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All Wheel Drive Does Not Make You Safer

1950s_catEvery year right around this time, millions of consumers are tricked into a massive financial and lifestyle mistake as the natural incompatibility of snowy roads and safe driving take them by surprise.

“I know Mr. Money Mustache insists that I drive only efficient cars, but that’s because he lives in the dreamy semi-desert of Colorado where it never snows. Where I live, the roads are ice-packed for the entire winter, and you’re doomed if you don’t have All Wheel Drive. Therefore, I will buy a enormous four-wheel drive truck for the safety of my family. Or at least a Subaru.”

This is just plain wrong, and as a recovering gearhead, I need to make a public statement on it.

Just like any other great marketing-fueled deception, automakers have captured both our irrational fear of loss and desire for status, and channeled them into a product line that just happens to be more profitable for them. And it’s shocking how well it has worked, as even some of my most esteemed readers have been writing in to ask for advice on “which AWD vehicles are Mustachian?”

The answer is “Whichever one the Forestry service or the Military issues to you when you show up for duty in an area without roads*.”

Because for the rest of us, it’s Hip and Knee Drive for your shoes, Chain Powered Rear Drive for the bike, and Front Wheel Drive for those rare occasions you need to use a car.

The reason I can state so confidently that the AWD hype is pure marketing bullshit is simple physics. Although this was one of my favorite subjects in engineering school, you don’t need a degree to understand it fully and cure your desire for AWD.

Car safety depends at the core on two things: not crashing into anything, and not letting anything crash into you. To accomplish those goals, the ability to steer your car in the direction of your choice is the top factor, with braking coming as a close second. A certain amount of acceleration is important as well, but not nearly as critical as the first two: note the extremely low collision rate of transport trucks and city buses per mile traveled.

Every car, truck, and SUV has four wheels. And every one of them has front-wheel-steering and all-wheel braking. So we’re all on a level playing field so far. The place where the safety in accident-avoidance starts to diverge is:

  • How firmly the car sticks to the road (more grip means more safety)
  • How effectively the car lets you change direction or speed (cars with a lower center of gravity and stiffer suspension are safer)
  • How the power and braking affect vehicle dynamics (applying power to the rear wheels while cornering tends to break the grip and cause you to fishtail and spin out – this is why rear-drive-only vehicles like sports cars and pickups are more dangerous in snow, but front-drive works well)
  • Fancy computerized add-ons that compensate for human limits (ABS and Vehicle Traction/Stability Control) can increase safety by modulating power and brakes.

That’s it for the physics. You’ll note that there is not much in there that would allow cranking all four wheels, instead of just the front wheels, to make you any safer. And in some cases it will send you into the ditch faster than front-wheel drive.

Note the implication of this: If anyone gets an AWD vehicle “for safety” but uses it with all-season tires, they have performed a Consumer Sucka Fail. A front wheel drive vehicle with snow tires would have more grip.

According to this Consumer Reports test on snow tires vs. AWD, the tires were by far the most important factor. And only 12% of AWD vehicle owners bothered to put snow tires on their vehicle, meaning 88% of all-wheel-drive vehicle purchases were wasted, because the drivers could have achieved better performance at lower cost in a front-wheeler with snow tires.

So When IS AWD useful?

All wheel drive is a performance feature, not a safety feature. With all other things being equal, AWD lets you accelerate more quickly on slippery roads. This is usually a bad thing, because it masks the true slipperiness of the road from you, leading to overconfidence which will put you into the ditch, courtroom, or emergency room. But it is useful if you need to plow through unusually deep snow in conditions that would normally get you stuck (for example a steep snowy driveway, or if you run a snow plow). It’s also useful on extremely steep unpaved roads or in areas with no roads at all – places you are unlikely to need a car.

But Why Does Mr. Money Mustache Hate AWD so Much?

I have nothing against all wheel drive. It’s a cool bit of mechanical engineering that gives a vehicle superpowers. Whenever my son and I make a LEGO Mindstorms or VEX IQ robot, you can bet we’re going to give that sumbitch AWD or even a set of tank treads, because hey, why not?

The thing that pisses me off is that people have started using AWD for no reason on paved roads. Here we are, a society who has spent trillions of dollars building a road network so wide and glassy smooth that you can get almost anywhere in the country in all seasons even if you are driving a 73-foot tractor trailer rig, and we are still wasting money driving off-road vehicles on it.

Make no mistake: In a gas-powered vehicle, AWD requires huge sacrifice in weight and complexity. Hundreds of pounds of steel shafts, gears, lubricating oils and reinforcements are required to get the power from the engine to that extra set of drive wheels. And not only must you pay to carry that dead weight around for the life of the car, you burn even more gas fighting the extra friction of the additional gears every second the car is moving. And then you have to pay to maintain and repair all those extra moving parts. It’s like carrying all your camping gear on your back every time you leave your house. It is also akin to a man attaching a set of 13-pound Decorative Testicles below his real ones, just for show. You would do it if absolutely required for a social event, but not when you actually had to get some work done.

My Subaru Story

Back in the day, even Mr. Money Mustache slipped into the Subaru trap at one point. It was a 2004 Impreza wagon. I bought it for the impressive cargo space, but sold it just a few years later for the abysmal gas mileage. Even with a 4-cylinder engine and a manual transmission and my best attempts at hypermiling, that little machine could suck down gas at 27 MPG on the highway, meaning it consumed as much fuel as my 15-year-old city bus of a construction van does. By comparison, the 2005 Scion xA I replaced it with holds the same number of people, but has averaged about 42 MPG in its life with me. But at least those Subaru years gave me plenty of time to evaluate the effectiveness of all-wheel drive**.

What I found was just what physics would suggest: it’s all in the tires. The car came with reasonable all-season tires, which gave it fast acceleration and average stopping power in blizzards. On the other hand, I would end up Dukes of Hazzarding through slippery intersections because the rear wheels would break their traction more easily than a front-drive car. On the positive side, the car could do outrageous drifting power doughnuts in an empty ski resort parking lot – a longstanding Subaru owner tradition.

Later I upgraded to a set of Pirelli 215/45ZR17 performance tires on fancy wheels (hey, I was just a clueless lad back then), which greatly improved its handling on my area’s usually-dry roads, but turned it into an all-wheel-drive toboggan in the snow.

