Is AWD (All-Wheel Drive) a Necessity for Winters in the Northeast?

A winter drive through the Catskill State Park of Upstate New York

To save you some time – and money – the short answer is NOPE! But, you might need snow tires. There are pros and cons to each type of vehicle, and after living through winters with both a front-wheel drive sedan (equipped with snow tires), and now an all-wheel drive SUV (equipped with all-season tires), I think I have a pretty good grasp on the major differences. If you are in the market for a new car and weighing the decision between options – keep reading!

First Things First – What is ‘All-Wheel Drive’?

Most cars come with a basic setup that only powers 2 of the car’s wheels – either the two front, or the two rear. Most passenger cars these days power the front wheels, while most trucks and sports cars power the rear wheels. Out of these two, cars that power the front wheels typically offer better control in bad weather.

Front-Wheel DrivePowers two front wheels. More control then Rear-Wheel Drive, Less control than AWD
Rear-Wheel DriveMostly for pickup trucks and sports cars and some large SUVS. Better for towing/hauling, less control in bad weather
Four-Wheel DriveMostly for off-roading and severe inclement weather. Adds cost and hurts fuel economy. Requires manual activation
All-Wheel DriveSends power to up to all four wheels at a time, determined and controlled by a computer.

A common misconception is that all-wheel drive (AWD) and 4-wheel Drive (4WD) are the same thing. They are actually quite different setups – for the most part, 4WD is for off-roading situations, while AWD is primarily intended to assist with driving on the road when conditions get gnarly. Think of it like putting on a set of rain boots or snow shoes to quickly get through something, and then going back to your regular footwear.

Most cars that have AWD will be equipped with a butt-load of sensors and computer systems to quickly predict or react to changing road conditions and send the power to where its needed most. In most cases, you won’t have to switch any buttons or levers, or even know that the change is happening – you will just quickly get through!

For most consumers, the major choice will be between FWD or AWD, as RWD and 4WD are niche products. While you may see different auto manufacturers refer to their AWD systems differently (such as Volkswagen’s 4Motion, Mercedes’ 4Matic, BMW’s xDrive or Mazda’s iActive-Sense), they all pretty much operate in the same way. And then there’s Subaru, where every car and SUV offered (aside from its sports coupe) comes equipped with their “Symetrical AWD” system.

What are ‘Snow Tires’?

Snow tires are tires specifically made to perform better in cold, snowy and icy conditions. They are actually made of a different type of rubber that doesn’t get hard in the colder temperatures. They will often have a more rugged tread pattern as well, which helps to dig your car out of snow, as well as send the accumulated snow away from the tires so that they don’t become overloaded with snow build-up. Most cars come equipped from the factory with ‘all-season’ tires, which aren’t nearly as capable in the winter.

Image courtesy of https://www.lesschwab.com/, a top provider of tires and auto parts

Snow tires help to not only accelerate the vehicle, but also to maintain traction when stopping and turning. While adding snow tires is not alway a necessity, it will always improve the safety of your winter driving. However, they do have a few drawbacks to consider when weighing your decision:

  • Cost – Snow tires can be around $500-$1000+ for a set
  • Storage – you’ll need a place to keep them during the summer months
  • Mounting/Balancing – snow tires will have to be mounted and balanced on your car’s wheels each winter season. Another option is to purchase a second set of wheels that you leave the snow tires on year round – that way, you can switch out the entire set.

The Two Sensible Options

Out of the various combinations available to you, we are going to narrow it down to the two most common configurations:

  • All Wheel Drive car or SUV equipped with all-season tires
  • Front Wheel Drive car or SUV equipped with snow tires

In reality, you will be just fine with either setup, so long as you know its benefits and limitations. Lets take a closer look at some of the pros and cons of each system to better understand the major differences.

All-Wheel Drive

Pros

  • Better acceleration from a stop in wet or snowy conditions
  • Ability to move through deeper snow or muddy conditions
  • Peace of mind
  • AWD typically comes with more ground clearance

Cons

  • Typically adds $1000-$2500 in cost to vehicle
  • Can reduce gas mileage
  • Requires additional maintenance due to more moving parts
  • Can instill “false confidence”

The last con is especially important to note – a lot of people believe that AWD can be like a winter super-power – but in reality, it does not aid with turning or stopping in winter conditions. When you are not accelerating, the car will most likely be powered with just two wheels.

Front Wheel Drive + Winter Tires

This is a fairly common setup for those looking to endure the winter months, without having to opt for a more expensive vehicle.

Pros

  • Lower cost to purchase vehicle
  • Less maintenance down the road
  • Better gas mileage when not using snow tires (warm months)
  • Improved handling when turning and stopping in snowy or icy conditions

Cons

  • Requires switching tires and or rims yearly
  • Requires storage during warmer months
  • Still has risk of getting stuck in snow
  • Typically lower ground clearance, meaning you can’t get through deeper snow
  • Increased road noise when driving on pavement

My Experience and Preference

I’ve had the ability to test and experience both of the above configurations over the last four winters in upstate New York (after relocating from Florida). Below, I’ll break down my experience with both to help you better make your own decision.

