Best of Deals Car Reviews Repair Shops Cars A-Z Radio Show

AWD without stability control?

I live in Montana and commute 37 miles each way over a mountain pass. The road is plowed but not salted (we do not salt in Montana) so there is a layer of packed snow and ice on the road for 6 months out of the year. I currently drive a 99 Jetta and it’s a harrowing commute, so I’m looking to upgrade to something most likely with AWD. (I’ve been holding out because my husband has a big 4x4 pickup, so I was the one with the small, fuel efficient car.) Everyone I work with says ‘get a Subaru,’ and I test drove an '08 Forrester today which I am considering buying. However, this trim model does not have electronic traction control or electronic stability control – only the higher end models do which are out of my price range. My question is, how important are these things and why would Subaru make some models without them? I thought all newer cars had to come with them for safety reasons. The dealer said 'oh you don’t need ESC if you have all wheel drive, in fact it would be a hindrance," but if that is the case why would Subarus make some models with it? I just want to make the best choice based on both value and safety, and do think my icy commute is just what stability control is for.
Many thanks for the help!

Cars are now required to have stability control, you’re right about that. But you’re looking at a 9 year old car. A lot has changed in 9 years. Look at it this way, what kind of laptop and cell phone did you have in 2008? How would those compare to the ones you have now?

That 08 Subaru will be leaps and bounds better in the snow than the 99 Jetta. I think it will be good enough for your needs. You’ve driven this far without stability and traction control, right?

You are using top-notch winter tires, not all-season tires, correct? That’s more important than traction and stability control.


They are helpful, but not deal breakers. An AWD Subaru with winter tires should be exceptional in the the snow. Subaru didn’t include them on the basic models because 1. It costs money to implement, 2. It wasn’t required by law at that point 3. It makes the higher trim levels more desirable.

It didn’t become completely mandatory until 2012.

It’s true that AWD with a good set of appropriate tires and no stability control will beat 2WD with meh tires and stability control, and stability control can be a hindrance if it’s tied to the traction control system in certain situations ( like if you’re stuck and you want to try to rock the car out, or if you want to invoke wheelspin on a slippery surface), but overall it’s generally something that it’s more advantageous to have than not have.

Because it’s desirable feature.

On an icy commute where you’re likely not going too fast around turns, It’s going to be of limited value vs. AWD and winter tires. Stability Control can’t change the laws of physics. If you hit an icy spot at 60 MPH, stability control isn’t going to save you.


I couldn’t agree more. I drove a GTI for 12 years in Anchorage, and had no more problems than I did in our Cherokee.

@sara.tatnall - what tires do you use on your Jetta? How old are they (miles)?

You can’t fool Mother Nature… but you can confuse her for a second or 2! :wink:

I agree that stability control isn’t a do-all-save-all but it can do things a driver just cannot do. Like apply the brakes to just ONE tire to turn the car away from a skid. It can also keep the car more stable so it hits the front bumper rather than the drivers door.

4 winter tires, AWD and stability/traction control would give all the tools for a good driver to conquer nearly any snowy condition until the snow was too deep to proceed… in the order of importance, IMHO.

BTW, there were a bunch of academic papers written while stability control was being developed debating Follow the driver’s commands vs Place the car into a stable, survivable, position. I.e. a front impact instead of a side impact. There comes a decision point where the stability control must choose one or the other.

Same ethics dilemmas that are being discussed with autonomous cars. Does it save the occupants in the car or half dozen nuns that are crossing the street?

Thanks everyone for the advice. I agree that my Jetta has been doing the job, and with new Blizzaks I could keep at it, but the car needs a lot of other fixes so it’s time to move on. Plus, everyone I know is ‘concerned about my safety.’ @lion9car @texases I have Michelin X-Ice tires but they do need to be replaced – this is my 4th season on them. I’ve been waiting until I have a new car to go with my new tires. :slight_smile:

Sounds like the AWD will be a big step up from my current setup, so I will go with that!