I vividly remember a moment in my town’s level, well-plowed Lowe’s parking lot, pulling out with a small load of lumber. It was a sunny but crisp day in January, so the snow was melting only slowly. I found myself stuck right in the pedestrian crossing in front of the store, with all four of those big alloy  wheels whirring cheerfully but uselessly as they polished the packed snow and I went nowhere. It took a couple of friendly but sarcastic contractors to push me out by hand. They mocked my vehicle for not being a truck, but the real joke was the tires.

 But why is my Aunt’s Subaru so much better in snow (even braking) than my Prius?

Last year my van pulled a heavy load up a grassy hill covered with 8" of snow. Front wheel drive is more than enough.

Last year my van pulled a heavy load up a grassy hill covered with 8″ of snow. Front wheel drive is more than enough.

The tires are the biggest thing, but a few other factors than can also affect traction:

A wheel and tire combo with a longer contact patch can grip the snowy road better. Larger diameter, narrower width, taller sidewall profile, softer rubber compound, and lower air pressure all contribute to this. The Subaru comes with larger, softer tires than the Prius.

A heavier vehicle can crush the snow enough to get slightly more grip in certain conditions, but this is tricky since extra weight also means more trouble changing directions. Extra weight also makes you more lethal to everyone else on the road, which would make it a pretty selfish way to try to defend yourself. If you choose to play this game, just be honest and add machine guns instead.

Higher ground clearance allows you to skim over deeper snow without scraping the car’s belly. But this is a smaller deal than you’d think. For example, the Nissan Pathfinder SUV has 6.5 inches of ground clearance, while the Toyota Prius is only an inch lower at 5.5. A road with even 5 inches of snow is insane to drive in any vehicle above about 25 MPH, so you might as well get out your mountain bike or cross country skis.

The Ultimate Solution

The first choice, of course, is to design your life so you don’t need to drive in the snow very often, or very far. I accomplished this partly by moving away from the extremely snowy area of Canada where I grew up. But you get equal effect by doing your house and job shopping with car commute avoidance in mind. A person with your level of skill is definitely entitled to work from home on snow days – your boss will agree.

Oddly enough, once I laid the ground rule of no snow commuting, the freedom from cleaning off cars and driving them in snow has been one the longest lasting bits of happiness I have ever experienced: 15 years of smiles and still going strong. Nowadays, although I argue strongly for snow tires, I don’t own any – because I just don’t bother driving on those rare days it snows in my own area.

Second best: Snow Tires on Dedicated Rims

Blizzak WS-80 - slightly pricey, but your Honda Fit will outperform Jeep Grand Cherokees with them. Highly recommended for extremely snowy areas.

Blizzak WS-80 – slightly pricey, but your Honda Fit will outperform Jeep Grand Cherokees once you outfit it with these. Highly recommended for extremely snowy areas.

This part is really easy.  We now know that SUVs and AWD are not useful for those driving on paved roads. We know that summer tires and even all season tires are death traps compared to snow tires. I’m serious about this: there is a night and day difference in snow grip between all season tires (sometimes referred to by driving professionals as “no-season tires”) and good snow tires, because of the different rubber compounds and tread patterns.

But you don’t want to take your car to a mechanic twice every year and pay to have summer and winter tires swapped. This costs time and money, and damages the tires and rims. Instead, you simply get a second set of rims with snow tires permanently installed.

In the US, you just go to TireRack.com, look at their winter catalog, and pick out a set of wheels and tires that are guaranteed to fit your car. They come via UPS, and you jack up your car and swap them on one at a time, just as easy as putting on the spare. Any dedicated tire shop or Costco is also a good choice (Tire Rack will still help you get an idea what a good price on tires and wheels looks like). And as usual, the auto dealer is to be avoided – they’ll just try to sell you two thousand dollar tires and rim sets, or worse,a brand new model with AWD.

Happy Holidays, and may this set of snow tires be the last you ever need.

 

* If you read all this and insist on disobeying Mr. Money Mustache to your own detriment, the least ridiculous new AWD cars on the market right now are the Subaru Impreza wagon (they have improved it to 33MPG highway) and in the Large SUV category, the Subaru Forester (up to 32 hwy). Another good choice for large off-road camping families with an extreme money surplus is a 2010-ish Honda CR-V. SUVs larger than this have no rational reason to exist at all – just get a van.

** Thanks to my upbringing in Canada and various subsequent snowboarding trips around North America, I’ve also snow tested a few other all-wheelers: the Subaru Legacy/Outback, WRX wagon and Forester, Jeep Wrangler and Grand Cherokee, Toyota Tacoma and 4Runner, Audi S4 wagon, Nissan Pathfinder, Ford F-250 pickup, Chevrolet Trailblazer and Traverse, Honda CR-V and Element, and even an Eagle Talon turbo AWD. Diagnosis: It’s all in the tires.

Further reading on cars: Top 10 Cars for Smart People

Car and Driver: Snow Tires Still Beat Four Wheel Drive

Jalopnik: let’s settle the Winter Tires vs AWD debate forever, and Snow Tires: to buy or not to buy

  • Spence December 1, 2014, 6:46 pm

    I want to be able to say that Mr. Money Mustache approves of my 4wd Ford diesel excursion. Hold the expletives and let me explain! ;) My wife and I have seven young children. I know I should have read the It’s ok to have only one child article sooner, but there is no turning back now. :) The above mentioned vehicle gets combined city/highway 15-17 mpg. We use it sparingly for family outings and trips. My wife and I each have small fuel efficient sedans for errands, etc. Even the newest passenger vans only get 14 mpg combined at best, which is worse than our Excursion. I am not aware of any recently produced diesel vans other than the behemoth sprinter type vehicles. So for our situation, wouldn’t the Excursion be the most mustachian vehicle?

    Reply
    • Mr. Money Mustache December 1, 2014, 8:39 pm

      I’d suggest just owning two efficient cars. That’s 10 passengers of capacity. Another option is the Sprinter – 20-25 MPG and it’s the size of a small RV!

      But you’re right – the Excursion isn’t bad for 9 people and it is incredibly cheap to buy an old one because of the steep depreciation.

