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'05 Subaru Traction PROBLEMS

We own a 2005 Subaru Outback with a 5 speed manual currently running Nokian Winter Studded tires. This is the 2nd Outback we’ve owned in the past couple years. I’ve spent my life driving in Michigan and Colorado winters, never have I felt so uncomfortable as the past two winters in our Outback.

Currently I was driving out of town on a day when the roads were plowed but the night before it had snowed a few inches. At 35 mph with a car full of friends the car was completely out of control as we were driving on a straight flat stretch of road, if I touched the gas the car the car fish tailed worse, if I down shifted the car continued to fish tail, as I stayed off the gas realizing that it was safest to just get to the side of the road and slow down considering there were cars oncoming and behind.

Out of curiosity we walked out onto the road when traffic had cleared expecting to slip and fall on what seemed like an ice rink, but the road was really pretty dry, there was a little ice in the drivers side wheel path worn from studs but really not conditions I would have guessed could be so sketchy. As we sat there contemplating our next move, all sorts of cars and trucks drove by just fine.

Side Note: This same experience happened last winter in Idaho coming home from Colorado, the car was all over the place, couldn’t go over 20 mph and we were being passed by minivans, semi’s and buicks. (No offense to anyone who owns any of those)

My gut feeling is that all of these electronically controlled traction devices such as VDC and AWD are applying too much something, to the wrong wheels. Why would a car that should be so great in the snow leave me with no confidence what so ever driving in the winter???

Subarus are capable of providing more power to the rear wheels than other awd systems which as CR points out can be disconcerting as rear wheel bias is “foreign” to most of us. I don’t know if the 2005 model had stability control or if it did, was not up to the task s the newer models are. My older Subaru exhibited similar performance which could be made more extreme when loaded. This made for better traction in some situations but a little scary when the rear broke loose.

Secondly, if the tires are not rotated properly and there is a significant difference in wear, it could exacerbate the problem. Newer models with MORE electronic aid should work better.
Also, if your tires are studded and THEY are worn unequally, that could account for a huge difference in traction on different wheels. I would replace tires with stud-less winter tires and rotate them fastidiously.

Have your alignment checked.

My 1997 Outback was amazing in Colorado winters. A couple of things to check:

Age and remaining tire tread
wheel balance
Center, front and rear differentials
Traction controls


How many miles (and/or winters) on those Nokians?

The only time I’ve ever had traction problems with my Subaru was when the tires were worn. And I’m talking about Nokian winter tires. Mine still look good, but they are worn to the point they don’t work well in snow or slush anymore.

Ice? Forget about it.

Traction is a function of tires, regardless of drive train configuration.

that’s exactly what I feel like, the car is rear wheel favorable. Interesting you mentioned having the car loaded, we had 4 bicycles on the back and 4 bicycle racers in the car plus gear which certainly was an additional 600 lbs over the back wheels in variable ice covered roads. My vehicle is Toyota T-100 so I’m used to driving in RWD when I don’t feel like 4wd is required but this car is making that choice for me when I just need it to track straight down the road! I just had the studded tires put on for the season, they have maybe 5000 miles on them and Les Schwab said they looked to be in great condition. I’ll have them rotated again but it’s not in the budget to go stud-less. Thanks!

The tires are around 5000 miles old. Les Schwab just reinstalled them and said they looked great. If they aren’t good on ice I’m having a hard time seeing the point in owning them. I’ve spent my driving career without studded tires but in an effort to give my wife security on ice covered roads it seemed like a good investment, so far I’m not convinced.

You say the drivetrain configuration doesn’t matter but when you need to drive in a straight line while you hold the pedal to maintain speed and all the backend wants to do is break loose sending you spinning, that seems like more than just tires?

Driving on snow and ice? Slow the &*$% down!!! It is a car, not a Ski-Doo!!!

The tires shouldn’t be worn out at only 5K miles. It must be something else. All that weight in the rear may have been a factor, but I’ve driven my Subaru fully loaded and not had any problems. An Outback with 4 winter tires should be a trooper in the snow.

