It's not quite as controversial as the age-old paper vs. plastic debate, but Consumer Reports has weighed in on the question of whether all-wheel drive (AWD) offers better traction in snow than winter tires.
More auto makers ``are capitalizing on that passion for all-wheel drive'' by offering it on a growing number of sedans, wagons and minivans, Consumer Reports (CR) noted in its December 2002 issue. According to CR-published by the non-profit independent organization Consumers Union-more than 20 non-sport-utility models now offer such systems, which provide power to all four wheels as needed.
Citing Ward's Auto World, an industry trade publication, CR said sales of all-wheel-drive cars and minivans have roughly tripled since 1991.
Noting any vehicle's traction in snow usually can be enhanced by use of winter tires-``which use special compounds and aggressive tread''-the magazine tested how much of a difference winter tires can make.
It compared the performance of four of its test cars: an all-wheel-drive Volkswagen Passat GLX 4Motion and its front-wheel-drive sibling, the Passat GLS; and the all-wheel-drive Volvo Cross Country and similar front-drive Volvo S60.
CR said it gauged traction by measuring the distance it took to accelerate from 5 mph to 20 mph over packed snow, and also it tested braking from 10 mph over smooth ice.
Using all-wheel-drive cars with original equipment all-season tires ``should get these vehicles through most conditions,'' CR said.
It put the front-drive models through their paces in two ways: with standard all-season tires and with winter tires.
Based on those tests, CR found that:
* All-wheel-drive cars performed best, reaching 20 mph on average 21 feet sooner than the front-drive cars equipped with winter tires.
* Winter tires, however, ``yielded the biggest snow-traction gain for the buck.'' Shod with those tires, the front-drive test cars reached 20 mph nearly 28 feet sooner than they did with all-season tires. The magazine tabulated the cost at about $300 for four winter tires ``plus another $160 or so for an extra set of wheel rims to ease the switch to winter tires.''
* ``Better traction won't guarantee shorter stops,'' CR pointed out, finding that braking distances on ice were about the same for all-wheel- and front-wheel-drive vehicles.
But the antilock braking system (ABS) on each vehicle ``helped significantly,'' it added, noting that both Volvos stopped some 14 feet sooner with ABS than when the system was turned off.
In the end, the magazine advised that an all-wheel-drive vehicle should be considered ``if you live in a snowy area or want added peace of mind.'' And, for maximum traction, ``equip it with winter tires.''
In less-snowy areas, CR said front-wheel drive and a set of winter tires should suffice, keeping in mind that winter tires should be mounted on all four wheels for balanced handling.
It recommended drivers remove winter tires after the snow season is over ``since these tires wear quickly on dry roads (plan on about three winters of use).'' Be sure to opt for ABS on any vehicle, CR suggested.
Putting a price tag on all-wheel-drive vehicles, CR said they typically cost extra but some vehicles are sold both in all-wheel- and front-wheel-drive versions. All-wheel drive ``is available primarily on sedans, wagons and extended minivans,'' CR said, ``and is often linked to certain trim levels.''