      Reply
      • Spence December 2, 2014, 12:22 pm

        Thanks for the reply MMM! I hadn’t thought of taking two cars, but the overall fuel economy would be better. I had no idea the sprinter vans got such awesome mileage but I checked into it and you are certainly correct…wow! Maybe if the excursion wears out some day I will look into one of these; they will probably be cheaper by then anyway.
        It sounds like it has been quite a ride for you in the past few years, now you are practically famous. :) I can see why though, your message resonates with a lot of people. And the fact that you have not sold out to extravagant consumerism as your notoriety and income have increased is very impressive to me, although not unexpected.

        Reply
      • afox December 2, 2014, 3:25 pm

        The sprinter is a horrible vehicle for a moustachian. They have extremely high initial costs and extremely high maintenance costs. Oil changes are hundreds of dollars. A replacement engine is $13,000 (just to give you an idea). Like with a prius the fuel savings from a sprinter over a comparable van will never make up for the much higher initial investment.

        Reply
  • kbindrim December 1, 2014, 7:21 pm

    I have a degree in physics and have tried explaining this to people who insist on 4 wheel drive, that your only advantage is off the line acceleration in slippery conditions and better luck getting unstuck should that extremely rare occurrence happen. It does nothing for steering or breaking which as you said are the real important part of being safe. But it’s like talking to a brick wall because it’s “common knowledge” that 4 wheel drive handles better, stops better and is safer on the road. It’s maddening when common sense is riddled sometimes with misinformation. Hopefully you’ve helped a few more people understand! I just don’t see the extra cost as you mentioned being worth the tiny tiny chance of getting me unstuck in a snowbank ditch someday, which has never happened yet. All that being said I do know some people who really do live in the middle of no where surrounded by miles of farms and benefit with 4 wheel drive in winter, but that’s less than 1% of the populations reality though.

    Reply
  • LeisureFreak Tommy December 1, 2014, 7:31 pm

    I have never owned AWD and have lived in Snow country for all of my driving life. I have been using a 1990 Honda Civic for my Winter commuter since 1998. I do go old-school putting studded snow tires on it for extreme bite on ice. Not sure how you feel about studs as I have seen pros and cons but it has worked for me. I am 6′ 3″ and there is plenty of room in the old ugly Civic hatchback. I have got it stuck once due to low ground clearance. I knew I wouldn’t be able to push through 24″ of snow very far on our un-plowed street to get to the main plowed road but had fun trying and got close enough with some shoveling to make it. I did pick up a clean 1 owner 2002 Chev Tracker 4X4 last year for $2k that I can use on those deep snow days but its main purpose is dirt back roads for fishing. On regular 8″ or less snow which is 99% of the time I prefer the frugal Civic.

    Reply
  • Dean December 1, 2014, 7:42 pm

    New wheels from tirerack.com? Couldn’t you get some cheap wheels on Craigslist (from some bozo upgrading to fancypants rims) and get a tyre shop to put snow tyres on?

    Reply
  • Ryan December 1, 2014, 8:11 pm

    Hear hear. I just drove a Toyota Corolla through Vermont’s Green Mountains in the middle of a 12-inch snow storm. No problems at all, even driving faster than every other car on the road. I’m actually anti-snow tires as well. I’m 32 years a New Englander and have never had a use for them.

    Reply
  • Chris December 1, 2014, 9:13 pm

    I grew up just outside of Syracuse, NY. My driver’s ed class included one drive where we arrived for driving with no snow, and finished driving with just under a foot of snow.

    There is exactly *one* thing you need in order to safely drive in snow. That’s a big huge dose of “SLOW the frick down.” If you can’t do that, stay home and leave safe winter driving to people who care about other people’s safety.

    Reply
  • Tawcan December 1, 2014, 10:04 pm

    AWD is really only useful if you take your vehicle off road and you’re driving in mud. Even then, good set of tires will probably work better. Very good point about having good sets of tires.

    Reply
  • CharlieF December 1, 2014, 11:06 pm

    If only more people knows this.
    Even for Canadians, proper snow tires are waaaaaaay safer than AWD. Tires help for stopping and turning, which is required for avoiding! AWD is ONLY good for going up an icy hill from a STOP.
    If people want worse mileage, spend more on the car, more maintenance (more parts), drifting ONCE during that snowstorm, then sure why not!
    That said, Subis are awesome. They dont look that great, but they work. Function over fashion. Resell isnt too bad either.

    Reply
  • Phil Pogson December 2, 2014, 2:01 am

    My experience is that AWD costs more in tyres, more to service, less fuel economy, more moving parts to go wrong. My FWD gets me any where I need to go. having been brought up on a property we were taught how to take a car anywhere you needed to go. We never had AWD or 4WD on the farm.

    Reply
  • Julia December 2, 2014, 4:32 am

    The night before last we had a little freezing rain with not even a dusting of snow. Yesterday morning I got ready for work, bundled up for the 22 degree morning and set out walking the 1.9 miles to my office. My shoes happily crunched along the ground while I watched motorists spinning in the road. I was the only person at work on time and the only person without an, “I almost died on my way to work” story…bottom line is I think I was much safer than any of my co-workers.

    Reply
  • marvin mcdude December 2, 2014, 5:27 am

    Even winter tires are an unnecessary indulgence.

    I’ve driven in Minnesota and Wisconsin for 20 years with only front wheel drive (toyota corolla) and all-season tires, and never got in an accident. You don’t need superpowers; just don’t drive like an idiot. I’m actually a little shocked MMM feels they are necessary.

    Reply
  • Anthony December 2, 2014, 6:57 am

    Awesome article MMM.

    We realized about snow tires after my wife crashed a AWD Ford Escape Hybrid into a telephone pole at slow speed on a barely snow covered road and was then promptly written off. We now own a Ford Fusion Hybrid (FWD) with a set of snow tires we stick on when the all-seasons the car came with start slipping and will never look back. You are 100% correct its all in the tires.

