Why Winter Tires Trump All-Wheel Drive

The next time you’re driving in the snow (or you’re visiting somewhere it snows), have a look at the vehicles you see in the ditch: Odds are a lot of them have all-wheel drive. What’s behind this perverse outcome for people who expected their car to get them where they wanted to go in sloppy conditions? It’s probably their tires.

See Also: 9 Winter Car Maintenance Tips

No doubt, all-wheel drive helps you accelerate more quickly when traction is scarce. “But really, you should be considering your ability to stop and corner in snow,” says Gene Petersen, who oversees tire testing for Consumer Reports. And all-wheel drive does nothing to help with that. Yes, antilock brakes and stability control (standard in all cars since 2012) can be useful at keeping you on the road, but only up to a point.

“A lot of people think these devices manufacture traction,” says Woody Rogers, a product specialist at online vendor Tire Rack. “But they just make the most of the traction that you have.”

The solution–whether your car is all-, rear- or front-wheel drive–is to get more traction with dedicated winter tires. That’s right, an entirely different set of tires (ideally mounted on their own wheels) for use only in the cold season. Winter tires boast special rubber compounds that are more flexible in cold weather (to help grip ice) and have more edges in their treads that help the tire both cut into and stick to snow.

An analogy for the skeptical: You wouldn’t hesitate to put on different shoes when it’s slippery out, right? So don’t expect the all-season wear-forevers your car came with to do a good job in the snow. Yes, you can (and should!) slow down when the white stuff is out, but ah, that’s when all-wheel drive can tempt you to keep your foot in it. Watch me zoom up this hill, just like in the car ads!

Slip sliding. To make the case more directly, Tire Rack recently set up a demonstration on the ice rink at Notre Dame University in South Bend, Ind. On the same ice where the Fighting Irish hockey team faces off in the Big 10 conference, a clutch of automotive journalists got to test two identical, all-wheel-drive Toyota RAV4s–one with the all-season tires that come standard, another with a set of winter tires. When the countdown light turned green, we drag-raced them down the ice for a whopping 60 feet, then slammed on the brakes.

Because they were timing us, we got competitive (of course). But the numbers we put up were just for lunchtime boasting. The collective data showed that the Toyota with winter tires accelerated somewhat better than the one with all-seasons, but when stopping, the benefits were far more remarkable.

Back on the ice, but with Tire Rack’s test drivers behind the wheel, we took laps around a small course defined by cones, first at 9 miles per hour, and then again at 11. At 9 mph, both vehicles did fine. At 11 mph (that’s 22% faster), the RAV4 with all-season tires plowed right through the cones and off the imaginary road. The stability control didn’t stand a chance, and there was nothing our pro at the wheel could do. If that cone line had been oncoming traffic or a guardrail, well, it would have been a bad scene for sure.

Post time: Oct-30-2019