The Spokesman-Review

Choosing a Vehicle that Goes in the Snow

TUESDAY, NOV. 12, 2013

Front or rear drive? Four-wheel or all-wheel drive? Here’s how to choose a car or truck that’s built to tackle the toughest winter conditions

With Old Man Winter’s icy breath bearing down upon us, choosing a car that delivers top traction in the snow can be paramount in many car and truck-shoppers’ minds. While some sun-soaked motorists may be able to avoid the white stuff altogether, it’s a fact that all 50 states receive some measure of snow somewhere within their borders in a typical year, with year-end holiday travel often placing winter novices in the path of Mother Nature’s wrath.

Those living in remote areas of the most snow-packed areas often find that nothing less than a rugged four-wheel-drive pickup or truck-based sport-utility vehicle that can plow its way out of the deepest drifts will suffice. Today’s 4WD systems run the gamut of sophistication from the rather basic part-time systems offered on some pickups and lower-cost truck-based SUVs (the engine powers only the rear axle until the driver engages the front wheels via a button or dial) to automatic engaging full-time systems. Either way, all 4WD arrays include “low range” gearing for times when maximum traction is needed, such as getting out of deep mud or snow, or traversing steep hills and extreme off-road trails at slow speeds.

However, most motorists these days find they fare quite well in the snow with a more amenable car-based crossover SUV or other vehicle type that’s equipped with an all-wheel-drive system for added traction. Some AWD vehicles will drive only one axle (usually the front) under normal circumstances, while others will operate permanently in all-wheel mode, usually on a 50/50 front-to-rear split, with the ability to send additional torque to the wheels that need added traction, again when sensors detect wheel slippage.

Unlike 4WD, however, all-wheel drive doesn’t include low range gearing, which means an AWD-equipped vehicle could still leave a motorist stranded if he or she attempts to traverse deeply snow-packed pavement or a slick and steeply inclined driveway.

Still, urban/suburban dwellers and those in areas that see only modest amounts of snow at a time can usually get by with a basic front-wheel-drive car or crossover. Because 4WD vehicles place more weight over the drive wheels and “pull” rather than “push” the vehicle, they tend to fare far better in snowy conditions (and over otherwise slick roads) than do rear-drive models.

At that, auto enthusiasts tend to favor the traditional rear-wheel-drive layout, which also tends to afford superior ride and handling abilities. Car builders like BMW and Mercedes-Benz have used rear-drive continuously and consistently for decades. It’s seeing wider use in recent years, particularly among performance coupes and luxury cars. The advent of modern chassis systems (including antilock brakes, stability control and traction control) combined with improved tire technology now help overcome rear-drive’s traditional tendency to fishtail on slick surfaces and minimize sudden “oversteer” around sharp curves.

Unfortunately, RWD cars and trucks still tend to afford the least amount of traction over wet or snowy roads. Those living in a wintry climate will probably need a hand pushing a RWD vehicle out of a snowbound parking space unless it’s been fitted with a set of deep-treaded snow tires on the rear wheels. This is why a growing number of RWD models now offer optional AWD systems.

No matter what the configuration, a car equipped with high-performance (also called “summer”) tires that are optimized for dry-pavement use might as well be left garaged for the duration of a snowy winter unless they’re swapped for a set of all-season tires or, if it’s an RWD car, all-seasons up front and snow tires at the rear.

Otherwise, we can all hope for the best and wait for the first day of spring to arrive on March 20.


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