    Unfortunately due to the falling gas prices we are only going to see an increase in the amount of larger vehicles on the roads.(at least until the prices rise up again)

    Reply
  • Lise December 2, 2014, 8:12 am

    I am currently looking to sell my V6 SUV for something smaller with better gas mileage however regarding safety, I feel safer in my bigger SUV. If the majority of people are soccer mom’s driving around in their big V6 SUVs with too much confidence, is it not safer for me and my kids to be sitting inside of a similar sized vehicle? Most of the arguments made here are regarding the driver’s ability to drive more safely and I completely agree. I’m an excellent driver and I’m sure I would be an excellent driver of a FWD hatchback .. so my concern isn’t for me crashing into anything but for others crashing into me. Thoughts? I currently drive a Q7 and that thing is built like a tank .. hypermiling I get 25MPGs but I feel very safe should somebody crash into me. Not sure I’d feel that way driving a Yaris.

    Reply
  • Poe December 2, 2014, 8:14 am

    When crossing the border to go to Vermont or New Hampshire, the road is full of VUS and pick-ups. Cross back to Quebec, and it’s mainly corollas, accents and civics. I did not believe it the first time I observed this phenomenon. Then the experience was confirmed every time.
    Not a judgment, just an observation.

    Reply
  • Winifred December 2, 2014, 8:22 am

    For once I did something right before reading a blog post about it! I have a 2003 VW Jetta, and I am a firm firm believer in swapping out wheel sets for winter weather. It’s AMAZING.

    Reply
  • Tom December 2, 2014, 8:40 am

    Looking at gas mileage numbers, the new Subaru Impreza gets a combined 31 mpg. In comparison, other cars in its class are getting 33 mpg (Mazda 3 hatch). If you drive 10,0000 miles a year with $3.00/gal fuel, you’re only saving 60 bucks a year.

    It’s amazing how much an AWD car has closed the gap on the competition.

    Reply
  • Frans December 2, 2014, 8:46 am

    Nope, you won’t be safer as far as braking distance or handling in decent conditions, but if you live somewhere rural where you actually get decent amounts of snow and studded winter tires is the norm already, AWD can probably make a difference.

    That’s not an excuse to buy some monstrous SUV however.

    Reply
  • Mike C December 2, 2014, 8:49 am

    I live just south of Buffalo. We know snow and winter driving. You may remember we got 7 feet two weeks ago. AWD is good for two things: giving you a false sense of security on slippery roads and sending you into the ditch at a higher rate of speed. I’ve driven nothing but FWD sedans with good all season tires and never had a problem. As a Mustachian, I now let the bus driver deal with the stress of winter driving.

    Reply
  • freedom52 December 2, 2014, 9:13 am

    MMM, thanks for sharing. I am grateful for finding your site. Since, we have paid off both our vehicles and are on our way to paying off our mortgage in the next few years. But as far as AWD is concerned, I think you are misleading your readers. Read the linked article below. If law enforcement believes it provides greater traction I believe it. If my wife’s Saturn Vue automatically switches on AWD when needed, is it lying? If my Subaru Impreza all-time AWD distributes torque to my 4 wheels according to the conditions, is that BS? Common sense dictates that a tire will behave differently whether it is simply being pushed or if it actually has power going to it. I live in Eastern Canada where we have 2 seasons: winter and road repair. I’ve driven RWD, FWD & AWD, winter & all season tires in 30 years. I can say with certainty that AWD provides the greatest traction in turns and acceleration even with all season tires in snow and in wet slippery conditions. I’m not talking about braking. That’s likely one of the reasons we can see Subaru’s in rally racing. I got one for safety and durability as Subaru makes a quality vehicle that I intend to keep as long as the Maritimes won’t rot it.

    AWD Patrol Vehicles Gain Traction
    Beginning with the 2015 model year, each of the Big Three Detroit automakers will be offering an all-wheel-drive pursuit-rated vehicle.

    http://www.policemag.com/channel/vehicles/articles/2013/11/awd-patrol-vehicles-gain-traction.aspx

    Reply
    • Tom December 2, 2014, 5:05 pm

      Our state recently bought a fleet of AWD Taurus (er, Police Interceptor) cop cars. A big draw for them – they will run them with all-season tires, saving $$ and allowing for higher speed chases when there isn’t snow (vs lower-speed rated winter tires.)

      I got to ask a state trooper about this. Seems when they had the old Crown Vics, they couldn’t sell to the bean counters the expense of two sets of tires for every cop car, so they had to run them on snows all year ’round…

      Another reason for this trend in cop cars – the near-elimination of large RWD sedans, leading car companies to rebadge SUVs as pursuit vehicles.

      In other words – it’s marketing and money, as much as capability.

      Reply
    • Scott December 4, 2014, 6:37 pm

      The article you cite specifically says the police are buying them for their performance characteristics, not their snow driving capabilities– exactly as MMM states.

      Reply
  • Rupert December 2, 2014, 9:39 am

    Nailed it.
    Syracuse native raised in snow up to my eyes (approx. 70″). My parents were both raised in the south but still laughed at the it’s-a-jeep-thing-to-crash-into-a-ditch drivers who thought they were something with 4WD. My father drove a RWD Ford Ranger for the post office for years with no accidents because he respected the limitations of his vehicle on snow and slowed down.
    But we don’t want to slow down. We spend immense amounts of money for ever diminishing returns on speed and “efficiency.” How the heck am I supposed to beat everyone to those post-Christmas specials if I don’t have AWD for the snow?!?!
    I don’t think you really gave that a lot of thought MMM.

    Reply
  • Sergey December 2, 2014, 9:58 am

    I drove a RWD-only Lexus with brand new winter tires in Nebraska winter and never had any problems. There was also a button that activates “the snow mode” which made quite a difference in grip.

    Reply
  • HenryDavid December 2, 2014, 10:03 am

    Here’s how you know it’s all about tires: they’re the ONLY thing that actually TOUCHES THE GROUND.
    Tire composition, tread pattern, and PRESSURE all matter a lot. Everybody should test this by mountain biking. Spend years testing it. Fun, eh? It’s such a great way to get better at both biking and driving. Take this morning’s -11 bike commute on a cheerful mix of packed snow, ice, dry pavement, Calgary cobblestones (frozen snowy footprints now hard as rock) and “brown sugar” (churned up snow mixed with road sand). This scientific experiment tells you that reading the surface, anticipating grippy places to brake, choosing NOT to brake/steer/add torque in other places . . . are all key mountain bike skills that also translate to car driving. (Knowing when to get off and walk is also key. But in a car you can’t do that.) Soft rubber, knobby tread and low tire pressure seem just as good as expensive and heavy spiked tires.
    QED: tires + skill + attentiveness > money spent on AWD.

