Who Needs Snow Tires?

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Anyone who lives and drives in a region where average winter temperatures result in snow and ice on the roads should seriously consider snow tires. This applies to all drivetrains— even All-Wheel Drive (AWD) and Four-Wheel Drive (4WD), and especially Front-Wheel Drive (FWD) and Rear-Wheel Drive (RWD).

Many drivers don’t realize that a car’s drivetrain (AWD, 4WD, FWD or RWD) doesn’t affect how quickly a car brakes. That’s the job of your tires. Snow tires are designed specifically for handling slush, ice, and harsh winter driving. In fact, in one Consumer Reports braking test, the testers found that snow tires stopped a vehicle more than 300 feet earlier in winter conditions than all-season tires did.

Is All-Wheel Drive Good Enough?

By splitting the engine’s power among all four wheels evenly or by sending different amounts of torque to the wheels that need it, AWD and 4WD vehicles provide better traction on slippery roads than FWD or RWD cars. However, “winter-ready” AWD and 4WD vehicles can’t help you stop any quicker in snowy conditions. For that, you really need snow tires. Despite the name, the all-season tires on your AWD/4WD truck or SUV are good for all four seasons only in climates where winter doesn’t include much snow.

Should I Sell My Front-Wheel-Drive Car for an All-Wheel-Drive Car?

FWD vehicles send engine power exclusively to the front wheels. While FWD without snow tires won’t provide as much traction as AWD or 4WD with snow tires, a FWD car equipped with snow tires can handle wintry conditions better than you may think. The reason? The engine, transmission, and other major mechanical components in a FWD vehicle are positioned on top of the front powered wheels, providing extra weight that—in combination with snow tires—can significantly improve traction.

In fact, a FWD sedan with snow tires can stop more quickly on wintry roads than an AWD or 4WD vehicle without snow tires, and may accelerate better too, depending on the conditions.

Is My Rear-Wheel Drive Car Safe in the Snow?

With RWD, engine power is sent to the rear wheels of the car, and weight is distributed throughout the vehicle. The result is improved maneuverability in dry conditions, since these cars are balanced, with power and steering being handled by two different sets of wheels. While this makes for a fun driving experience (most race cars use RWD systems), you’re much more likely to fishtail or lose control of your vehicle in on snowy roads in a RWD vehicle, especially with summer or all-season tires.

The Bottom Line

If you live and drive in a climate where snow and ice are common during the winter, snow tires will dramatically improve how your vehicle performs on wintry roads. AWD and 4WD vehicles are great, but won’t perform as well as you’d expect in snow without winter tires. A FWD vehicle with snow tires can also serve you well in the winter. If a RWD vehicle is your primary mode of transportation, consider finding a different car for winter driving. If that’s not possible, at least invest in high-quality snow tires. As an additional step to improve traction in a RWD car, you can add sandbags or other weights to the back of the vehicle—but that’s still no replacement for a winter-tire-equipped AWD, 4WD or FWD vehicle.

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