AWD v. 4WD for ice and snow

Alright everybody! I have a 2004 Toyota 4runner 2 wheel drive. I love it. I currently live in Georgia, where the most ice and snow we get is MAYBE one day a year. (this year it was 2). I am moving slightly further North, to the mountains of North Carolina and need good advice about driving in the ice and snow. I already know that my 4runner isn’t going to cut it, I was fishtailing all over the place the few times I have tried.

I already know that come next late fall I will be trading this one in for something else and I know that it should be front wheel drive, awd or 4wd. (The 4runner I have now is rear-wheel).
The house that I am moving to is at the to of a steep road that is paved. SO the first problem this upcoming winter will be getting out of the driveway and then back up at night. I need an SUV or crossover type vehicle because I have two large dogs that travel with me.
So, Question 1: 4WD or AWD, taking into consideration the pretty steep hill I will be traversing 4 days a week.
If I have an AWD or 4WD do I still need winter tires? chains? Manual or automatic? Does that even matter?

If you have a 4wd and its not in active 4wd, is it rear wheel or front wheel drive? Does that matter?


We have been Honda CRV fans since 1999…had 2 of those, 2 2002’s, 2 2005’s and currently 1 2006. All of ours were realtime 4WD…front wheel drive only until they started to spin and then, seamlessly, they become 4WD. My 2005 was put to the test one snowy Vermont morning when I had to come to a complete stop with at least 12" of snow on the road half way up an incline when a Chevy 2WD was spinning it’s way (unsuccessfully) up this hill. I wondered as I sat and waited as the truck spun and swerved whether I’d be in the same fix. Once the truck stopped and waiting vehicles had to try the hill, I was very pleased to find the CRV didn’t spin a bit (from what I could tell) and took me safely home. We always used winter tires to be extra safe. Never once an accident!!

I have a 2004 4Runner and I live on an ice and snow covered road the entire winter. Now, there are times when I need 4 wd but when there is just packed snow, I don’t fish tail at all for two reasons. One, I keep extra weight in the back and two; I have winter tires. If you do decide you need 4 wd or Awd, which is better on roads, and you don’t get winter tires, in the mountains, you will be hurting. 4wd does help you accelerate but you will over drive your all season tire traction and cornering and stopping at higher speeds will be dangerous. People in the south get snow so infrequently, when they do, they face it with really poor tires. At the very least, get all terrain tires if you get Awd or 4 wd. These tires (AT) are an excellent compromise for people in the south who don’t want to spend extra money on winter tires.

Truck based part time 4wd cannot be used on pavement which puts you at a disadvantage when driving in conditions that are variable. Awd is always engaged and automatically adjust for the situation. Unless you go off road or tow really heavy weights, car based Awd vehicles will serve well. Fwd is poor going up steep hills in slippery going compared to Awd with winter tires or AT tires.

It’s hard to me to give my opinion on what you need without a better idea of the terrain and the road conditions, so I’ll just throw out a few random thoughts. Unless you’re driving on completely unmaintained roads with heavy snow, you don’t need 4WD over AWD. If you want a very capable vehicle, AWD with good winter tires should give you that. However, it’s possible that you’d be fine with FWD and good winter tires instead, which would save you some money. Perhaps you could check with some people who live in that area now to see which choice is more popular. You’ll note that I suggested winter tires in either case. I think that’s the prudent choice for now until you’ve spent a few winters there to see if you can get away with all-season tires. Keep in mind that winter tires help you not only to go but also to stop and turn, which are equally important. I doubt that you want to mess with chains (except for an extreme emergency); they’re a real pain to put on and take off.

You don’t need 4WD. AWD with good winter tires will be fine. And you don’t need tire chains.

I would also recommend the Honda CRV. Just to clarify a comment above, the CRV is a real-time “AWD” not “4WD” system. There is a difference.

Well I’d listen to @dagosa He drives daily on roads that angels would fear to drive on. I’m not sure how much bad weather they get in NC but I’d be in favor of an AWD that seems to be better for general road use. You can start with the all season tires but then be prepared to get four winter tires if they don’t work. Got a feeling they will though.

My only issues with AWD still remain though, outside of the mileage and extra maintenance, I’m just concerned about how you recover from a skid in one if you start to slide. I’m actually looking at trading for an AWD RDX myself to try on my own.

Most Awd systems are morphing into similar approaches. Real time is an advertising name for a system that operates similar to other’s including Toyotas torque management system. They are just names and they are all competent. The electronics that manage the Awd systems, regardless of the approaches yield just subtle but distinct differences. But for sure, Subarus and Awd with front facing motors have the distinct advantages.

