4WD, AWD, front/rear-wheel drive for winter driving? How about "traction control"?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Mar 01, 2000

Dear Tom and Ray:

I've been thinking about buying a new car, and one of my big concerns is performance in the snow. I'm looking for a full-sized car, but I'm confused about whether I should be looking for all-wheel drive, front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive. And what about traction control? I would very much appreciate your opinion. -- Paul

RAY: If you live where it really snows frequently, Paul, here's our best recommendation: Become a "nonessential" employee. That way, you can stay home when it
snows. My brother can tell you all about that. He's as nonessential as they come.

TOM: If that's not possible, Paul, the best thing to drive in the snow is a car with all-wheel drive (sometimes called "full-time four-wheel drive"). An all-wheel-drive
vehicle is a four-wheel-drive vehicle with a center differential. That allows you to safely leave the car in "all-wheel drive" all the time (which you can't do safely with an
older-style "part-time" four-wheel-drive system.

RAY: So if you're driving on a highway with wet pavement alternating with snowdrifts, all-wheel drive is the best possible configuration.

TOM: The downside is that all-wheel drive is only available on limited number of passenger cars (notably Subaru, Audi, Volvo and Mercedes), which limits your choices
significantly. And it can add a lot to the purchase cost of a car. Not to mention adding to the noise level and the eventual repair costs. But if it snows a lot where you live,
and you absolutely must go out and drive in it, there's nothing better than all-wheel drive.

RAY: If you just have to drive in snow occasionally, then you'll probably do fine with a front-wheel-drive car. Front-wheel drive is much better than rear-wheel drive
in the snow. Why? Because, by design, a front-wheel-drive car has a huge weight right over the driven wheels. That weight is commonly known as "the engine."

TOM: And whatever you get, if snow is an issue, get yourself four good-quality snow tires. Good snow tires will do a lot to improve the snow traction of any car, with
any drive configuration.

RAY: So what you get depends on how much snow you really have to drive in, Paul. Try to answer that question honestly, because most people who buy four-wheel
drive and all-wheel drive don't really need it.

TOM: Right. For most people -- those who live where it snows occasionally -- a front-wheel-drive car with four good snow tires should be good enough. But if you
really HAVE to drive in snow frequently, your best bet is something with all-wheel drive.

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