Good, you’re on top of the tire issue. And I have no problem when it’s time to move on. I would be concerned about an old Forester, though. They do have issues with their head gasket, and can have problems with the AWD system if the prior owner(s) weren’t careful about keeping matched tires on it. We have a 2007, it’s been fine, but we’ve owned it since 2009.

Make sure you get good winter tires for it, they’re just as necessary with AWD. And make sure you have the Forester checked out by a Subaru specialist before you buy, they should know what to look for.

Good luck!

NYou still have abs. These other safety devices are worth the money IMO, but if you don’t have the money, it still may be worth buying the car. The basics for safety are good tires and good driving habits. Most safety divices are needed when you don’t follow the basics of…good tires and good driving habits.

Th AWD in older Subarus is still an outstanding system to get you going. Still, I don’t recommend buying old Subarus. After the lifetime of 120k of the original owners, the four is prone to problems.

I would look for a used RAV if the the features are important to you. . They WILL have stability control in all models back to 2005 plus AWD. Toyota was one of the first companies to make the safety features standard in all their SUVs.

I’ve been grappling with this very question. My daughter wants a used Forester for her first car, and I’ve been resisting. Stability control wasn’t common before the 2009 redesign. Since she hails from Denver and attends college in Seattle, her driving will include plenty of rainy and snowy conditions. The protective parent in me just doesn’t want to see her go without this feature, which is in both the VWs she’s grown up with. Both have seasonal sets of winter tires and one is AWD, but still it’s not uncommon to experience the stability control and/or traction control systems at work.

The winter capabilities of Subarus may have been exaggerated. While researching at, I learned about the frightening phenomenon of “ghostwalking.” Within a 130-page discussion on the topic, half the owners of '05-09 Outbacks who participated in a poll said their car had done it. When loaded with four passengers and gear and driven on ice, these Outbacks produce oscillating rear-wheel steering effects that cause the rear end to step sideways, without any steering, throttle or brake inputs. It sounds like trailer sway, without a trailer! Owners believe that the rear suspension changes toe alignment when loaded, and when the rear limited-slip differential finds uneven traction on icy roads, power shifts between the toed-in wheels and steers the rear axle from side to side. These cars do not have stability controls that might stop this problem.

The pre-'09 Forester is too small for my daughters semi-annual relocation trips ahyhow, so I’m advising her to wait and save for a bigger, safer '09 Subaru, or newer. Or to buy a VW, since they had the feature at least six years earlier.

Funny you mention Seattle and Denver. How times have changed. Back in 1987 I was a college kid in Seattle and my best friend was from Denver. The car he drove back and forth home to school, in all kinds of weather, was a '67 Mustang. Manual drum brakes, vague-feeling power assist steering, and dim sealed beam headlights. No one worried about whether the car was safe enough, it had to be because that’s what he had. If a little Mustang coupe was big enough for the twice a year relocation I’d imagine a Forester would be too.

I was lucky enough to have a '77 Olds Cutlass for my trips from Seattle back home to LA. I wasn’t without parental concern though. My dad told me I’d better figure out how to put chains on the car in case they were required.

This is beside the original point, but I too learned to drive in a '65 Mustang. And the car I set out to relocate myself from Tennessee in '78, honored by my screen name, was so rare and obscure that I had to instruct mechanics on how to work on it. Those were the days! I wish she could have all the scandalous fun I had in the Sixties and Seventies, minus the risks.

Today, it’s a different time. More safety features are available, so I feel obligated to make sure my one and only has them. Especially when she planned to drive two fellow students – somebody else’s precious kids – back with her after Christmas break. I want her to have company and driving relief on this 24-hour drive, and when they travel home at the end of the school year, the car has to carry two or three students worth of clothing, instruments and other possessions.

I was looking for a Passat Wagon, which is fully two feet longer than a Forester and does feature ESP, Volkswagen’s stability programing. Oh, and she wants AWD so she won’t have to chain up when it’s snowy. That works out to a strenuous list of uses and capabilities for a $5000 car, so we’ve mutually decided to wait a few months and watch the market.