    Reply
  • Jennifer Roberts December 2, 2014, 10:30 am

    I have lived in Central NY (near snowiest city Syracuse) all my life. My parents have never had an AWD vehicle, nor have my husband and I. My husband commutes 60 miles round trip every day in a Hyundai Elantra. I had one very minor accident many years ago when I skidded on some slush. You learn to deal with the snow. Take your time, know how to steer if you start to slide, etc. It’s far better to learn to deal with unexpected driving conditions than to put your faith in a vehicle that you don’t even understand, thinking it will just handle it. I’ve seen many big SUVs in ditches. There are definitely circumstances here in the winter when AWD would make things less of a pain in the butt, but it’s not worth the extra cost for most of us. The majority of the cars I see on the road around here are not AWD.

    Reply
  • dunny December 2, 2014, 10:36 am

    I live in Vancouver where a snow or temps around freezing causes havoc (I love the rain). Combine hills, lots of cars, no snow clearing on 90% of streets and lanes, immobilized buses and delivery trucks, and people driving too fast and you have the idea. Manitoba driving skills are not that useful here because there is no space to maneuver and it’s not cold enough here. I stay home in the deep snows because my car’s ground clearance isn’t sufficient to push 2 feet of snow. That being said, my manual transmission on my tiny 1987 Mazda 323 gets me through stopping and starting on solid ice and slippery hills, while huge pick-ups and SUV’s spin and spin. Now it is getting too old to repair and I need something reliable for trips through the US and Mexico. The speed bumps in Mexico are deadly so I would like something higher up for that reason only. I am also very addicted to the power in my Mazda GT turbo engine for the mountains and highways. I also have a very small garage so I’d like to stay with a smaller car. The new Mazda 3’s are okay but on the big side. I am looking at the Kia Soul manual transmission. Pros, price, nice styling. Cons, lower fuel efficiency, low to the ground. Power should be okay at 130 HP. Ideas welcome.

    Reply
  • Darby December 2, 2014, 11:55 am

    Here is a very interesting video I saw last year on the same subject of the importance of winter tires vs AWD by using a ski slope as a worst case scenario. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mfuE00qdhLA

    But I live in Austin, Texas and don’t need either of these things…

    Reply
  • Will December 2, 2014, 12:14 pm

    I’m not sure if this was linked here already or not, but here is a fun article with a video showing the difference between AWD+regular tires vs FWD+snow tires. http://jalopnik.com/lets-settle-the-winter-tires-vs-all-wheel-drive-debat-1462180324

    Reply
  • Huck December 2, 2014, 12:34 pm

    Guilty of Subaru (Outback), bought pre-mmm. But mainly for the cargo space, don’t care much about the AWD. Tried to find similar wagons but slim pickings, and would only save minimally. The outback is a nice, practical, cheap to maintain and reliable car, with bad but not terrible milage (~25-27 average).
    Options:
    Elantra touring – maybe 30+ mpg?, less space
    Passat wagon – expensive maintenance
    Prius V – If driving a lot this is a great replacement. Once older models are available I’ll likely switch. If I still have my 35 mi/day commute.

    Reply
  • BigJim December 2, 2014, 12:41 pm

    This is a very interesting post / thread. I live in PA where the winters are variable, some years we barely get any snow, but every 5 or 10 years we seem to get pounded all winter. This means that 1) Many people seem to forget how to drive in slippery stuff, 2) Many people who could greatly benefit from winter tires avoid them due to the cost. I am currently lucky to be retired and can stay home on snow days, but in the winter of 1995-6 I was working over 120 miles from home in a much colder part of the state, and that year it snowed every week from Thanksgiving to Easter, including one storm in January that dropped over 30 inches of snow. Fortunately, I had bought a full set of extra wheels with Blizzack winter tires for my 1993 Saturn SW2. The year I bought this car it was the cheapest car you could buy with ABS and traction control and with the winter tires I felt like Spiderman. All wheel drive may get you going but it does not help in stopping, especially if you have become overconfident from the getting going! As for the “getting your money” out of the purchase, if you do not drive that much? I used to leave my car at home and take public transportation on snowy days. When my co-workers questioned this, I would ask them how much their car insurance deductible is [often $500, or more], then ask them if they made that much in one day, which is what they were risking by driving in the snow. You can equip many cars with four extra wheels and winter tires for around $500 or thereabouts. If you escape ONE collision in the years that you use the winter tires then they are already “paid for” – with the added dividends of avoiding injuries and raised premiums, or even maybe needing a new car sooner.

    One last thought: in winter it is not only the type of tires that you have, it is also the condition of the tires. If my usual all-season tires are questionable, “almost” worn out, I will replace them before the snows come so I will have the benefit of the best miles using them in winter driving.

    Reply
  • Victor December 2, 2014, 12:42 pm

    It makes me sad to read that you’re a “recovering” gearhead, but happy to learn of your stint in an Eagle Talon AWD. DSMs forever!

    Having spent college in Rochester, NY, I learned early to use separate wheels/tires for summer & winter, even in northern Virginia where I currently live. People here think I’m crazy, but I’m the one that gets the last laugh!

    On the other hand, spare wheels/tires occupy a fair amount of space. Those who have truly adopted a mustachian, space-efficient lifestyle may be hard-pressed to keep the spare set around when not in use, without freeloading space from a friend with extra room in the garage or (gasp!) renting a storage unit. Fortunately (or unfortunately) for me I jumped on the MMM bandwagon after buying a house with 1400 sq.ft. of garage space, so I don’t have that problem.

    …as you may guess, no I don’t have room to store your extra wheels/tires.

