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Is AWD and/or 4WD SAFER in snow or ice

Lately we have had several threads that have had different opinions expressed about the safety of AWD and/or FWD in snow and ice.

I an interested in both the opinions and any read data on the subject, but did not want to hijack another thread so her it is:

My opinions on the subject

* Most important factors for safety on snow or ice in order of importance:

1. Driver skills and attitude.

No over confidence and a willingness to not make the trip in bad weather.

2. Winter tyres (Not all season)

3. Anti-lock brakes

4. Stabilization control

5. AWD - 4WD to the extent that the driver does not get over confident and find themselves in conditions they should have avoided.

AWD and 4WD do IMO have a safety advantage in their ability to get through when other cars can not and may be able to exit a ditch or other problem when the situation arises.

I have seen and been very impressed with independenty test (Consumer Reports) of stability control.

I have not seen any independent for AWD or 4WD and how they might behave under typical snow and ice conditions on the typical road.

Please add your information and or opinions and in particular real data.


When I read the topic, I put together a list of what’s important, in what order. It matches your list. I never felt ‘safer’ in my 4wd Jeep than in my FWD VW in Anchorage in snow or ice. Studded tires on both. I would put FWD ahead of RWD. My Jeep in RWD+studded tires was much more likely to lose traction than the VW+studded tires.

Thanks Joe…we’ve been beating this dead horse indirectly, it’s about time we dedicated a post.
Opinions will very, but here is my take

  1. It’s all about location, location, location
  2. It’s about conditions we face,
  3. It’s about experience with have with all the vehicles and their state of preparedness.
  4. It’s about state of mind and what we are willing to accept for inconvenience over security.

That’s why we will never fully agree. My definition of winter driving is different than others, because mine includes hills, corners on hills and having to drive in bad weather w/o the luxury of staying home and having to deal with slippery conditions on a mountain in central Maine for 6 months out of the year.
Secondly, if you haven’t lived with a vehicle for a length of time, I feel you are unqualified to make an opinion as fact about it unless to just restate someone else that has.

I fully agree with your list, but feel that AWD/4wd should not be lumped together as, for example, 4 wd is better for deep snow,and awd on packed snow and ice and both can get you INTO trouble at the blink of an eye w/o attention, experience and proper tires.
The other area of disagreement is the order of the list. There are times when function is better w/o traction control and abs. In general though, stability control and abs I would have to rate very high as it’s an all year round safety feature and I take winter tires for granted (I always use them in winter).
W/O boringly stating my winter driving experience and ALL the vehicles I’ve dealt with, lets just say I feel confident in my opinion on this matter.

Let’s also just say…If I were a penny pincher living in town and had good judgement, I felt good for 20 years with a Chevy Prism with studded snows and a 2wd truck with winter tires and 500 lbs of tube sand in back.
For Ultimate driver safety for the average lug, on most maintained roads, I’ll take VDCdriver’s Subaru set up. For conditions I face with “must travel” deep snow,ice, hills and I must get to the plow vehicles before the roads are plowed. I’ll take my 04 4Runner with awd/4wd/2wd, lock/unlock, trac/stability control, up and down hill ascent control,low range awd, winch set up fromt and rear, studded snows and 300 lbs of tube sand in back.
So, it’s all perspective. All I know is when ever I had to travel in winter in 25 years of refereeing and there was an impending storm…my fellow refs all wanted me to take the travel with my then snow tire equipped Subaru, with it’s rare at the time AWD.
I felt they all exercised good judgment.
Finally, I trust CR’s opinion on the matter. They are right on but don’t get into the nitty gritty of any test they perform on awd/4wd/2wd.
Thanks again Joe…I’ll be there for you to pull you out of the ditch.

Well stated, Dagosa.

And, I appreciate your endorsement of my choice of vehicle and equipment for winter driving. You are correct that I rarely go off-road. If I did, I would prefer your 4Runner and all of its features to my AWD Outback with winter tires, traction control, ABS, and vehicle stability control.

