How does driveline layout affect winter driving?

When it comes to winter driving, the single best step you can take to increase your safety on the road is to install four high quality winter tires. With tread blocks designed to dig into the snow and spit it back out, they are ideal for navigating accumulated snow. In addition, snow tires provide valuable traction that will help you stay in control of your vehicle when driving on ice.

Even if you put winter tires to good use, you may wonder what other steps you can take to increase your winter driving safety. One area worth investigating is the relative effectiveness of your driveline layout options, namely (1) rear-wheel-drive (RWD), (2) front-wheel-drive (FWD), (3) all-wheel-drive (AWD) and (4) four-wheel-drive (4WD). None of these systems will help you stop on ice or provide the overall benefits of winter tires, but each system has pros and cons worth considering.


For the most part, drivers who prefer rear-wheel drive appreciate that it can handle more torque. However, this system is not very effective when snow or ice are present. The weight distribution of rear-wheel-drive vehicles causes them to slide sideways and even spin in slippery conditions. The lack of weight over the rear tires makes it difficult for them to gain the traction necessary to maintain control in wintery road conditions. While it is possible to navigate snow and ice in a rear-wheel-drive vehicle, this challenge should be reserved for the most experienced and confident drivers.


For most drivers dealing with challenging winter road conditions, front-wheel-drive is preferable to rear-wheel-drive because it provides the traction necessary to accelerate effectively in snow and ice. Of course, FWD is not without its drawbacks. Since this system forces drivers to rely heavily on their front wheels for turning and acceleration, steering is likely to be less precise in slippery conditions. For example, if you skid in a front-wheel-drive vehicle and turn the wheel, it is quite likely you will continue moving forward. Overall, FWD has what it takes to perform adequately in most winter weather, but it’s not ideal in severe conditions.


In slippery conditions, all-wheel-drive vehicles overcome many of the shortcomings of rear-wheel-drive and front-wheel-drive vehicles. As the name would suggest, all-wheel-drive sends power to all four wheels, which makes it easier to accelerate in snow and ice. The most sophisticated AWD systems quickly adjust to changing conditions and might even help you maintain traction. In spite of these benefits, all-wheel-drive also has some drawbacks, including poor fuel economy and higher maintenance fees. In addition, this system is unlikely to offer any significant advantage when it comes to steering or stopping, but if your primary objective is safe winter driving, AWD is preferable to RWD and FWD.


Usually reserved for pickup trucks and SUVs, four-wheel-drive systems are different from all-wheel drive systems in that the driver must select 4WD mode. This option is effective when dealing with very deep snow, as it offers added precision and stability. In spite of these strengths, 4WD presents many of the same shortcomings as the other systems, including traction issues and poor fuel economy. Like an all-wheel-drive vehicle, a four-wheel-drive vehicle will make it easier to drive in the winter, but you should not forget to exercise caution, as most of the risks of snow and ice are still in play.

When you’re on the road this winter, always exercise caution, no matter what driveline layout you use. When you reach your destination, be sure to visit YD.com and tag us in your social media posts.

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“AWD, 4WD and winter tires: What's the difference, and which is best?,” accessed December 17, 2018, https://www.chicagotribune.com/classified/automotive/sc-awd-4wd-snow-tires-autocover-1215-story.html.

“RWD, FWD, AWD, 4WD – Which drivetrain is better for winter?,” accessed December 17, 2018, https://www.aamcocolorado.com/rwd-fwd-awd-4wd-which-drivetrain-is-better-for-winter.