Front Wheel Drive + Snow Tires

Front-wheel drive Mazda6 equipped with snow tires on 17-inch rims

Car: Mazda6 Sedan

MSRP: $24,000-$35,000

Snow Tires: Bridgestone Blizzak

Setup: 2nd Set of rims + snow tires purchased second hand for $400

During my first two winters in Upstate New York, I drove the sedan pictured above. And – I got just by fine, aside from a few times where I got into some deep snow. Because the car was so low to the ground, it would get stuck if the snow got above about 5 inches deep. Luckily, when living in all but the most remote locations, this amount of snow would rarely accumulate on roads.

However, if you spent more time on backroads, long driveways, or private property, this could become problematic for you. Overall, I got stuck (requiring digging or creative driving) about 5 times during the two years of ownership. Aside from those instances, I rarely had any issues with surviving the winter.

However, there is no way that this car would have been suitable with the ‘All-Season’ tires that came from the factory. Those tires were low profile – I made the mistake of driving on snowy roads with them one time – and ended up in a ditch just inches from scraping the guardrails. I went home and put the snow tires on right after that.

In addition, because of the cars’ lower center of gravity, it did handle quite well even when road conditions were poor. The added benefit of the snow tires was increased traction during turns and braking compared to the AWD setup. Once moving, I rarely felt any sliding or loss of control.

One of the days where lack of ground clearance kept me from leaving the house in the Mazda6

However, it wasn’t all easy and seamless (aside from the handful of times getting temporarily stuck). As noted above, I had to switch the tires and rims out every year, which required setting aside an hour or two for manual labor (or taking to a dealer). Then, I needed to make sure that I had storage for the unused set of wheels and tires – so make sure that you have the room you need. But, during the non-winter months, I did get very good gas mileage – usually averaging 30-35 mpg in mixed driving.

All-Wheel Drive + All Season Tires

All-Wheel Drive SUV equipped with factory tires

Car: Mazda CX5 SUV

MSRP: $27,000 – $40,000

Tires: ContiPro Contact All Seasons

After two seasons with the front-wheel drive sedan, a particularly large snowstorm early in the season left me stranded at home until the snow packed down enough to drive out. It was a frustrating morning, and that was the day that I decided to switch to an SUV with All-Wheel Drive. Perhaps it was the thought of having to switch out the tires again, or wanting a little more freedom through the winters. I went with a Mazda CX5 SUV, which came equipped with a fairly intelligent AWD System (a $1,300 option) and all-season tires from the factory. One thing that helps the all-season tires here vs. the low-profile ones on the sedan is that they have a deeper tread.

Over the last two snowy seasons, the number of times that I have gotten stuck (or prevented from leaving somewhere) has gone down to 0 (from about 5 times in the sedan). In addition to that, there were times in the sedan where I did not get fully stuck, but it did take a few extra minutes to wiggle and inch my way out, requiring a lot of gas and steering input, and a few curse words. In the AWD SUV, those similar situations just require a mash of the throttle and some steering – and I’ve gotten right through it. After the first snowy season, I later found out that you can hit the ‘TCS OFF’ Button (turns traction control off), which will temporarily lock the differential so that you get a simulated “AWD Lock” – this can help propel you out of particularly tricky situations, or help you get up an icy hill without any initial wheelslip or need to ‘gun it’.

CX5 SUV Equipped with AWD heading down a road lightly covered with snow

Because the AWD system doesn’t help with stopping or turning, I went out driving during a particularly snowy and icy day to test the handling limits in a large parking lot. Impressively, the car stopped and turned with confidence, and I was able to learn how to predict its capabilities. I recommend doing this with any car that you have, regardless of the setup.

Outside of snowy conditions, the AWD setup can help in wet and slippery conditions, such as when cornering or accelerating.

The downside to the added convenience of the AWD system is the added cost – on top of the $1,300 at the time of purchase, I spend more money on gas throughout the year. With the SUV, I average about 7 mpg less throughout the year, which, when driving 20,000 miles/year, results in about $400 more spent on fuel. And, at some point, the rear differential (the system that drives the rear wheels when needed) will eventually require servicing. So, even when accounting for the added cost of snow tires with a front wheel drive car, the AWD car will always come out as slightly more expensive in the long run when accounting for reduced gas mileage and added maintenance.

Conclusion

In conclusion, which setup works best for your needs comes down to personal preference and budget. With either a front-wheel drive and snow tire equipped car, or an AWD car or SUV, you will survive the northeast winters just fine. If you want the ultimate combination of safety, confidence and winter performance, add snow tires to an all-wheel drive car or SUV, and you will be as prepared as you can be for the snowiest of days.

Remember – always learn the limits of your car and its winter setup prior to venturing into bad weather driving. With practice, patience and awareness, you can become a safe winter driver in whichever car you choose to drive.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: