Snow Tires Transform a Car, Probably More Than All-Wheel Drive

Before buying my Subaru WRX, the dealer let me drive it home to get the important spousal approval before committing to the purchase. It was March, and the car still wore its original Dunlop Sport Maxx RT summer-only tires, yet it still had no problem clawing through three inches of fresh snow in my driveway thanks to its all-wheel-drive system. It is a rally car, after all. It doesn’t need snow tires, right?

My wife approved, I bought the car and the dealer installed a fresh set of Yokohama Avid Envigor performance all-season tires before I picked it up. I used dedicated snow tires on my Subaru BRZ, but that was a low-slung sports car that would go spiraling into a ditch at the faintest hint of snowflakes in the air without snow tires. It didn’t have the symmetrical AWD system of the WRX, which would surely keep me out of trouble. It did for the following winter. The all-season tires didn’t exactly excel in the snow, but they weren’t bad. Their limited grip and careful driving kept me out of trouble, and the AWD system kept me from getting stuck in all but the most extreme conditions.

I only encountered such extreme conditions once, while volunteering for a winter SCCA RallySprint at Team O’Neil Rally School last year. I worked at the finish line at the opposite end of the facility from the main garage area, which meant I had to drive down the technical rally roads from one end to the other. I didn’t go nearly as fast as the competitors, of course, but I still got to play a little.

During the winter, Team O’Neil’s gravel roads turn into a sheet of ice with a layer of snow on top of it. While my AWD system succeeded in delivering power to all four wheels, I found that it didn’t do much good when the tires on those wheels weren’t gripping the snow and ice well. In fact, I found myself completely unable to get up a small steep hill along the way. I ended up having to go back through a different area to take a much more gentle slope to get where I was going. Even then, it was slow going, as I was only vaguely sending the car in a particular direction as opposed to having enough control to actually drive it.

Team O'Neil rally roads in winter

Back in the real world, I never drove in such conditions on the street. The only time I encountered snow-covered roads was during an active storm when I chose to go out and pretend I’m Colin McRae. That changed, however, when I started a new job in rural New Hampshire. I knew that the roads would not be cleared or maintained as well on my new commute. As a result, I splurged on a set of snow tires mounted on basic steel wheels to replace the stock alloys and all-seasons, which were now rather worn out. It wasn’t cheap, but I was making an investment in my safety as well as a modification to my car.

So far, my theory has proven to be correct. While Massachusetts typically plows their roads fairly well, New Hampshire’s secondary highways aren’t always so well manicured, with packed snow covering them for days at a time during a particularly cold snap in January. It was no problem for my WRX, though, now properly equipped for winter. The AWD system would allow me to accelerate well, as you’d expect. I also had much more control while turning, as well. The traction limits were significantly higher on snow for these tires. I almost never triggered the stability control nannies to kick in. The same was true of braking, where I avoided engaging antilock unless I really stomped on the brakes way too hard. Even maintaining a quicker pace over snowy roads than most traffic, I still had a significant performance margin in reserve.

I returned to Team O’Neil to help with another winter RallySprint. Once again, I worked the finish at the far end and had to drive down rally stages to get there. This time, however, I had no trouble at all. My car laughed at the steep hill that thwarted me the prior year, then 4-wheel power slid out of the turn at the top. I went nowhere near a race pace — but because I was in a completely closed private facility with no traffic, I did push the car a bit harder than I ever would on a public road. Everything I asked the car to do, it did. If it started to understeer, a little bit of left foot braking would tuck in the nose, or extra throttle would rotate the rear a bit more. By the time I got to the other end, I was gently drifting the car around every turn, under complete control on the icy road. It’s not just about maintaining grip. For maximum fun, the key is to be able to break grip, then quickly regain it exactly when and where you want to. An old Pirelli commercial said "Power is nothing without control." This is especially true in the snow and ice, even in an AWD rally-inspired Subaru.

AWD is a good way to make sure you can get moving when the road is slippery. Snow tires are basically required for a rear-wheel-drive car get anywhere in a New England winter. But the combination of snow tires and an AWD car is nothing short of magical in the slippery stuff. As the great automotive commentator Ferris Bueller once said, "If you have the means, I highly recommend picking some up." At least, I’m pretty sure he was referring to winter tires.

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