The advantage of truck based 4wd is really no advantage any more as there are lots of SUVs and trucks that offer both 4wd and Awd in different combinations. For example, many Toyota and other Awd car based systems offer a locking switch that gives you 4wd lock of 50/50 front and rear torque distribution for really tough going though still not for off road as they stil Have no low range. The upper level 4Runner is Awd with a lock making it essentially 4 wd for off road with a low range and real deep snow and awd over the road. So, if you look, you can have vehicles with Awd, 4wd hi and low range and there is no need to have to “choose”. If you tow much or drive off road, you appreciate low range and a locking center differential.

The locking switch is not forund on the CRV but is found on the Pilot and Ridgeline. This is a big advantage for tough going in deep snow and climbing really icey hills. So IMHO, I would recommend a RAV and others that have this capability over a CRV in compact SUVs for that reason alone. For all round performance on roads, the best Awd system for the money is still the Subaru IMHO. But, if you have money to burn, there are lots of vehicles that give you all the advantages of both 4wd and Awd in one vehicle.

Winter tires are designed for cold weather, not just snow and ice. They use a special rubber that stays soft even at freezing temperatures. Mud & Snow or All Terrain tires have deep tread and lots of edges that give good traction on slick roads, but they don’t use the special rubber of a winter tire. The problem with using winter tires in places that don’t have a lot of cold weather is that they wear out faster and their performance is worse at higher temperatures (too soft.)

So which is right for you? The manuacturers recommend winter tires if you regularly drive in temperatures below 40 degrees in the winter. I don’t know the area you’re moving to, but most of the South isn’t cold enough to require winter tires. If you’ll be well up in the mountains you could benefit from them. If it is sometimes that cold and sometimes not, you’ll just have to decide.

If you get winter tires you may only need them for a few months every year. Still could be worth it. You may want to see what your new neighbors do. Many people who buy them also buy a cheap set of steel.wheels to mount them on so it’s easier to switch twice a year.

I can’t imagine though, owning an Awd car or a 4wd for several days of winter weather. I can’t imagine buying winter tires either. My preference would be to own an older second or third vehicle like an older 4 wd truck with aggressive All Terrain tires or old Geo Tracker that I used for trash and run maybe once a week and those several days a year I really needed it. My brother in law does that in Georgia while having a dedicated truck for wild pig hunting.

Thanks for all your comments. I agree that I probably don’t need a full on 4wd, I just want to be as safe as possible and didnt know if a 4wd would provide that or not. The mountain (at least to me it is) that I live on is pretty steep, 40-45 degrees (?) or so and I am worried about getting up and down in winter. It is still snowing in NC, if that gives anyone an indication of the weather, though not near as bad as the Vermontians, I am sure!
My current 4runner has an LSD :slight_smile: button (limited slip differential) that is supposed to help, but it doesnt seem to do much good as far as I can tell. The current tires are all-terrain, but a few years old at this point. The main roads in the area are well serviced as far as I can tell.
The neighbors (at the bottom of the road) that I met the other day went so far to say that I would be camping at their house come winter because I wouldnt be able to get up. That is NOT my idea of a good time. Neither is leaving my car at the bottom and hiking up in 5 degree weather…
I had thought about getting another vehicle along with the 4runner, especially since I have to haul my trash to a convenience center, but I dont know that an old beatum up truck would serve me better even if its 4wd bc it would still be so light in the back end…
I have looked at the CRV, but I really like the mazda cx-5, it has an AWD version… I don’t think I am granola enough for a Subaru…
From the few people I have talked to, alot of them DO seem to get winter tires, so I think I will def do that, but if I make a bad car/suv choice, the best winter tires in the world aren’t going to help…

Thanks for all your thoughts and keep em coming!

I wouldn’t worry that much about the particulars of awd vs 4wd or different designs. True 4wd is necessary mainly for off road use where one or more tires have no traction at all. Then a good 4wd system can feed torque to the wheels with grip. On a road, especially a paved one, an awd system can work well. Subaru likes to make a point of their cars being true 4wd. That’s because they do drive all four wheels all the time. Most awd cars operate as fwd (sometimes rwd) most of the time for better gas mileage and simplicity. Subarus do have a reputation for fussiness in the awd components. For instance, they require that all four tires be essentially identical.

There is nothing wrong with the CX5. It’s a very nice crossover with a typical modern awd system. Sure, you could buy a truck-based system like an X-Terra or FJ Cruiser and get better ground clearance and a low gear for off-road use and whatnot but odds are you wouldn’t use it often unless that driveway really is 45 degrees (it isn’t - it just looks that way. I live in San Francisco and see some steep drives, but they are more like 20 degrees. Even that’s pretty rough.

45 degrees is where we start getting down on our hands and knees and climbing. :wink: A rwd 4 Runner in 2wd is poorly weighted. 500 lbs in the back would make a world of difference. It’s only a little better then a pick up truck with little weight in the back. Having said that, if most of your driving is on road, Awd is fine. Subarus are excellent cars over all, even if you don’t like granola.

