system: it won’t save you. Get a proper set of winter tires, and save the all-seasons for spring, summer, and fall where they are perfectly suitable for most people’s needs.

It can be a hassle to swap tires every season, and it’s more expensive than running all-seasons year-round, but if safety is at the top of your priority list it’s the right thing to do.

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