Why You Absolutely Need Winter Tires, Even If You Have All-Wheel Drive

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Why You Absolutely Need Winter Tires, Even If You Have All-Wheel Drive

Like many of you, I wasn’t always a believer in the magic of winter tires.

Short of a conspiracy theory by tire companies, I couldn’t imagine a scenario where a seasonal set of tires would do the job an all-wheel drive system couldn’t. Of course, I was much younger then, and much less sensible. Yet I hear that same excuse — that power to more wheels means you don’t need winter tires — from people much older than me, not to mention far wiser. But it took all of five minutes behind the wheel of a car equipped with winter tires all those years ago to see the error of my ways, and now it’s your turn. And yes, that includes you four-wheel drive truck and SUV owners — having all-wheel drive does not make you invincible in the snow. Believing that it does is a huge misconception, and it has to stop.

The basic rule of thumb is that if the temperature stays below about 45°F (7°C) where you live or drive during the winter months, then you should be making the switch to winter tires. And that’s no conspiracy theory; that’s science. Remember, they’re winter tires, not snow tires. Even if there isn’t any snow on the ground, the softer rubber compound used in winter tires has a lower freezing point, allowing them to remain pliable when the mercury plunges. That, in conjunction with special tread patterns and numerous crevices, called sipes, that work to pull water from wet and icy surfaces, allows winter tires to provides grip that their all-season adversaries simply can’t.

ALSO SEE: 5 Tips When Making The Switch to Winter Tires

Remember, we’re talking grip here, not traction. Those words are often used interchangeably, and while they are fundamentally the same, they are two very different — and very important — aspects of winter driving. Because traction describes the limit of friction between a vehicle’s drive wheels and the surface of the road. Reach that limit and the wheels will spin, triggering the intervention of the traction control system, which will automatically pump the brakes to counteract the slippage. Grip, meanwhile, is the level of adhesion to the road surface, and it’s crucial even to wheels that aren’t receiving power. It’s also how a vehicle can slow itself to a halt, something all-wheel drive does nothing to enhance. And it’s the combination of both that gives winter tires their insurmountable edge over all-wheel drive.

Ford Focus RS Snow Tires

And for those money misers out there who are worried about the additional cost of an extra set of tires, don’t forget that running two sets of tires throughout the year will prolong the lives of both by reducing wear. If you still can’t justify the cost, you’ve officially placed a dollar value on the safety of yourself and others.

All-wheel drive is great when it comes to traversing snow-covered roads, but the misconception about its superiority in winter weather should end there. If you can figure out how all-wheel drive can slow a vehicle down any quicker on slippery roads then put it in a bottle and start selling it to the masses. But if you can’t then suck it up and head to your local tire shop. It’s for your own good.

  • Freudian

    Dan: I agree with you. Every winter, you see people off the road in poor conditions. Quite often, most of the vehicles are SUVs and/or AWD vehicles such as Subaru. I drive an AWD vehicle and I always run higher end Winter tires as soon as it gets consistently under 10C.
    Regarding your closing statement, “If you can figure out how all-wheel drive can slow a vehicle down any quicker then put it in a bottle and start selling it to the masses.”, I’m not an engineer, but I think it may be possible that an AWD vehicle can slow down slightly faster than a single drive-axle vehicle. The fact that both front and rear axles are connected to the transmission would lead me to believe that if you were to let off on the gas, all four wheels are being slowed down by the transmission, just as a single axle would. Now you have two axles doing this.

    My vehicle has a DSG transmission. When I am coming to a stop using the brakes, the transmission is also helping to slow me down as it gears down. A manual (as I’m more accustomed to) would also do this. I think it’s called engine braking using the compression of the cylinders which is translated into the transmission and to the drive wheels.

    So if you have four wheels being slowed by the driveline instead of two, an AWD vehicle should slow down slightly faster than a FWD or RWD vehicle, assuming they both had the same basic specifications and tires with the only difference being that one has AWD.

    My apologies if I’ve someone misused some technical terminology.

    Please hit me back with your thoughts on that idea.