An AWD crossover like the CX-5 should meet your needs just fine, combined with a set of snow tires you should be able to tackle the hill and other snowy conditions. My brother keeps a set of winter tires on his Subaru and it makes it through the winter and over the mountain pass where other vehicles have trouble.

I would…
Make sure that in hilly terrain, you get an Awd with a diffrential lock switch. There are times when just sifting torque around isn’t enough and with fwd bias systems, which most are, you find your self spinning your front wheels in snow going up hill leaving you with no steerage.

If you don’t deactivate the traction control, the power is shut down and your car may not even make it up a steep hill. When you do deactivate it to allow power to all wheels, the spinning front wheels make you loose steerage. The solution is, a locking center diffential option. That’s why truck based systems work so well in sever conditions. They have no differntial often and everything is locked when 4 wd is engaged. Not good for on road higher speed travel but, It’s really comforting to know you have that option in slow tough going. Toyota and Honda have the feature on some, not all, models but I don’t know about Mazda. It’s worth the price of admission IMO, and I would not live in a mountainous area without one.

Yes,45 degrees is a 100% grade no way you are near that steep 20% is bad in bad weather,when you have a good Nor’easter on a steep driveway you are going to walk(unless you have a snowcat or snowmobile,get something with good tires and four wheel drive and a little ground clearence( a beater F-150 maybe a good choice for the winter months,my Uncle had one tht would go in the 30+inches of snow in the mid nineties(but they kept putting weight in the back till it would go) and I watched a guy in a 2wd S-10 go through snow it was pushing(he had the back loaded down with so much wood it was ludicrious and remember all snow is not the same and ice is a different beast-Kevin

I’ve been driving for over 45 years on winter roads without AWD or 4WD. The critical elements are winter tires with GOOD tread, good driving habits, and boatloads of common sense.

HOWEVER, sleep is underrated. If it helps you sleep better, I’d suggest AWD. With winter tires with GOOD tread, good driving habits, and boatloads of common sense.

Yup, I repeated myself. You can get away without 4WD/AWD, but the other three are absolutely essential.

I drove half my driving life without 4wd. I was also much younger and could literally push a car where I wanted it to go when I played college football and for many years after. But I am older with fewer capabilities and more responsibilities.

“You can get away without 4wd” if you restrict what you do, where you live and work and when you can take bad days off. 4 wd has become prevalent enough to opened opportunities to live and work in places and times we just used to avoid. I choose to do the things I did because I had 4 wd cars and trucks. I live an active life, like my neighbor and wife who are doctors and have patients that depend on their care. Like my daughter too who is a home therapist whose patients don’t always live on plowed roads and depend on her care. We all have good common sense. Sometimes though there are some who “can’t get away without 4wd” and do what we do. 4wd gives us freedom that snow tires alone cannot. We use 4wd year round and people who don’t will just never understand the security and freedom it provides.

Last year, my son’s wife was having her second child with a toddler at home. It was snowing out but we still happily jumped in our awd, snow tire clad 4Runner and travelled 290 miles, much of it during a snow storm we would never have attempted otherwise to watch the little one for several days while my son worked and attended to his wife. That’s 4wd freedom. It doesn’t work for everyone or needs to. But for some people and at some times, it’s the only way to travel and it cannot be replaced by snow tires alone, 2 wd alone, or even common sense alone.

Because, common sense sometimes says you need 4wd. I n times where privacy is valued and security is required, living in a place where 4 wd is necessary, actually provides both. People who live just a few miles away, just don’t get it; until they try it themselves. It’s really a better way to live when you make the road less traveled, your only way to travel.

And you may not need winter tires if you’re in the half of the country that gets little or no snow or freezing temperatures. The Car Talk participants seem to live mainly in the Northeast and Northern Midwest. Whenever I read that winter tires are essential, I look out at trees blooming in January in a place where there has been no snow in 30 years (a fraction of an inch then.) So filter this kind of advice through your own weather and you may find winter tires would be totally inappropriate for where you live.

The 2014 Rav4 with AWD runs good on hills in snow and on ice. Our town is all hills and snow with ice. You never have to shift like the 02 GMC Sierra I traded away. The Rav is all wheel drive all the time. Shutting off stability control and locking the center differential helps if the traction is really bad. I haven’t done either this winter. You may want to get a truck with plow if the driveway is long and winding.

Thanks everyone. You are right, Im sure the road is not 45 degrees, just feels like it when you are heading up! I am also in the medical field, and not going to work on bad days is not an option. I will probably end up taking advice from all of ya’ll next fall/winter. AWD with snow tires, and possibly a beater truck with 4wd and weight on the back. What about a 4wd Jeep or something? Can they handle the ice and snow or are they just pretty to look at? My ex-husband had an old CJ-7 with big tires, a winch(sp?) etc… In icey conditions if all else fails, I could use a winch to just pull myself up from tree to tree??? If it is really as bad as my neighbors seem to think it may be, I will probably move…