How good is a Subaru ? I had to use my wife’s old 96 when we had one, to sand the road over ice conditions so bad, my neighbors truck with front and rear locks and chains on all 4 wheels could even move and finish the job…then everyone else could go…getting the road ready for the sand truck.
When new people move into our area, the husbands have trucks, the wives ask our opinion for her car. Our response is always the same. Get a Subaru equipped like yours.

Anyone interested in seeing how an AWD Subaru fares in comparison with other vehicles w/o AWD should take a look at:

Even though the video’s captions and narration are in German, it can easily be deduced that the AWD Subarus were being compared with a FWD Ford Mondeo (European version of Ford Contour), a FWD VW equipped with traction control, and a RWD 500-series Mercedes with traction control and vehicle stability control.

The tests were done on a very wet concrete surface, and it is interesting to see not just how the Subaru has superior traction for acceleration, but also how a little 4 cylinder Legacy was able to pull the big, heavy Merc backwards as the Merc quickly lost traction in their tug-of-war.

The unknown quantity in this comparison is the tires with which each car was equipped, but despite this variable, it is clear that the Subaru had traction far superior to all of the other vehicles. When you maintain traction (and if you drive in a safe, rational manner), you are MUCH less likely to wind up in a ditch.

FWD drag racing shows loss of control with fwd spin…the fallacy of fwd being so good in snow,

Plus dry handling comparison

It was posted earlier that neither 4wd, AWD or even ABS increases the coefficient of friction and friction is what it is all about, a thread about what system handles available friction best is of great value.

Most of my experience is with deep snow on logging roads I found 33" or better tires chained all the way around with manual hubs and part time 4wd (with manual selection of high and low range) worked best. These conditions are a little different than a icy Chicago city street.

I use the “stay at home approach” when ever possible or at least stay where I am until the plow goes through. This was my technique in the Milwaukee area.

Stop comparing Subaru AWD with 2WD. The real comparison is with other supposedly AWD vehicles.


The question was if you read the OP “Is awd/4wd safer on ice and snow”. It’s fair to illustrate how distinct the handling advantages are of any awd car . Some people thing it’s slight over 2wd…I and others who own them think it’s dramatic. These posts are appropriate to show that dramatic difference in traction is. For the money VDCdriver and I just think Subaru is one of the best.
Do you drive an awd car in the winter with snow tires ? If you do, I respect your difference of opinion.

The three most important factors are:

  1. tires
  2. tires
  3. tires


Neither Is Safer In Snow Or Ice. I Think They Are Both Potentially More Dangerous.

Driver First
A good driver who is familiar with whatever vehicle he or she is operating is a major key to safety, well beyond any debate over how many wheels are driving. “Too fast for conditions” for whatever the vehicle (4WD, AWD, FWD, RWD, Tracks, Levitation, etcetera), is what is unsafe. Speed laws and posted speeds allow drivers to travel at the posted speed as a maximum, as long as conditions permit. As I have stated before, I don’t have a problem with the number of drive wheels I have in adverse conditions, but usually it’s the poor visiblity, poor braking, and steering loss.

Tires Next
Although I do just fine at my level of driving skill with just All-Season tyres, I will concede that Winter tyres would be better. I just have no need for them.

Drive Wheels, color, style, center of gravity, wheelbase, wheel track, etc., Last
These items have little significance in terms of safety, except I will concede that more drive wheels translates to better acceleration on snow and ice. However, that translates into more accidents because the driver does not sense poor traction conditions as well and when traction is lost during steering and braking, loss of control is the result. I think this is why we have so many 4WD, AWD, SUV accidents where I live and explains why drivers of these vehicles are more likely to pass me when conditions don’t allow the speed at which these vehicles are traveling.

That’s why as stated in my original post…we will never agree. It’s all about your perspective .

I will always maintain that everything else being equal, awd is VASTLY superior to 2wd (even to car color) if you drive within the limitations of your tires. Do you even drive one in snow routinely in the winter ?