  • IGoZoom

    Excellent article! I recently saw a comparison test between a Subaru Impreza (which is AWD and had all-season tires) and a Mazda3 with snow tires. AWD made the Subaru easier to get moving from a stop, but in all other areas the snow tires (with FWD) fared better. Changing direction (turning) and braking were both greatly improved by snow tires.

    I’m thankful that winter driving isn’t a worry for me, living in Atlanta. But my best friend moved to Pittsburgh last year and he had a rude awakening. His FWD SUV with all-season tires was a nightmare in the snow. He traded it for a Ford Fusion AWD (again, with all-season tires) and he is confident that is all he needs. He may be in for a nasty surprise as winter weather continues to pound Western PA for months. At least the Fusion has a great crash rating, so there’s that. But I have strongly encouraged him to get snow tires…..

  • Yousuf Khan

    Yup, I’ve been driving Subarus exclusively for past decade, which are by and large all all-wheel-drive. Many years ago, I used to think along the lines of, if I had AWD, then why do I need winter tires? But sure, an AWD car with non-winter tires will get moving through snow and ice faster, but there is no way it can stop any faster than any other car, because all cars in the world have all-wheel brakes. So there is no advantage to an AWD car towards braking. In fact, you’ll find that with non-winter tires, that just touching the brakes will result in the anti-lock braking system (ABS) coming on right away, whereas with winter tires, they won’t come on that quickly or at all. When the ABS comes on, then that means you’re really at the limit of adhesion of those tires, so you definitely don’t want to see the ABS come on that quickly. So don’t be stupid, get an AWD car *and* winter tires in the winter.

  • I totally get where you’re coming from, @disqus_bgWZ20q1ev:disqus, though I’m not sure engine braking would, in fact, slow an all-wheel drive vehicle any quicker than a two-wheel drive vehicle. Granted, I’ve never tested them against each other. Regardless, I also understand the point you’re making about engine braking, but it’s not going to make a lick of difference if the tires aren’t gripping the icy/snowy surface of the road.

  • Thanks for the kind words, @disqus_tBOSw7ub0v:disqus! And as for your friend that moved to Pittsburgh, feel free to send him the link to this story! All kidding aside, having driven front-, rear- and all-wheel drive layouts in all kinds of nasty winter weather, I can honestly say that there’s no substitute for the advantages of winter tires.

  • Transpower

    Vredestein and Nokian have numerous all-weather tires with the snowflake symbol; you can use these tires year-round….

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    I agree with the article, but I have to admit my biggest deterrent has always been the additional cost. It makes sense on paper and in theory and yet … I know it’s more cost effective not to mention safer in the long run to have two sets of tires, especially in Canada, but in the back of my mind I know that in all the years I’ve been driving I’ve managed to get through the mild Vancouver winters, but lately I have been becoming more aware of this issue so I think I will pick up a decent set of winter tires for next year. I’ll tough out this winter, we already had a few days of snow, I don’t think it’ll snow anymore or much and I only almost got stuck once! I just picked up a new car and the brand new tires (all season) have some decent grip even in the snow, but I know next winter will be a different story.

  • Jeff T

    Maybe in a situation you have mild winters but you can’t confuse these with real winter or snow tires.

  • Jeff T

    The thing about poor winter conditions is that you really only use 40% of your braking force before the abs kicks in. On dry pavement you have a valid argument.

  • Jonny_Vancouver

    @ Transpower, Jeff T, Aye, I’m going to pick up a set of all weathers for next year because I don’t need dedicated winter tires, and the overlap of being able to drive around on all weathers when the temp starts to rise is an asset, but I’ll still swap them out in the spring for all seasons because even in the summer, we still get rain up here.

  • Transpower

    Jonny_Vancouver: All-weather tires work in the dry, in the wet, and on ice/snow. You don’t need to swap tires!

  • DEEfenceman

    Yes, an AWD vehicle would have engine braking on all four wheels vs two for a front wheel drive. And yes, in the moment where you are just letting off the gas on your AWD, the four wheels could slow you down “quicker” on a slippery surface than a front wheel drive. Because you have four wheels with engine braking, as opposed to two.

