It's Snowing: Do I Want Front-, Rear- or All-Wheel Drive?

Shoppers who live in snowy climes often ask if they should get front-, rear- or all-wheel drive (or four-wheel drive, which for the purposes of this discussion is synonymous, even though we know that they're technologically different), and if winter tires are enough to let them forego the added expense and decreased gas mileage that comes with having four driven wheels. Here are the pros and cons of each drive type:

Rear-wheel drive
Rear-wheel-drive cars, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, aren't the best choices for wintry driving conditions.

Rear-wheel-drive cars, such as the Chevrolet Corvette, aren't the best choices for wintry driving conditions.

The advantages of rear drive wheels are mainly realized in the car's handling and the ability to tow heavier trailers. Though traction control and stability control help keep the car moving and prevent fishtailing, respectively, rear-wheel drive is still the worst choice on snowy roads. What makes the car handle well in most cases — having its weight balanced over the front and rear wheels — doesn't provide optimal traction in snow.

Front-wheel drive
Front-wheel-drive cars put most of the car's weight over the drive wheels, helping with traction.

Front-wheel-drive cars put most of the car's weight over the drive wheels, helping with traction.

Front-wheel drive doesn't get as much respect from driving enthusiasts because having all of the drive hardware in front results in roughly 60 percent of the weight being over the front wheels. This diminishes roadholding on curves, but it also keeps most of the car's weight over the drive wheels. This makes progress through the snow easier, even on hills. One downside: You can't tow as much.

All-wheel drive
With all-wheel drive, it's more likely that either the front or rear wheels will have at least some traction.

With all-wheel drive, it's more likely that either the front or rear wheels will have at least some traction.

Combining the benefits of front and rear drives, all-wheel drive typically balances the weight distribution a bit and usually gives a car that coveted rear-wheel-drive feel. The advantage in snow can't be overstated: Even in the worst conditions, the front or rear wheels are likely to maintain traction, and the best systems keep you moving even if only one wheel has a grip. The feature's greatest technical downside is added weight, which reveals itself in lower mileage, slower acceleration (compared with two-wheel drive with the same engine) and potentially longer braking distances.

Subaru is a recognized manufacturer of exclusively all-wheel-drive vehicles, but for a little more money, you can get many front- and rear-drive models with all-wheel drive. Typically the penalties you'll incur going to an all-wheel drive version of the same model are from 1 to 4 lower mpg and anywhere from $1,000 (on less expensive cars) to thousands of dollars (on luxury models).

However, don't ignore the "comparably equipped" part. On many models, you can only get all-wheel drive on higher trim levels and/or with engine upgrades. In the Ford Fusion, for example, all-wheel drive comes only in the SEL trim level with a V-6 engine. When compared with the SEL with the optional 3.0-liter V-6, the price difference is $1,850 and 1 mpg overall. But compare it with the four-cylinder SEL, and the penalty is $3,460 and a loss of 4 mpg overall. Compared with a bare-bones Fusion S, the price difference is now $8,170. If you're looking for a bargain, it's usually in a two-wheel-drive version.

The added weight that comes with all-wheel drive is precisely why automakers employ more powerful engines, which keeps the cars from becoming total dogs. They're slower off the line than models with the same drivetrain and two-wheel drive, as physics dictates, but seldom is that tradeoff significant. Theoretically, the added weight can lengthen the car's stopping distances and compromise roadholding, because more mass has more inertia, making it harder to stop or to change direction. But in snow rather than dry or wet roads, that weight can also help the tires dig down and get a grip, so whatever downside exists is arguably outweighed by the positives of all-wheel drive.

Whether the cost or mileage penalties are worthwhile is an individual's choice. People who live in urban areas with decent snow removal can usually get by fine with front-wheel drive except for once or twice a season. The overwhelming majority of police cars are rear-wheel drive, and looting doesn't break out every time a few flakes fall; clearly, even rear-drive is workable in many cases. That said, if you're not crazy about clearing snow off your driveway, all-wheel drive will be a godsend after all but the worst snowfall, and you can drive past other cars who are struggling through the worst of storms. For anyone who's on the fence, hilly regions are another argument in favor of all-wheel drive. You can throw a dart anywhere in the state of Colorado and hit a Subaru. That has to tell you something.

Winter Tires or All-Wheel Drive?

As we explain in the companion article, Standard vs. Optional Tires, summer tires are hazardous in the cold and snow, and counting on all-wheel drive to keep you safe is a recipe for disaster. All-season tires are better, and winter tires are better still — though they have drawbacks. The answer is: Winter tires are good, and all-wheel drive is good, and putting them together is the most effective option — but remember that neither one is a substitute for the other. No matter which of your wheels are driven, the right tires will help — and the wrong ones will hurt.

For more information on tires, check our Tires and Treads advice section.

© Cars.com 9/21/09