Video: Settling the Winter Tire vs. All-Wheel-Drive Debate

Think all-wheel-drive is guaranteed to keep you on the road and out of a ditch? Think again.

Toronto gets hit by winter snowstorm
NurPhoto—NurPhoto via Getty Images

With Storm Harper hammering much of the country right now, we figured it was a good time to share the good ol' basics of winter driving. As much as everyone has been taught otherwise, all-wheel-drive and traction control aren't surefire ways to drive effectively through snow and ice. While they both help to keep your car moving forward and the latter intervenes to prevent wheelspin, they're limited by a simple factor: tires. If the rubber that meets the road isn't up to snuff, AWD and computer aids can only do so much to prevent you from heading into a ditch, or even worse, a person or another vehicle.

While all-season tires are, of course, more capable at maneuvering through adverse conditions than summer-only rollers, they are far from being an end-all solution—as we recently discovered during a trip to Whistler, Canada, where we tested the 2019 Mazda CX-5 AWD on a snowy obstacle course. All-season tires' unique compounds and tread patterns are meant to work in dry, wet, and slippery conditions, meaning they aren't made specifically for situations involving low grip.

Take what you know about all-weather compounds and compare them to purpose-built, winter-specific tires. Regardless of the wheels driven on the vehicle they're fitted to, when new or in good shape, they're virtually sure to aid traction with the proper driving practices.

The difference in the two options can be seen here in a video released by Tire Rack, comparing the performance of each tire type in an ice rink to simulate icy roadways; this time, the Toyota Camry is front-wheel-drive for reference.

Then, the same test was performed with an AWD Toyota Rav4. 

As shown, the softer rubber compound and special tread patterns found in winter tires make a significant difference in both acceleration, braking, and cornering. These are ideal for both performance and safety, and since 116,000 Americans are injured every year on snowy, slushy, and icy roads according to a recent study, neither should be discredited.

In a nutshell, what good is it to quickly take off from a stop light thanks to AWD, if a few seconds later you won't be able to stop or turn effectively? That's why winter tires make such a big difference.