All-Wheel-Drive versus Front-Wheel-Drive in Snow: Which One is Better

All-Wheel-Drive versus Front-Wheel-Drive in Snow: Which One is Better

It's pretty safe to say that for most of us, car shopping can sometimes feel like wading through a cauldron of alphabet soup, with all the acronyms like FWD (front-wheel-drive), RWD (rear-wheel-drive) AWD (all-wheel-drive) to decode.

In this article we discuss the differences between FWD, RWD and AWD and size up the pros and cons of each, as well as the efficiency of snow tires regardless of which drivetrain you ultimately choose.

Whichever you wind up going with, Shift's certified mechanics perform extensive 150-point inspections on every car in stock. Shift also offers complete vehicle history reports on its website for every vehicle in its inventory, too.. So you can drive off knowing your used car looks, feels and – most importantly – performs as good as new.

How does AWD work?

So what exactly is all-wheel-drive?

All-wheel drive – or AWD for short – is a term used to describe automatic four-wheel drive systems in which the vehicle is able to choose between utilizing two or four wheels depending on the specific conditions of the road. Specifically, the vehicle is able to deter how dry, wet, icy or snowy the road happens to be.

In driving conditions that don't involve rain, ice or snow, AWD vehicles typically send 80-100 percent of the vehicle's total power to either the front or rear axle. But in slick or slippery conditions, power is automatically allocated to individual wheels to allow for optimum traction and performance. This is particularly handy when it comes time to maneuver out of a parking spot that has been snowed in or when navigating streets that are covered in fresh or not-so-fresh snow.

Some trustworthy, accessibly priced vehicles that offer AWD options include the Hyundai Tucson, the Toyota RAV4, the Toyota Camry, the Toyota Sienna, the Kia Sorento, the Ford Escape and the Chrysler Pacifica.

Luxury sedan and SUV options with AWD include the Audi A4, the Jaguar XF, the Lexus 350 GS, the Tesla Model X, the Lexus RX, the Acura RDX and the BMW X5.

FWD vs. RWD

The majority of passenger cars and crossover vehicles on the road these days are equipped with front-wheel drive, or FWD for short. Compared to a vehicle with rear-wheel-drive, this can make for a significant advantage when driving in snow and ice because most of the car’s weight rides on the two front wheels, which also propel the vehicle forward. This, in turn, improves its overall traction, too.

Rear-wheel drive, or RWD, is commonly found among sports cars, pickups and SUVs that are built on truck platforms. With RWD, the vehicle's front wheels steer while the rear wheels transmit power to the ground. This means that RWD generally makes for a more uniform distribution of weight as well as improved performance in lower-risk driving circumstances that don't involve rain, snow or ice. These days, RWD is becoming less popular in new compact vehicles and SUVs.

Simply put, a FWD vehicle pulls the car forward from its front two wheels, which greatly reduces the probability of oversteering or the rear of the vehicle slipping or sliding when making sharp turns, whereas RWD pushes it from the back two wheels.

Are front-wheel-drive cars good in snow?

FWD cars carry more of their weight up in the front, which allows for better handling in snow and ice but makes for poorer performance in general. That's because the front wheels are tasked with both powering and maneuvering the vehicle, which isn't ideal for traveling at increased speeds or taking sharp turns without having to slow down significantly. That's why most sports cars and certain SUVs are equipped with  rear-wheel-drive.

Experts recommend choosing a drivetrain – be it FWD, RWD or AWD – based on the weather of the specific region in which you live. If you reside in a cold region that receives severe snowfall, the safest choice will be AWD paired with appropriate winter tires.

For city driving that usually involves light snow and ice only, FWD or RWD vehicles usually perform just fine. While it isn't the ideal choice for driving in thicker snow in more rural settings, it'll save you money in the long run. This is because AWD vehicles are not only generally priced higher to begin with, they consume more gasoline because of the added weight of the AWD system. 

One major benefit of front-wheel-drive is that the lighter drivetrain significantly minimizes the vehicle's overall weight as well as streamlines its assembly process on the production line, which in turns lower manufacturing costs, too. If you're the typical everyday commuter who lives in an area that only sees mild snow and ice each year, generally speaking, FWD is an OK option.

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How do RWD vehicles perform in snow?

Given the aforementioned, driving on snow and ice tends to be more difficult for vehicles equipped with rear-wheel drive. RWD cars usually carry less weight on their driving wheels than their FWD and AWD counterparts vehicles, which means they will have more trouble accelerating on ice. This, in turn, increases the risk of losing control of the vehicle's rear.

If you like to get playful behind the wheel from time to time or live in a place where the winters aren't so intense, a RWD vehicle is definitely an option that you can consider. Just keep in mind that if and when it does snow, the car's performance and overall safety will be significantly reduced.

In the snow, a front-wheel-drive vehicle is far superior to a rear-wheel-drive vehicle. But for city driving with heavy snow or rural roads in general, or for drivers who consider dry-weather performance and fast cornering to be just as important as being able to back out of a driveway the morning after a heavy winter storm, AWD is the ultimate option.

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Are winter or snow tires really worth it?

Many car buyers commonly believe that all-wheel drive equates to little or no concern whatsoever when it comes to navigating treacherous road conditions like ice and snow.

But when it comes to steering, stopping and performing in winter conditions in general, experts tend to agree that there's actually little difference between AWD-equipped vehicles and their standard front-wheel drive counterparts. On wet roads, yes, AWD is very useful for helping with the vehicle's ability to accelerate. But when compared to a two-wheel-drive car, SUV or truck – be it FWD or RWD – that's fitted with all-season tires, AWD provides little assistance as far as improving steering on snow and ice goes.

All-season or winter tires, on the other hand, can improve a vehicle's traction anywhere from 25 to 50 percent. Yes, AWD does offer certain benefits that FWD doesn't. But as far as braking and steering on snowy and icy roads as safely as possible goes, it's important to remember that quality winter tires are what matter most.

Sure, it may seem like a hassle to swap out your tires depending on the time of year. But if you live in an area that’s known for having snowy, icy winters, winter tires are not only essential for optimizing your vehicle's ability to perform as it was built to do, but it's crucial for your safety and the safety of others out on the road, too.


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Author
Shift Editorial Team