FWD vs. AWD: What’s Best for Snow?

Driving in the snow can lead to some precarious scenarios, as the traction you rely on for control and safety is significantly decreased. This is why vehicle owners often focus on finding the right vehicle to meet their needs during inclement weather.

One of the largest contributing factors to the cold-weather performance of your vehicle is the type of drive system it uses. 

Snowy road

The Four Drive Systems

In modern vehicles, there are four common types of drive systems, each with its strengths and weaknesses in varying weather scenarios. 

Rear Wheel Drive

Rear-wheel drive (RWD) vehicles have become less common over time, and are often reserved for luxury vehicles and sports cars. RWD vehicles direct all of their power to the rear two wheels, which often gives them better handling capabilities than their FWD and AWD counterparts. 

One of the major downsides of rear-wheel drive is its performance in inclement weather situations. Much of this is due to the weight balance of an RWD vehicle, as the engine and drive wheels are on different ends of the vehicle. Compare this to a FWD vehicle, where the extra weight of the engine sitting over the drive wheels gives them better traction in slippery conditions. 

Front-Wheel Drive 

Front-wheel drive (FWD) vehicles send the entirety of their power to the front wheels. Since the engine resides in the front of the car as well, FWD systems are more compact and skip the extra weight that driveshafts and other components add to an RWD or AWD system. 

FWD has become the most popular drive type in modern vehicles due to this concise and inexpensive design. Without having to add the lengthy driveshaft and other driveline components needed for RWD and AWD, manufacturers can decrease the cost of production. This is one of the primary reasons that the majority of economy and commuter vehicles use this layout. 

With the engine sitting over the front two drive wheels, the increased weight also improves traction in slippery and snowy conditions. This is one of FWD’s primary strengths, as it is the far superior option for winter weather compared to the other two-wheel drive option, RWD. 

All-Wheel Drive

One of the fastest-growing options for drive systems in new vehicles is all-wheel drive (AWD). Unlike FWD and RWD, where the power is only sent to two of the four wheels, AWD instead sends power to all four. 

AWD vehicles carry several different benefits. One of the largest of these is performance, as the simultaneous power to each wheel allows for quicker acceleration. With four wheels sending power to the road instead of two, the loss of traction experienced on hard acceleration is decreased.

All-wheel drive also carries huge benefits in low-traction conditions, such as dirt roads or snowy/icy conditions. The distribution of power across four tires allows them to find grip on the road much easier than just two tires, which makes acceleration and handling more controllable and comfortable on slippery streets. 

Four-Wheel Drive

The terms four-wheel drive (4WD, or 4×4) and AWD are often used interchangeably, as both systems distribute power across four wheels instead of two, however, some differences set them apart. 

While modern AWD systems dynamically send a mix of power to all four corners at all times, the majority of 4WD systems on the road instead have to be engaged by the driver before using it. Part-time 4WD systems (the vast majority out there) are two-wheel drive by default, but allow the driver to activate a transfer case and distribute the power equally to all four wheels when needed.

Inside of differential

Since 4WD systems don’t dynamically redirect power, using 4×4 mode while driving regularly may result in decreased handling performance. However, 4×4 systems thrive where others do not. 4WD’s purpose comes at low-speed and low-traction situations, such as difficult off-roading terrain and heavy snow where AWD vehicles might struggle. 

So What’s Best for Me This Winter?

The question of which drive system is best for you really comes down to a few personal factors. Rear-wheel drive brings a fun driving experience and many handling benefits to the table in warm weather but struggles in any sub-par traction conditions. FWD is the most economical and practical choice for the majority of drivers out there, especially those who just use their vehicles for commuting and grocery runs. However, FWD vehicles can also be capable enough for light snow to be used over the winter, but snow tires should be a priority if you choose to go this route in a snowy location. AWD and 4WD both provide great low-traction performance but are usually found in more expensive vehicles and might not be necessary in warmer climates or for those who aren’t going off-road. 

While all-wheel drive can perform more than well enough on slippery roads, 4WD provides the best driving experience in heavy snow. AWD, especially with snow tires, will be great in the winter on roads that see consistent plowing and salt. However, they can struggle in more severe situations that 4WD would be able to handle. 

Drivetrain Services in Naperville

If you’re looking for service on your axles, transfer case, differential, or any other driveline component, bring your vehicle to the expert technicians at Becker Service Center! Our team has extensive experience working on a variety of makes and models. Call or schedule online with us today!