When driving in snow, what matters?
Experience has taught me there are 5 primary factors for a vehicle that matter. I had assumed 4WD or AWD is what mostly mattered. I was very wrong. Hopeful, I can explain clearly in this post. So, I'll start at the beginning, where I learned this valuable knowledge with my first disappointment with my first Subaru car.
In February 2013, I sold my last Jeep, a trail Jeep Commander. I loved the vehicle. Great storage, power, and mud and snow handling. Better than my Jeep Grand Cherokee. What I didn't like was that I lived 12 miles out of town and gas was at a all time high. Additionally, the windshield was constantly being repaired or replaced because it was so vertical (I drove behind a lot of big trucks). Like always, I did a ton of research and in the end purchased my first new Subaru. I wanted something more sporty, better gas mileage, and would handle snow like my Jeeps had always done. I was told all Subaru's were awesome in the snow. So a salesman talked me into what he said would be the perfect car for me; a 2013 Subaru Impreza Premium hatchback. It was a nice looking car and over all was not a horrible car, but as I soon would learn, far from the perfect car in snow. Most certainly not as well as my previous Jeeps had done in snow. The first big 6 inch snow that we had in central Illinois with the car and I was stuck. I was so disappointing and mad. How could this be? I was told this be a great AWD car in snow and it was not. Additionally, just driving around, snow slush would just throw the car around (side to side).
I start looking around and asking people about their cars. What I learned was there is more to a good snow car than 4WD, FWD or AWD. First thing I learned was that the wider the tires, the better. Larger, wider tires moves the snow out of the way and has more surface for traction. The Subaru Impreza had fairly narrow tires. P205/55R16 on the Premium I purchased. Another issue was the car sat so low, that I had actually become high centered in the snow. So, yeah, height/clearance was an issue too. Other Subaru owners were raving about how well their cars did. Then I realized, their Subaru's sat higher and hand much better tires/wheels.
Just like when my Nissan Xterra could not live up to my Jeep's capabilities, and I could not climb the same off road hills, I didn't forgive this vehicle either. I wanted something better. I gave the car to my son who was wanting an AWD car that was better than the car he was driving. That said, my son has loved the car and still drives it.
In February 2015 I purchased the XV Crosstrek Premium after much research. The car looked a lot like my Impreza (as it is based on the same platform). Yes, I had seriously considered going back to Jeep, but the numbers and research pointed back as Subaru. The Crosstrek had bigger, wider wheels (P225/55R17), was lifted (8.7 inches clearance), trail ready, cost less, and a was really cool looking car. And unlike my Impreza, it pleased during the first big snow I drove with it. In fact, time and time again in the ice and snow, it performed well. I call the car my little beast. The vehicle actually handled as well as any Jeep I had owned. I also love the small factor of the car for parking and driving.
Was that all the factors in play? Nope. The Impreza is light compared to the Crosstrek. The Impreza weighed in at about 2,911 lbs. My Crosstrek weighs somewhere between 3,109 to 3,208 lbs. That little extra weight also helps with snow.
To summarize and back to the point.
1) Tire width size matters. Why? Surface traction and the ability to push away the snow. Don't believe this makes that much a difference? Compare driving with different sized tires.
2) Car weight matters. Heavier the vehicle, better the snow is displaced. But weight is a double edge sword. The heavier the vehicle, the harder to stop on snow and ice.
3) Multiple wheels that have traction matter. In other words FWD (four wheel drive) or AWD (All wheel drive). Many cars say AWD, but it is very misleading. Unless the car has at least a 40/60 distribution at default, your car will probably not be giving you the traction that is useful when you needed. Most manufacturers are getting better at making AWD but Toyota, for example, has made some horrible AWD in the past.
4) Lastly, clearance matters. This factor mostly matters when driving in very deep, wet snow. As I learned and other people I know, if you become high centered, good traction becomes impossible.
5) Tire tred matters. This is probably obvious to most people. Winter tires will perform better than All-season tires in snow. All-season tires will perform better than summer tires. If you can afford to have an extra set of winter tires just for winter (and can store them), do so. If you can't, you should have all weather tires if drive in snow.