Is a front-wheel drive car with anti-lock brakes safer than an all-wheel drive car without ABS?

Dear Car Talk

Dear Car Talk | Nov 01, 2003

Dear Tom and Ray:

My girlfriend, who lives in Maine, insists that her all-wheel-drive Subaru is safer in the snow than my Buick LeSabre with front-wheel drive. I maintain that my Buick has anti-lock brakes, which makes it safer than her car. Who is right? -- John

TOM: Well, it depends. Are you going or are you stopping?

RAY: It's not a simple question, John. ABS certainly helps you stop more safely in the snow. By automatically pumping each brake for you, and doing it faster and more accurately than a human could ever do, ABS allows you to brake and steer at the same time, even in the snow. This helps you avoid skidding into things when you stop, and it's an excellent safety feature. So we'll give the Buick a point there.

TOM: The all-wheel drive of the Subaru, however, will help you go in the snow because it offers superior traction. It also helps on corners, where the Subaru is easier to control. So you'd be less likely to skid while turning. And I'd say overall, the Subaru is more likely to get you to your destination in the snow, which can be a safety advantage. After all, getting home is safer than being stranded in a snowstorm. So, advantage: Subaru.

RAY: Then you have to consider passive safety. When you're driving in snow, you also have to worry about other cars hitting YOU. You don't say what year these cars are, but let's assume they both have driver and passenger air bags. However, the full-size LeSabre is heavier. And heavier cars generally do better in crashes than lighter cars. So, advantage: Buick.

TOM: If we look at 1995 as an example and check out the crash tests for both cars, we see that the Buick got a five-star rating for the driver, while the Subaru Legacy got only four stars. So, I suppose you could make the case that your Buick LeSabre is safer to drive in the snow, John.

RAY: But here's a private note to John's girlfriend: The passenger in the LeSabre got a lousy three stars in the crash test, while the Subaru passenger got four. So if John insists on taking the LeSabre whenever it snows, make sure you do the driving.

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