Is all-wheel drive safer than front-wheel drive in the winter? The short answer to this question is no for most consumers and yes for those who understand the strengths and limitations of all-wheel drive. The idea that all-wheel drive is automatically safer than two-wheel drive is among the most popular of car misconceptions out there. This is understandable given that car commercials showing all-wheel drive vehicles flying effortlessly through the mud or snow has become an advertising cliché.
What All-Wheel Drive Means
All-wheel drive does exactly what the name says, which is that the transmission delivers torque from the engine to all four wheels. When engine power is delivered to four wheels instead of two, does this mean that the car brakes better in slippery conditions than two-wheel drive? No. Engine torque delivered to the wheels makes a car move forward. It causes acceleration.
Braking on the other hand, is done with the car’s brakes. Both two-wheel and all-wheel drive cars have brakes on each wheel. That is, they both benefit from four-wheel braking. Having drive in an extra set of wheels does nothing for braking. But it does help with acceleration on slippery surfaces and in snowy or slushy conditions. It also helps when climbing snowy or slippery hills and the car is less likely to get stuck in deep snow. There are some situations where these advantages increase your safety.
How All-Wheel Drive Gets People into Trouble
Sometimes getting out of harm’s way requires quick acceleration before something hits you. However, from the standpoint of safety, braking and steering are far more important and all-wheel drive does nothing for braking and little for steering and cornering.
All-wheel drive’s superior acceleration often causes the misinformed to drive too fast for the conditions and they soon find that they can’t brake or swerve in time to avoid a collision or running off the road. It also makes some believe that they don’t need snow tires. Traction, whether accelerating or braking, begins with the tires’ grip on the road. A weak grip means weak traction which means weak acceleration, braking, and cornering.