This debate would be better served if people stated their own winter driving experience with the vehicles being debated…BEFORE giving an opinion.
Again, I can’t debate a friend about how his catamaran handles in varying wind conditions, if I don’t routinely sail one myself. Fortunately I do, so I can pretend to be a “know it all” with a little more conviction.

Do I Even Drive One What In Snow Routinely In The Winter?

I will always maintain that everything else being equal, awd is VASTLY superior to 2wd (even to car color) if you drive within the limitations of your tires. Do you even drive one in snow routinely in the winter ?

My wife and I each drive approximately 25,000 miles/year, above the 45th parallel, with the standard 6 months of winter driving conditions, 200+ inches/year snowfall, ice, slush, freezing rain, occasional blizzrd conditons, etcetera. Our conditions are not the worst and not the best of conditons. We don’t have the luxury of staying home either and always leave in the morning before the plows are out. The joke here is that one wishes that summer falls on a week-end. We both operate large FWD cars with all-season tyres. My car has ABS, but I don’t care for it.

My wife and I do just fine with our cars and have been driving this routine in excess of 25 years. Neither of us needs anything “vastly superior” or even a little superior. We have no problems to resolve with our driving. It would be a nice luxury to have modern winter tyres, but to me, not necessary in any way and not worth the hassle of purchasing, mounting, storing, etcetera. I have been there, done that. We have seven cars in our immediate family and just trying to keep up with regular tyres, batteries, oil changes, brakes, etcetera, is enough.

I agree with your comment, “That’s why as stated in my original post…we will never agree. It’s all about your perspective.” I don’t think we need to agree.

By the way, I sail, too (Monohull day sailers. I sold my cat), own a dirt bike and road motorcycle and I held an active private pilot license at one time.

I’ve only ever driven FWD vehicles in wintertime, never took the Chevelle out in the stuff. Understeer is a normal thing for me, and I think I’ve kind of managed to figure out how to control it

“By the way, I sail, too (Monohull day sailers. I sold my cat), own a dirt bike and road motorcycle and I held an active private pilot license at one time.”

If I’d known you were a fellow sailor, I would have said; “trust your judgment implicitly”. Own and race a JY15 around NE, and race a Lightning and Dart 18 (kills my shoulder) cat locally in our local Yacht Club. Crew on J35 when I feel like getting sick. Used to ride Norton 750 (that tells my age) before marriage ultimatum drove me to 4 wheels.
Our club is “filled” with pilots too. Those/(you ?) guys are crazy, cat/ice boat sailing, motor cycle riding speed “freaks” too.

If I’d known you were a fellow sailor

I wonder how many of the regulars are sailors? My brother had a Star class and I have also sailed on a Hooby(sp) cat a lightning and another slightly smaller one design class. I own my own Windtech boat, but it is 26 foot long and about 14 inches wide 31 pounds with two oars.

Would Cartalk mind if we started a sailing discussion ? Tell me about the Windtech…I never met a boat I didn’t like . “Small craft warnings” my wife says means to me ; “warning, get out there and sail before the wind dies”.

I found your list interesting.

Driving environment and needs, driver experience and technique, attitude, tires, and specific design of the vehicle itself all go into determining how important AWD or 4WD are to safety.

Speaking from personal experience, I strongly believe that for anyone who learned to drive before ABS the systems weaknesses can outweigh the system’s benefits. To say the system is overrated would be overly generous.

I’ve never driven stab control, so I’ll recuse myself from that one.

I agree with the advantage mentioned regarding AWD/4WD on poor roads. Many has been the time when I’ve driven in snowstorms on crowded roads where everyone was stop-N-go and frankly, stopping and going over and over on icy inclines is where these systems shine their best. And these are not situations we get ourselves into, these are situations over which we are put into by the circumstances.

Not exactly my boat, but they look the same.

And keeping on topic, I can't row it when the river is iced over so I can't compare it to AWD or 4WD, it is just 2 oars The 4 oars and not allowed out on the ice either.  However if I had to choose one and just had to go out on a day with ice, I would chose a 4 oar or 8 oar boat. They would be less unsafe under those conditions.