    Reply
  • Ellie December 2, 2014, 12:58 pm

    Mr. MM, the Subaru Forester is not considered a large SUV. It is a midsize or even “small” SUV. My husband has a 2015 model. It gets great gas mileage for its size and class, way better than my own very anti-Mustachian 2004 Lexus RX330. And it (the Forester, not the Lexus) was quite reasonably priced. If my gas-guzzling car wasn’t still in fantastic condition, I might consider a more fuel-efficient vehicle, but hey, it only has 65,000 miles on it, was purchased for cash and will probably last another 10 years. It is solid and stable driving on Midwestern snow. So was my previous front-wheel drive car.

    Reply
    • Le Barbu December 2, 2014, 2:04 pm

      How much for that 2015 Forester ? Mine is a 2010 I bought for 50% of tag price (rebuilt with 25k miles) and still one of my biggest financial mistake to date. I’ll never pay more than 5-10K$ for a vehicle ! Back to 2011, I should have kept my 2002 Civic or bought a 2004 CRV.

      Reply
      • Ellie December 3, 2014, 2:41 pm

        The 2015 retails for around $25,000. My husband wanted a manual transmission, needed a good cargo capacity, and there were few options. Did you feel you paid too much for your 2010? I have no idea what a good price would be, but ‘rebuilt’ sounds a bit ominous.

        Reply
        • Le Barbu December 11, 2014, 6:38 am

          My Forester tag price was 38k was it went out of the dealership (yeah, that’s Canada) and I paid 19k. Good price to get what I did, but the best would have been to keep my 2002 Civic with 50k miles, I sold that precious for 5k! Anyway, that was in my pre-MMM life !

          Reply
  • Paul N December 2, 2014, 4:25 pm

    Wow it’s amazing how confirmation bias works…
    Your title I agree with : The drive is not safer, if you drive like an “asshat” as someone above so humorously mentioned above. A 4WD wheel vehicle outperforms and has better control than an identical version of the SAME car /SUV with 2WD in snowy conditions. Your bringing up factors like mpg / and room for tall people or tires of which some winters are good, some are great. Or one particular model over another. That is not exactly a fair comparison. Take an old Chevy S-10 Chassis SUV or Pickup then drive it in 2W then again in 4W or even the famous Jeep Wrangler then tell me again which you prefer to drive for a full winter. These is a biased weird comparison where you are throwing in additional conditions and factors out there and not focusing on comparing apples to apples. If i have Prius and i put 4 $200.00 top of the line snow tires on it, it will perform just as good as a 4 wheel drive vehicle with all seasons. Is that not simply stating the obvious?

    Reply
  • Miquel December 2, 2014, 4:38 pm

    Which is the most Mustachian mounted machine gun?

    Reply
  • Tom December 2, 2014, 4:58 pm

    Always enjoy the blog.

    One thing I wish MMM emphasized more is the role of electronic stability control (ESC). It’s very, very capable, reducing crashes by approximately 25% (which is why it was mandated on all cars from 2012-on.) As he duly noted, it can do things that people can’t do, by braking individual wheels to prevent the car from spinning and leaving the roadway.

    The lack of ESC is one reason why you see so many 2000-ish Outbacks facing the wrong way in highway medians once it snows: lots of go in the slippery stuff, but coupled a tendency to oversteer and no ESC (except on the loaded 6-cyl ones no one bought) to correct it once it starts to rotate.

    ESC is marvelous, especially when you realized that the little flashing light (all you see) has saved your bacon. Getting it does force you typically to buy a newer car, or an older expensive-to-maintain European sedan.

    Agreed on the value of snow tires. Every car in my garage, from the Subaru days to the VW days to our current single-car, a Hemi-powered SUV (a paid-off tool that we use to tow a treasured camper), gets snow tires.

    Ironically, we have arguably the most capable snow car we’ve ever owned – along with jobs that let us work at home when it snows. :)

    Reply
  • Patrick December 2, 2014, 6:15 pm

    Timely article – we are looking for snow tires for our FWD sedan – this was a great reminder of what to do. Keep up the great work!

    Reply
  • Dr. JB December 2, 2014, 6:21 pm

    Wondering if anyone has utilized snow tires on the renowned Mazda5?

    Reply
  • David December 2, 2014, 9:25 pm

    It is amazing to me that college educated people are the primary buyers of SUVs in this country. This means they did not even comprehend the very first chapter in Physics 101. It says a lot about our university system and just how awful most of them are in reality. To even have to explain why an SUV is a terrible choice proves my point.

    Imagine putting 400 pounds of bowling balls in your car and leaving them there permanently. Nothing odd about that, right?

    Or imagine having to explain to a college graduate why a tall filing cabinet with only the top drawer filled with stuff tips over easier than a shorter filing cabinet. That’s an SUV in a nutshell. We won’t even go into aerodynamics.

    Right now SUVs and giant trucks still significantly outsell cars and they are being used as commuter vehicles in urban areas. Look in just about any driveway and there is at least one of them if not two. Just sit at a street corner one day and count 100 commuter vehicles as they go by. You will easily see that the majority are SUVs, trucks and vans.

    Reply
    • Huck December 3, 2014, 8:31 am

      SUVs carry a ton of stuff, and are large and safer when crashing into stuff, or when being crashed into. Maybe not extremely smart, but I can see the appeal behind both of these reasons. I like to be safe and to carry stuff..

      Is a Yaris chap? yes. But does it fit my dog crate and all our baby luggage.. And how about that idiot in a Ram 2500 crashing into me..?

      Reply
    • Doug December 3, 2014, 9:07 am

      While SUVs do carry a lot of stuff, I’m also surprised at the number of educated people (especially engineers and technologists who should know better) who buy them. To add to that, fuel prices have been dropping and SUV and truck sales have been going up. Sooner or later fuel prices will go up again and those people will want to get rid of them and buy more fuel efficient vehicles. Why don’t more vehicle buyers understand that?

      Reply
  • Murm December 2, 2014, 11:46 pm

    I drive a Honda Fit in the Canadian prairies. All-season tires all.. seasons… There are maybe 4 or 5 days a year when winter tires would make a big difference, usually just after or during a big snowfall. But as long as the front bumper can clear the snow, it’s fine.

    From what I can remember watching my Mom drive her SUV around, AWD is more useful for not getting stuck than any safety thing.

