The snowiest and second-coldest winter on record here in New England gave us a golden opportunity. We had the chance to test an all-wheel drive (AWD) Subaru Impreza on all-season tires vs. a front-wheel drive (FWD) Mazda3 fitted with Bridgestone Blizzak winter tires. So which matters more, AWD or winter tires?
Many of the writers here at BestRide openly admit to a snow-tire fetish. As our many stories promoting the winter rubber have explained, using snow tires doesn’t cost a car owner more money. The winter tires cost less than all-season tires and the car’s other tires “rest” when the snows are on. We also claim that the winter tires help a car turn better and stop shorter than all-season rubber, a fact backed up by many formal tests published by respected magazines. However, all-wheel drive is very tempting. Why bother with special tires if your car has AWD? Is it worth it? In a word YES.
At the outset of snowmageddon, I tested a Mazda3 2.5 sedan with Blizzaks. Coincidental to that test I had recently tested the Mazda3 2.0 hatch on all-season tires. Let’s get one thing out of the way early. There is no downside to snow tires in cold weather when the conditions are dry. Modern winter tires may be a bit more noisy, but it is not much of an issue. Winter tires stop and turn very well in cold, dry weather. The softer compound helps even in dry conditions. There is no reduction in handling in normal driving.
However, when slush, snow or ice cover the roads, winter tires are frankly amazing. The difference is dramatic, not subtle. Winter tires not only help the car stop and turn better than standard all-season rubber, winter tires also make getting started from a stop much more manageable. In our testing, this past month the Mazda3 with winter tires was simply much more confidence inspiring and better handling than any other front wheel drive car we tested with all-season tires. Surprisingly, it was also much better in all but one way than the AWD Subaru Impreza.
The Impreza and Mazda3 sedans are as close as two cars can be. They have the same price points and same basic size and layout. When we first hopped into our Subaru Impreza test car, we were a little bit stunned by how squirrelly it was. The roads were covered in a combination of compacted and mushy snow a few inches thick. Our very first start in the Impreza resulted in a tail-out slide we did not expect. Start out normally, and this AWD car would swing its rear end to the side as if you were doing a burn-out in an old school muscle car, but in slow motion. It took us a while to adapt. Turn in slowly at an intersection and the car would plow with understeer so pronounced it was like an instructional video. The tires simply would not bite. Stops were tricky with the ABS groaning and pulsing. Very quickly, it became apparent that the Subaru could only do one thing well in snow. Start out slowly. The Mazda3 on winter tires was much more capable in every other aspect of snowy/icy driving.
That said, getting started is very important. There were situations during our time with the Subaru Impreza that we would not have attempted in the Mazda3. For example, some steep driveways, and some other tight parking scenarios would not have been possible were it not for the AWD system. We knew we could go forward as long as the AWD Subaru was not high-centered (hung up on snow deeper than its ground clearance). So we have an unclear winner. The Mazda3 on winter tires is clearly the better car once you are moving along, but the Subaru is the clear winner with regard to being able to move ahead. One more thing. Subarus are AWD in reverse. This may not seem that important until you are forced to make a K turn in a driveway covered in ice – on a hill. A two-wheel drive car is going to get stuck in that situation, and a Subaru with AWD is not.
We wish we could say that for all drivers the choice is simple between AWD and snow tires, but it isn’t. If you don’t have a hilly driveway and your commute is 90% highway buy the snow tires and front wheel drive. If you plan to be on secondary roads, and hills are part of your drive every day, you will need AWD. The best idea is AWD and winter tires.
*Note: Some of my conclusions here come from having tested AWD cars with snow tires such as the Range Rover Evoque and Toyota Highlander, AWD cars with all-season tires such as the Jeep Cherokee and Chrysler 200S, and front wheel drive cars with all-season tires such as the Lexus ES class during the same period of time.