Studs don’t help except on ice, however, and can reduce traction at other times. I’ve never been a fan of studs.

How’s the alignment?

And who races bicycles in the snow?

NO &*$&!!! I’m not talking about speeding, I’m talking 25-35 mph on a highway with clear roads.

and they had already thrown gravel down!

Cyclocross racing takes place in mud, snow, rain… youtube it.

Gravel + hard metal studs = damn near no grip.

Add that to the rear wheel bias, and the fact that you’re putting over 1/4 ton on the back wheels, and I’m not terribly surprised you’re experiencing snap oversteer. That condition is usually limited to rear/mid engined RWD cars, but with all the stuff you’ve added to the mix, you’ve pulled it off in a Subaru. When the rear end starts to kick out, all that weight you loaded the car down with contributes to the inertia of the spin, making it very hard to recover from.

If you can’t afford to get normal tires, then unscrew the studs from the Nokians.

I’m amazed they’re legal in your state. Here in MN if they catch you with studded tires they flog you. It tears up the road.

Your Outback with a Manual transmission has a 50/50 split front to rear ALL the time.
There is no adding more to the front or rear wheels, like in the automatic cars.

The problems are the studded tires.
Remove them, and install top quality winter tires.
The tread pattern and the rubber compounds are going to bit into the road surface better than a tire with studs in it to get you the winter traction you need, without risking the issue you just experienced due to the studs.


I’ve heard of cyclocross. Perfect sport for Oregon.

How was the Outback BEFORE you installed the studded tires? Have you ever driven it in winter without these tires?

I had one set of studded winter tires, and never again. This was a RWD car and the traction on dry roads with the studded tires was awful. Part of my problem was the studs didn’t wear down at the same rate as the rubber in the tread. The traction was never great on dry roads, but got worse as I put miles on the tires.

I tryed to get the studs removed but that was going to cost about as much as new tires. Perhaps you can remove the studs yourself, or find a shop to do it at a reasonable cost. I wore the tires down and never again bought studded tires.

My vote is the studs are either the problem, or a large part of the problem. I have Nokian winter tires without studs and they are excellent.

The manual I had, had about 60/40 bias to the rear with a torsen mechanical open center differential capable of as much as 90/10 in either direction. If if were 50/50 all the time, they could have used a truck transfer case without an open differential which couldn’t be driven on dry pavement.

The problems encountered with less than new Subarus, is that the transition is made too quickly and with little warning. Compounding the problem was the LSD used in the rear of some which good in snow and mud, could lock up, break away and cause sudden traction loss in the rear on ice. OK if you’re ready if it were rwd all the time, but the change over can be disconcerting.

I think it’s all…car, weight distribution and tires. BTW, studded tires when studs are fairly new can be treacherous on dry roads, which may be where much of the traction difference takes place. The newer tract control helps; CR says Subaru’s system till 2010 was not up to the task and they were down graded for emergency handling because of it.

it corners like a dream in the winter but try and drive a straight line and it walks all over the place. I’ll see if I can have the studs removed. Thanks for the help.

As mentioned before; have you had the alignment check both front and rear ?

I have had something that I believe is a similar problem with my '04 Subaru Forester. When I am driving in sand or deep mud the car puts too much power to the back wheels and the car slips around and won’t get traction. However I have never had this issue in snowy or icy conditions, the all wheel drive works perfectly for me in winter driving. The solution I have found is to just let up on the gas and hit it again I believe this re distributes power and keeps the front wheels moving. (Feel free to voice any alternate theories on why this works if you don’t think it is doing what I think it does).

I have not had time to look into it much but it sounds like there is a front wheel drive fuse under the hood for dyno runs or running on a doughnut. I would love to have a switch to force it into front wheel drive for those times that I just need to spin my wheels to get through something. But it is unclear to me if this would damage the car somehow.

One thing you may want to look into is the tire rotation sensors, if one of them is out of spec or damaged it could be confusing the computer as to when to engage the rear wheels causing something like what you are seeing.