    Reply
  • Celtickiwi December 3, 2014, 2:03 am

    Normally Top Gear would not be recommended viewing for Mustachians. However, if you still think you need a 4wd, this will prove why, in fact, you do not. http://topgearspecials.com/top-gear-season-10-episode-4-botswana-special/

    Reply
  • Mike December 3, 2014, 5:07 am

    The only thing I’d take up here is the assertion that a 4×4 drivetrain is always going to consume more power than a two-wheel drive system. In testing the early ‘quattro’ 4×4 system in the late seventies, Audi engineers determined that the additional power consumed by the complexity of the drivetrain was pretty much equivalent to the power used up by dragging the unpowered rear end of the car around, or pushing the unpowered front end around, depending on which end drives. I’ve driven two such cars – my old eighties Audi coupe quattro with mechanical 4×4 and lockable diffs, and my current TT with electronic power distribution and bells and whistles, and to be fair in actual snow conditions (which generally close down the UK as we don’t expect it) the older car feels much more stable.

    But I’d agree it’s all about physics – if you can’t grip the road, it doesn’t matter whether you can spin two wheels or all four.

    Reply
  • Chris December 3, 2014, 5:27 am

    MMM, I think you have one typo in the article: “fishtail and spin out – this is why rear-drive-only vehicles like sports cars and pickups are terrible in snow, but front-drive works well”

    You really mean, rear-drive-only cars and pickups are FUN in the snow. I’ve driven a mid-90s Camaro (similar weight distribution to a pickup with RWD. ) in Buffalo for years during many snow storms and never had a problem (even with all-seasons).

    My thinking is, if you spend a lot of time fishtailing around corners in a controlled manner (on purpose), you are far more prepared to handle any future event when you aren’t sliding on purpose. Also using this method, you will know exactly how slippery it is at any given time and have a much safer ride since you can brake like everyone else.

    Reply
  • Warren December 3, 2014, 5:50 am

    Interesting article, thanks MMM! I have to admit that I have struggled with buying snow tires almost every year of my adult life, but have never pulled the trigger. I live in Ottawa, Canada where we KNOW snow. I agree with the last comment here from Sister X: don’t be an asshat and drive normally – you have to adjust for the conditions. I too avoid driving at all on the first 2-3 days of snowfall as people temporarily lose their senses.

    I have driven in some fairly extreme conditions and would have benefitted from snow tires, I am sure, but probably only 20 times over my almost 30 years of driving. When I was 17 I slid on a rural road and ended up going backwards on the opposite side of the road. Ended up in the opposite side ditch. After cleaning up my pants, I rocked the car out and was thankful that I learned a valuable lesson without getting injured or killed. Since then I don’t drive in very poor conditions, or drive very carefully if absolutely necessary (for example, once hit a very bad lake effect white-out on the highway when I was already on the way to the folks for Xmas).

    Likely I am influenced by my dad, who I don’t believe has ever bought snow tires – and he has driven all over Ontario in all kinds of weather. For work in the 70’s he even drove from Toronto to The Pas, Manitoba and back in the winter. Now THAT is north.

    Now we just had our 4th child, so seriously considering buying them this year. A lot of my friends swear by them, but still struck by the fact that I might only truly need them for about 2 hours this winter. So, are they a “nice to have” or a “need to have”?

    Reply
    • Le Barbu December 3, 2014, 7:37 am

      Warren , I always thought that every km you drive with your winter tires is a km you don’t wear the other set. So, find a complete set (wheel & tires) that fit your car and switch for snow season.

      Couple years ago, I bought a wrecked Forester from insurance co. because a guy assume all-seasons tires are fine in Ottawa. I’m from Québec city area, Forester is great in wintertime !

      Reply
  • Daryl December 3, 2014, 8:14 am

    We had a wedding to attend last weekend in this winter fortress we like to call Canada. Drive was about 500 miles each way (Winnipeg, MB to Saskatoon,SK). I drove a Toyota Echo with studded winter tires on some very icy roads on the highway. In fact I didn’t notice quite how icy they were till I got out to fill up with gas at one point and almost slipped. Once we got to Saskatoon the ice was replaced by about 4 or 5 inches of snow. I drove around that city with ease as I watched trucks and SUVs struggle to get around. There were a few instances where I would briefly lose friction but the tires didn’t take long to dig back in again. Once I got to the wedding I heard about everyone’s drive and how bad the roads were out there and meanwhile, I’m in probably the smallest car there and couldn’t really agree.

    This experience proved to me that a good set of winter tires for less than $1000 is worth much more than the several thousand or tens of thousands of dollars you pay to “upgrade” to a truck or SUV.

    Reply
  • Doug December 3, 2014, 9:24 am

    In some locations, like living in a rural area and especially if hilly, AWD makes sense. However for someone like me, an urbanite in flat Southwestern Ontario, AWD is a luxury and not a necessity. It makes more sense to have 2 wheel drive and use 4 snow tires. You can buy 4 rim mounted snow tires for less than the cost of a car having the option of AWD or 4WD. Two years ago I priced new snow tires, mounted on rims, and the estimate came to about $900. being somewhat mustachian I figured I could do better than that. On http://www.kijiji.ca, an online buy and sell site, I got 2 snow tires and rims. I bought 2 more tires at an auto wreckers and 2 rims at Costco and it came to about $400, much more livable. Not exactly real hard core badass mustachian, but better. I find I have no trouble at all getting around in the snow. Oh sure, traction isn’t as good as with AWD, but steering and braking are as good. Last but not least, you have to adjust driving according to conditions. About 2 weeks ago there was a snow storm and a lot of accidents occurred. It seems some drivers thought it was the same skills as driving on a dry, sunny day in August!

    Reply
  • Hummer December 3, 2014, 9:41 am

    I’m sad. I have a 2002 Subaru WRX and I really like it. I’ve had it for 2 years now. Bought 2nd hand for $8,000 CAD in 2012.

    Reply
  • AllenH December 3, 2014, 10:11 am

    One thing I haven’t seen mentioned is that AWD can exempt you from having to chain up when 2wd is required to. I drive the WA mountain passes frequently enough that it is totally worth having a 15 yo Subaru to avoid chaining up. It may be a hedonistic treadmill luxury, but I also consider it safer than getting out of the car on the side of the highway in the dark.