1 Like

OK everyone, this is kind of a right turn but the Forrester sold while I was debating the merits of stability control and I am now considering a Suzuki SX4 Crossover with AWD. My budget is 10k, and preferably around 8, and you just can’t get a Subaru, AWD Honda, or AWD Toyota that is less than ten years old and/or has less than 100,000 miles for that price in Montana, especially not Bozeman. After the Forrester sold, I drove a 2012 SX4 and loved it. It handled great on snow and ice, was way more fun to drive than the Subaru, gets the gas mileage if my Jetta, and has only 50k miles with a pricetag of 7k. (I talked them down from 8.) I didn’t commit though, because I know Suzuki doesn’t make cars anymore and I talked to the local parts store who said that they don’t carry any Suzuki parts, they have to order them all in which takes a few days. I also want to drive this car for a long time, and I worry parts will be much harder to come by in 3-5 plus years. Anyone have thoughts on buying a Suzuki? I looked for a thread on it here and didn’t see one. Thanks!

You just answered your question.

Finally! Someone who thinks about practicality BEFORE pretty!!
Good for you. I was raised to look down the road; who will work on it, who carries parts, is it an established name,…
When I was 17-18 years old, Subaru (maybe, I have slept since then) had a commercial running on network TV (which is all we had) with a cool looking car. When I said I wanted one, dad just said “And who will work on it?” He was died in the wool Detroit, and we have no foreign mechanics in the area.

I agree it might be a little difficult to get parts for the Suzuki, however it won’t be impossible. They still make cars, although they have been out of the US market for several years. The SX4 is a real Suzuki that was made in Japan, not one of the Daewoo models they also sold during the same time period. I would think almost all of the parts would be special order, which might mean it would take an extra day to have them shipped. I would make sure they have 2 sets of keys, it might be difficult to have a duplicate one made. There does appear to be a dealership in Billings that still performs Suzuki factory authorized service.

Maybe a SAAB would be a better choice? Their parts availability is still pretty good, I hear.

The car referenced in my name was an orphan, one of less than a thousand that maker sold in the US. Keeping it running for nine years was quite an absorbing project, a fascinating hobby, but no sure thing. Not for the faint-hearted. Suzuki had a bigger presence, so it would be easier. But the resale value of these cars will drop faster than a Subaru, making the total cost ownership cost no better. The SX4 was an attractive design, but its short wheelbase won’t help its stability. Does it have stability control?

My advice to you is to find a 2009 Subaru, or an equivalent VW Tiguan, with stability control. In Denver, those start around $10,000, or about $1500 less if you can find one outside the Mountain states. Denver dealers tell me that this is the brand’s highest-resale market in the US, just as Subaru maintains some of the highest resale values nationally.

I know I am late to the conversation but the way Subaru implements stability control I think would be a hindrance in your situation. Its fun in my 14 Legacy because it brakes the inside front wheel as you enter a turn to kick the backend out. Not sure that would be as much fun on ice though. Drifting on ice kinda makes your heart beat a little faster. Fortunately it can be turned off.

We only get two or three days of snow or ice on average down here so I don’t have winter tires. Once I found myself in a parking lot with the rear wheels on ice, the fronts on pavement and the Legacy didn’t want to move, the rear tires just spun. This is my first AWD car so all my instincts to move the car didn’t work. Turns out you have to do the stupid thing which is to gun it enough to get the viscous coupling to lock up. Going easy doesn’t work.

I had a 66 Dodge wagon once that was a lot better on ice than the Subaru. It only had a limited slip differential, but it didn’t get stuck.

I have had several Suzuki products including a Sidekick, outboard, lawnmower engine, generator motor…
Every one of these proved to be a problem finding parts for and this was ultimately the reason all were discarded. IMO, I would avoid a Suzuki.