    So in the short time from when your foot moves off the gas pedal to when it reaches the brake pedal, there is a theoretical advantage to AWD.

    As soon as the brake pedal is applied, the AWD advantage is gone.

  • Dano

    Lets drive up the cost some more for owning all those awd/4wd and others by adding a set of wheels and rims with the high expense of “winter tires” and install them in the fall and run them on all conditions lets say thru march-april?? Anyone who has already done this knows that you will be lucky to get 20K total miles on a set of these tires–they grip so well and the road friction “Eats” them up-unless you are in the backroads of N. America/Canada and driving on packed snow/Ice/Cold conditions than I would say by all means buy a set and run them. Your stopping/starting conditions would be great, however for most driving conditions I don’t feel these would be applicable and reg. M & S rated tires will fill the bill. One also should consider the speeds that a lot of 4wd/awd drivers feel that they are invincible and pass people up doing 75MPH when the traffic flow is doing 50MPH on snowy/ice conditions! You usually see the in a ditch or worse case flipped over and a major accident–Most county snow/salt operations are curtailed so I say slow down with weather conditions and you will get to your destination safe and sound-some will argue differently!!! The tire companies know to the mile how much each tire sold is going to deliver–if you think differently check out the “Mileage Gurantee” on winter tires????? Just my 2 cents worth and probably a million miles of driving experience.

  • Sandy McNab

    All wheel drive or 4 wheel will only get you stuck deeper and further away from home… If not careful, even with winter tires….

  • Kris

    It’s not just stopping, turning is also significantly improved. I firmly believe anyone not touting the benefits of true winter tires vs all-seasons have never actually experienced the difference. There is no comparison, and that’s why every time I purchase a new vehicle, I always factor in the cost of adding a set of winter tires + wheels. Many times I’ve been lucky and the bolt patterns of my old vs new vehicle match, and the tire sizes are close enough to be within 3% on the speedo.

  • Kris

    Spoken like someone who probably hasn’t even driven a vehicle in winter conditions with dedicated winter tires. I live in WI (and don’t just drive backroads) and generally swap to my winter tires the night before the first snowfall, usually mid to late November. I then run them until sometime in April. I’ve had snow tires on every vehicle my family owns for the last 12 years, and have never only gotten 20k miles out of a set. A few tires, such as some of the Blizzaks that have a special compound layer that only extends through some of the tire may notice a significant degradation in performance in 20k miles, but many will go well beyond that and still be much better than an all-season tire. I personally love the General Altimax Arctic tires, very reasonable, huge amounts of grip, and last forever. I purchased a used set for our mini-van that lasted 5 winters with a lot of miles driven, just replaced them with a brand new set of the same tire and that thing is a tank in the snow.

    Everyone seems to be talking about stopping and starting, but I don’t see turning being mentioned. There is a night and day difference between winter and all-season tires when it comes to turning in any amount of snow, which can mean the difference between safely navigating a turn or ending up in an accident.

    My mom has a Toyota Matrix with AWD and was literally scared to pickup my son if there was snow on the ground due to the lack of grip her all-season tires were providing, especially since that model doesn’t have traction control of any sort. I had a spare set of winter tires from a Subaru I sold that were a near perfect match, so I threw those on for her after testing it out myself on the all-seasons, and it was like a completely different car in all aspects of stopping, starting, and turning. She’s still raving a month later about how she can’t even make it slide when she tries now.

  • sanfordandsons

    Yes and no. I remember driving my 63 Chevy, three-on-the-tree, 6cyl, two door sport with rear, USED, snow tires during the winters of the middle 60’s when we routinely had 10-20 inch snowstorms in Kansas City during the winter. Those were the days when colleges didn’t call snow days like they do now for a few snowflakes on the sidewalk. I NEVER got stuck, not once, and KC did not plow streets or salt intersections for days after the storms. Fifty years later, I have two four-wheel drive units, an F150 and a Expedition, the F150 has 4WD and the Expedition has Automatic 4WD AND regular 4WD. They both use Wrangler All Terrain All Season tires. I routinely go skiing in Colorado and have never been stuck. I don’t know about Winter tires discussed here, I know I would NEVER go out and willingly purchase a set of Winter Tires or snow tires like I did in the 60’s for today’s vehicles unless it is a RWD vehicle like a Mustang or similar car. Snow traction ability of FWD cars are way overrated. I left many FWD cars on I70 in my mirror spinning their tires going up to Gennesse Mountain outside of Denver. FWD vehicles, at least on hills with ice or packed snow, aren’t worth a flip either. I say if you have big snows, get yourself some chains that are easy to install and put them on your drive wheels and remove them as soon as the snow starts to thin out.