    Reply
  • Georgi December 3, 2014, 10:19 am

    I’ve read all your posts and I’ve never felt I need to comment, but this time I have to.

    The reason I can state so confidently that the AWD hype is pure marketing bullshit is simple physics. Although this was one of my favorite subjects in engineering school, you don’t need a degree to understand it fully and cure your desire for AWD.

    That’s a pretty bold statement, typical of Mr. Money Mustache. Let’s see.

    * How firmly the car sticks to the road (more grip means more safety)
    * How effectively the car lets you change direction or speed (cars with a lower center of gravity and stiffer suspension are safer)

    You’ll note that there is not much in there that would allow cranking all four wheels, instead of just the front wheels, to make you any safer

    According to you, AWD will not do much to help a person trying to avoid a deer/fallen branch/spinning car on the highway with a sharp maneuver? Even if it is slightly wet? I beg to disagree. I say that person will certainly notice and be glad if all four of their wheels can transfer torque and have grip to maintain control of their car. AWD affects both of the points above. Of course good tires help as well, but the fact that you have two more wheels that can get you out of harms way is definitely worth something. I know the Internet demands “double blind, placebo controlled studies” or it dismisses anything it doesn’t like, but just ask all AutoX racers (where sharp turns on paved roads are required) which cars do best in wet conditions. It will be pretty clear that AWD cars are basically the only ones still in the race.

    Hundreds of pounds of steel shafts, gears, lubricating oils and reinforcements are required to get the power from the engine to that extra set of drive wheels

    So? Engineers are smart people (you are one, you should know) and can figure out a way to reduce weight elsewhere:

    2014 honda civic curb weight 2,749 lbs to 3,011 lbs
    2014 subaru impreza curb weight 2,944 lbs to 3,109 lbs

    2014 Honda Accord curb weight 3,186 lbs to 3,559 lbs
    2014 Subaru Legacy curb weight 3,315 lbs to 3,545 lbs

    Gas milage:
    This is a more generic topic which I’d like to address here as well. Your followers often quote savings over 40 years at 7% and on 15K miles a year. You often talk about selling the gas sucking 20mpg car in favor of a economical honda fit with its 35mpg (mine does only 30 fwiw). And while I agree there are valid cases for this, if the readers here do in fact agree with you (and act on it), they would have moved closer to work and drive 3000-5000 miles a year like you. Let’s do the math with an AWD car and its FWD counterpart. An older Impreza with 23mpg vs older Civic at 28mpg is about $70-$120 savings _per year_ at $3/gal or about $3000-$5000 over 20 years @ 7%/yr! That kind of money will likely make a dent in someone’s plan for early retirement, but for most $5000 will not speed up their early retirement even by a month. It only adds $200 at best to your yearly withdrawal power which is 1% of what I consider a respectable 20,000/yr budget.

    To recap:
    AWD does not help you stop faster. AWD does not give you the right to drive like a maniac. AWD is no excuse for improper tires. AWD is less gas efficient (although hardly worth pointing out with latest models). But most importantly AWD can be safer, just not in situations most people believe.

    Thanks for the blog, It looks like I”m on track to be financially independent much sooner than I thought possible, thanks to you!

    My $0.02

    Reply
  • Brian December 3, 2014, 10:22 am

    My experience has been the AWD does help. Mind you, I got along fine for years in a VW Bug (rear wheel driven and known as good in snow with engine weight over driving wheels) and newer front wheel drive vehicles. But AWD just digs in better. On slippery slopes, I found with AWD I could help push non-AWD vehicles, something I couldn’t without the added driving wheels. As well, our gravel driveway is about 100 yards, and one year when I had to get out before plowing the 8″ snow, our AWD wagon pushed right through. All that said though, when roads are adequately treated, non-AWD vehicles can work just fine. The key is keeping the inexperienced snow drivers more cautious. If not driving AWD helps with that, then take away their AWD vehicles! :)

    Reply
  • Techuser December 3, 2014, 11:19 am

    I once owned a Ford Ranger 4wd with all season tires (not mud and snow tires) and a Ford Mustang GT with Bridgestone Blizzaks on all four. I would always take the Mustang in the snow. The grip and feedback was way better. Before I bought the Blizzaks I had the stock super wide summer Goodyear gator backs. I backed out of the garage in light snow, immediately was stuck and needed my girlfriend to sit in the trunk so I could pull back in the garage ! I bought the Blizzaks right after that and had no more problems.

    Reply
  • David December 3, 2014, 4:57 pm

    Question for Mustachians on skipping or purchasing the Tire Pressure Monitoring System:

    Do I skip or add the TPMS (tire pressure monitoring system) on a dedicated set of winter wheels+tires?

    things to consider:
    *Purchasing the TMPS
    a. $200 gone
    b. TMPS needs to be reset by a dealer every time I put them on
    c. my soul dies a little every time (b.) happens

    *Skipping the TMPS
    d. someone has complained that the Honda anti-skid feature cannot be shut off if the TPMS is not working. They say it’s almost impossible to move the car when the road is ‘greasy’

    Reply
    • Mike December 4, 2014, 5:00 am

      On (b), can’t you get something for a laptop that will allow you to do this? I have no experience of Honda, but I know I can connect to VAG group cars using a software product that will allow me to change settings, reset fault codes, in fact I can wreak all kinds of havoc if I were minded to, but it might get around the issue (and cost) of having a dealer do this for you, and maybe help out in fault-finding.

      Reply
    • Le Barbu December 4, 2014, 8:56 am

      David,
      step 1 – Remove the TMSP from the rims/mags
      step 2 – Seal them tight in an ABS pipe
      step 3 – add a valve on the ABS pipe
      step 4 – inflate at the recommended pressure
      step 5 – drop the pipe somewhere in your car (i.e. in the spare compartment)

      the car computer will be happy and you’ll never have to deal with this issue again

      Reply
  • Emy December 3, 2014, 8:12 pm

    Public transportation rarely closes for snow; so it’s a good option for those of us who are highly skilled at saving lives.

    If the buses aren’t running, I’ll cycle in snow; but the unsafe driving habits around Washington, DC send me running to the bus during inclement weather that’s not bad enough to keep everyone home.

    Reply

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