It's a variation of rock-paper-scissors that all-wheel drive or four-wheel drive vehicle owners are likely familiar with: Will their vehicle's drive system negate the need for snow tires?
Or, put another way, will their drive system beat tires; will tires beat snowy roads; or will snowy roads beat their all-wheel drive?
I had an all-wheel drive review car equipped with summer tires in the recent snow, and I’ve also had previous experiences with rear-wheel drive cars equipped with four quality snow or all-season tires. To sum it up quickly: Tires are really important.
Driving in the most recent light snow with all-wheel drive and summer tires was challenging. Even with all-wheel drive and a careful application of power, a whole lot of slipping, sliding and spinning occurred. The vehicle was even out of its element attempting to maneuver on my sloped driveway. And the first gentle snow-covered corner held the ingredients for disaster. The vehicle had all the directional control of a young kitten chasing a ricocheting rubber ball on a freshly waxed kitchen floor.
The performance tires on this vehicle were designed for the warmer weather. The tread material and patterns work wonders on relatively warm asphalt and concrete. Many performance tires also work superbly in the rain. However, winter is beyond their job description. Their tread material stiffens while the block patterns were never intended to cope with snow.
All-season tires, often delineated by a label on the sidewall such as “M&S” for “mud and snow,” have compounds and tread patterns that work reasonably well in a variety of circumstances, including winter weather.
For the ultimate traction in snow, four snow tires are a must. These tires often have special tread compounds that remain flexible in the cold. This helps the tread conform to minor nooks, bumps and crannies found on slippery surfaces, which markedly increases traction. In addition, the tread pattern is designed to eject snow that gets trapped between the tread blocks. This assures a better “bite” when the tire tread rotates and contacts the road.
So, to summarize: Two rear wheel-drive review cars did nicely in the snow when equipped with four premium snow tires.
Rear-wheel drive cars equipped with all-season tires also can do reasonably well in the snow. Fifteen years ago, a Cadillac Catera review car (OK, it was really a German-made Opel Omega with a Cadillac badge and a vehicle that I was apparently in the minority for liking) also managed to go through fresh snow with ease, even without dedicated snow tires. Granted, it invoked its traction control function once or twice, but it still managed to get me where I needed to go – without betting stuck.
As a result of this unscientific experiment, I have concluded that a four-wheel drive vehicle with the wrong tires might easily become mired in the snow and be unable to move. It also suggests that the purchase of a $600 set of snow tires mounted on a separate set of wheels can go a long way toward equaling the performance gained with a $2,000 upgrade to all-wheel drive.
My general rule is this. If your car is equipped with performance tires, leave it parked during bad winter weather and extreme cold snaps. If you can wait for the snowplow to pass your house before venturing onto the roads after it snows, an all-season radial tire will probably suffice.
For those who cannot wait for the plow, or who want the ultimate in winter weather traction, dedicated snow tires are hard to beat. With this winter still not quite half over, buying a set of four snow tires might not be a bad idea if the snow that we’ve seen so far has given you trouble.