  • sanfordandsons

    By some Wrangler all season
    , they’ll last 40K and they have good traction.

  • MrTommy

    I remember when I was a kid in the 60’s driving big cubic inch hot rods in Chicago. I bought snow tires for all my cars back then. I had an extra set of junk rims with my fancy snow tires mounted. Never got stuck. Drove sanely.

    Fast forward to last year. I went in to Les Schwab to get some snows for the front of my 97 Honda Civic commute car. They wouldn’t sell me just two. I had to buy them for all four wheels (or so they wanted). They said there were control issues with only two snow tires. Huh? That wasn’t MY experience back in the 60’s. The only control issue I remember was BETTER control – period. So I passed on buying ANY snow tires and just went along with my front wheel drive peanut car. I’m in northern Nevada now and for the past 10 or so years the winters haven’t been that bad.

    On those occasions when the roads were really bad I just put chains on – and drove on happily.

  • JD

    I see and hear people talking about the cost. What cost do you place on being safe. The wife and I both have AWD. I have a high performance coupe with 330HP and have not had any problems. Did I mention that we live almost a mile off of a paved road surface and 2 hills to navigate. You can’t beat a good set of winter tires and AWD.

  • worx4me

    Just took delivery of a 2017 Suburu Impreza and before even driving it away from the dealership, I had them take off the new all-season tires (Continental) and mount new Michelin X-Ice tires on all four wheels. Years ago, my new 1997 Suburu Legacy had all-season tires (Bridgestone, I think) and they were terrible in slippery conditions, even with AWD. So, winter tires make ALL the difference, folks, if you have to deal with snow.

  • SuzLee01

    I have a lincoln navigator (same thing as expedition) and love having the 4×4 auto and also regular 4×4. I do have a second set of rims with snow tires mounted, which go on in November (PA). I haven’t tried it in the winter with my good all seasons, but only because my previous navigator was an awd model only, and although I never got stuck anywhere, sometimes I had to work at it, mainly when having to pull over the humps in the snow made by snow plows. So I bought rims and snow tires then and it was immensely better. So when I got this one, just automatically did it.

  • SuzLee01

    Oh yes, last night we had an ice storm. I just had 4×4 auto until I turned on my daughter’s rural road which had barely been touched so I put in regular 4×4 before hand. No problems until I had to go up her drive which is on a hill. I made it 3/4 of the way up. Her car is awd and she backed out for me to park in her carpot, and she’s stuck at the bottom of her drive as she couldn’t pull up it with awd with all season tires.

  • SuzLee01

    I have blizzacks on my 1999 volkswagen new beetle tdi, and my son in law is driving it to work now, and he hasn’t bothered to change them for a couple of years now. Still plenty of tread and that is a beast. Only fwd but will go anywhere with the blizzacks.

    On my navigator I have some nitto I believe. Am on my second winter (nov-march) and they look like new. And I drive around 20,000 miles a year. I’d go out and tell you what tires but it’s a sheet of ice out there. Sorry, my husband buys them and I have never noticed. I know the two sets..one is nitto and one is hankook.

  • Peter Hicks

    drive a proper 4×4 with lsd on front and rear and a set ot AT tyres you will not get any problems !

  • TheBigGuy

    A fwd car with winter tires is better than an awd with all-seasons.

