Winter Tires V/S AWD/4WD

How Effective Are Winter Tires?

Braking with winter tires on a cold snowy road can outperform your all-season tires, even on 4WD or AWD vehicles by 40%! So even 4WD/AWD vehicles without winter tires will suffer in cold temperatures.

Winter tires can reduce your stopping distance, increase your control over the vehicle, and maintain safety even when compared to AWD/4WD vehicles with all-season tires.

Table Of Contents

1. Do You Think Your AWD/4WD Is All You Need For Winter Driving?

        1.1. What Is All-Wheel Drive?

        1.2. What Is The Difference Between AWD And 4WD?

2. Drive Type Vs Tires

        2.1. Winter Tires Vs AWD/4WD

        2.2. Drive Type And Tire Combination

3. Tires In Winter

        3.1.  What Happens To The Tires In Winter?

        3.2.  Why Are Winter Tires Important?

4. Why Swap Your All-season Tires With Winter Tires?

1. Do You Think Your AWD/4WD Is All You Need For Winter Driving?

Wondering if All-Wheel-Drive is the solution to your problems for driving in the winter? It is highly probable that you would have heard someone advising you to spend some extra cash and buy an all-wheel-drive variant, especially if you drive in places with regular snowfall.  You would also have crossed paths with terms like winter tires, all-season tires during that conversation. What are they and are they any helpful? Which is better, changing tires according to the driving conditions or spending a lot more for an all-wheel-drive car, for driving in the winters? Let’s dig deeper to know what is better for you.

1.1. What Exactly Is All-Wheel Drive?

It is a drive system where the power generated is distributed to all 4 wheels. The maximum share of the power is directed to either the front axle or the rear, whereas, in conditions with less traction, they guide the power to the wheels with relatively highest traction. This change in power distribution helps an AWD car speed up even on surfaces with less traction where a two-wheel drive would normally fail. This is what would come to your rescue when you find yourself stuck amidst the snow. The system would send maximum power to the wheel, having the highest grip to get you out of the snow and keep marching ahead through it.  

1.2. What Is The Difference Between AWD And 4WD?

Though both of the drive types send power to all four wheels, the difference lies in the way they send power to each of the axles. An all-wheel-drive system sports a center differential that takes care of the power distribution between the front and rear axles. A four-wheel drive system uses a transfer case to send power to the axles. However, the transfer case can be adjusted to send power to only the front or rear axle or both the axles by a mechanical lever or an electronically controlled program. To sum up in short, in an AWD, the system itself is determining the power transfer based on the traction available whereas, in a 4WD, the driver chooses whether the power is to be transferred to just 2 wheels or all the wheels.

2. Drive Type Vs Tires

2.1. Winter Tires Vs AWD/4WD

Is the ability of an AWD/4WD car to speed up on rather slippery conditions enough to sail you through icy roads? Most people believe that this is true since the more powered wheels you have, the more likely you are to have more traction to speed up. Seems to make sense, right? As true as it is, it's just a part of a bigger picture. There is more to it. More often than not, we cannot associate two other major driving attributes apart from acceleration. They are braking and turning. 

The importance of AWD/4WD or a two-wheel drive fades away when you have to stop or turn in icy conditions. Regardless of what your car’s drive type is, the exact number of wheels takes part in braking and steering. Yes, while driving an AWD/4WD, the probability of getting stuck is scarce, but getting your car moving fast is a lot less significant than stopping or being able to steer it. 

No matter what the vehicle drive type it is, the vehicle requires sufficient traction at the road surface to perform any maneuver. If the tires are not appropriate for the driving conditions, the drive system or traction control system cannot make up for the lack of tire grip. Meaning, you could struggle to move on a snow carpeted road even in an All-wheel drive car with summer or all-season tires on them. 

If you still believe that AWD/4WD is the full-time solution to winter driving, you have fallen prey to the various marketing strategies used by companies these days. There are no questions against the abilities of an AWD/4WD vehicle over a two-wheel drive. However, these abilities translate to nothing when you are running the incorrect set of tires. It is more like a situation where you play the game of football, but with a pair of basketball shoes. You could get going in some way or the other, but it isn’t the right combination. 

2.2. What Is The Best Drive Type / Tire Combination For Winter Driving?

Urban driving with moderate levels of snow and ice (1-3 cm) - A Front Wheel Drive or Rear Wheel Drive with Winter tires should get you through the season with no troubles. This is the most economical option available since an AWD comes with a premium upfront and could not perform so well with the All-season tires on them. The fuel expenses also take a toll, thanks to the additional weight of the AWD system.  

Urban driving with heavy snow and mild countryside driving (3-8 cm) - AWD with winter tires on is the best combination in such driving conditions. This is a very versatile combination. You could handle the worst winter conditions while retaining the ability to drive on clear and dry roads well. 

Countryside Driving with unplowed roads and thick snow (Approaching 10 cm and more) - An AWD with winter tires fair the best among all combinations. Since most of the AWD vehicles provide abundantly high ground clearance, the vehicle should be able to clear the snowy obstacles with ease. 

3. Tires In Winter

3.1. What Happens To The Tires In Winter?

Soon as we reach that time of the year where temperatures hit an all-new low, amidst all the snowy chaos, you will also fill the tires to the correct pressure. Owing to the air inside the tire undergoing contraction, for every 10°F (4°C - 6°C) drop in the temperature, there is a drop of 1 psi of pressure in the tire. You would be highly mistaken if you think tire pressure is the only effect the chilling temperatures have on your tires. The tire compound changes its properties on exposure to different temperatures. The cold temperatures make the rubber rigid, brittle, and inflexible, killing traction in short. You could also end up damaging your tire sidewalls courtesy of the brittle nature in such conditions.

3.2. Why Are Winter Tires Important?

Winter tires or snow tires have deeper grooves that channel the snow away enabling maximum contact patch with the actual road surface for increased traction. Besides, the compound used in making the winter tires also differs from conventional tires. This composition helps the winter tires keep the softness even at bone-chilling temperatures, which are highly influential in providing grip. That being said, the importance swings into the winter tires’ favor than being AWD/4WD or Two-wheel drive.

Another major advantage worth noting is that these are not just for snow and ice, they outshine your old set of tires even on dry roads in the winters. Thanks to the softer and more flexible rubber used in their construction, it enables more traction even while running on the cold dry roads. Winter or snow tires are the hero in a braking scenario. 

4. Why Swap Your All-season Tires With Winter Tires?

If the place you drive is prone to very harsh winters, then installing a set of winter tires will help you have a safer driving experience. If the temperature goes below -10°C (14°F) or -20°C  (-4°F) frequently every season, with thick layers of snow, swapping your tires for the winters recommended. It wouldn’t be worth the pain of swapping tires and storing the old set in your garage if you usually drive in places with very normal winter conditions where the temperature does not go any below 7°C (45°F).

That being said, an alternate solution to this could be a set of all-weather tires. You could say they sit somewhere in between the winter tires and the all-seasons. They are constructed to perform well both in the summer and winter. Though all-weather tires are not a direct replacement for the winter tires, they are far superior to the all-season tires in terms of traction during winter. Particularly, the ones featuring a three-peak mountain snowflake symbol (3PMSF) show that they are recognized by Transport Canada to meet the required performance criteria in snow.  Thus, a set of all-weather tires could save you from tire changeovers and storage struggles. 


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Dominic Lussier
Lead Mechanic
Passionate about the inner workings of motor vehicles there is absolutely nothing that he won’t take apart. He loves getting his hands dirty so you won’t have too !!!! Helps empower DYI’ers to fix their own vehicles with the help of easy-to-read articles so things just stay simple.