  • kellypf

    If you are really serious about safety on ice and deep snow, there is no substitute for #1 a locking REAL 4WD. No computer management, just a stupid drive train. No LSD, just simply lock the brainless thing in. Next #2 get a set of real tires. Winter tires – joke. All weather – HA funny. I’m talking mud tires, like traction and buoyancy in silt bogs. Super Swamper radials or the like. Noisy – yes, disgusting – yes. Start/stop on a steep hill on solid ice? Yes. You’ll never go back. All the rest is just conversation.

  • RegT

    I’ve got very aggressive Mastercraft snow tires with studs on my 4WD Tundra because I live seven miles off the pavement in mountain country at 5000′, and my mechanic said it was what he used on his truck. I just got back from an 8100+ mile round trip to Florida with these tires mounted so that I could get through the states (like my own) with snow and back home through snow. I didn’t have room to carry my all-season tires with me to swap out.

    There has been very little wear on the tires, in spite of 80+ degree weather in Florida and 70s elsewhere until we started north again. The trip out was on I-10 from Phoenix to Tallahassee, with temps routinely in the 70s. Took a different route coming back (I-10 really sucks), with a mix of rain and snow at different times, and I’m glad I had the snow tires on. I got all the way up my steep mountain road with no chains (although I always carry them in the winter, as I _have_ needed them before).

  • RegT

    Not true on the mileage you claim for snow tires, if you choose them properly. See my post above. My snow tires already had 5000 on them when I started my trip, and a lot of that was on dirt roads here in Montana. (My 1/2 mile steep “driveway” is loaded with rock, and they haven’t gotten torn up by the rock.)

    As I said, I couldn’t measure a difference in tread depth after that 8100+ mile trip, but I used a steel ruler, not a micrometer. I’m sure there was some wear (simple physics), but it was so minor I couldn’t see it with the little steel ruler that I use when metal-working. The studs are worn down more, but they were worn when I left.

  • Rod

    Over fifty years of Winter driving under my belt…. yes, I am getting old! Traction and grip are two different animals. Studded tires was the way to go on icy roads and packed snow. I seen some drivers of all wheel and four wheel drives become motionless where my two wheel drive did not. Snow conditions vary so much all the time and ice is something else!
    BTW I live in Michigan’s snow belt.

  • Jon Sterritt

    There’s a huge difference between keeping a vehicle heading straight, under control, and stoppable while heading down a roadway with a couple inches of snow at 20-40 MPH (backroads or straight highway) and being able to drive through 1 ft of snow reliably, snow banks around the intersections or end of the driveway, or snow drifts that form during a storm with wind.

    The difference is those AWD cars and crossovers are outstanding for handling on the roadway in light snow, far better than a truck, but are not a replacement for a truck when it comes to heading through an all-out blizzard where you encounter pockets of deep snow. The AWD cars pass me on the highway in light snow conditions all the time in my truck and make me look stupid in the truck – they effortlessly stay under control at 50 when I’m white knuckling to hold 35. When there is a foot or more of snow on the road, or driving through snow banks and drifts that form in the street under very heavy conditions the crossovers and AWD’s get stuck, those lower sitting unibody vehicles get lifted practically off the wheels and it’s game over, while in those conditions most trucks, real Jeeps and SUV’s can churn themselves through a couple feet of deep stuff.

    Whatever you are driving you can’t beat a soft set of aggressive tires in the snow. Snow tires for cars, or soft/aggressive AT’s or mud tires for trucks. The trouble with all such tires is they just don’t last very long and don’t necessarily give you the best ride, however it’s not terrible either.

    Something else important on the subject is 4WD is not 4WD is not all wheel drive. Most all wheel drive vehicles are really only turning 2 wheels at a time, one front and one rear – good for stability and handling but bad as far as getting stuck. Some trucks are the same way, only spinning one front and one rear at a time.. GMC auto locking posi rear spins 3 tires at a time as the rear 2 lock automatically upon slippage – good for not getting stuck, however it also makes it so that the rear end tends to spin out, you have to drive them differently.. Then you have a few vehicles with locking fronts and rears (certain Jeeps are the only thing that come to mind) – outstanding for not getting stuck, practically impossible to get stuck under any reasonable condition, but a very bizarre thing to run down the road at speed.