Rewind back to 1988. If you wanted an all-wheel drive BMW, you had one choice: the 325xi. Today, every BMW model outside of a handful of M cars and the i3 offer the distribution of power to all four wheels.
It took two more years for Mercedes to offer all-wheel drive on a car in the USA: the 1990 300E/300TE 4Matic. Turning to Sweden, Volvo only sold front- or rear-wheel drive models in the States until 1998. It’s as if snow didn’t exist until Ronald Reagan was on his way out of the Oval Office. How did people survive traveling in slippery conditions before all-wheel drive? Clearly, they did just fine because, while it has its benefits, you don’t necessarily need all-wheel drive.
My wife, Alice, moved to the U.S. from England in 2004, quickly inheriting my 2002 Subaru Impreza WRX for daily transportation. Along came children and a Subaru Legacy wagon, replacing the WRX in 2006. A cycle of all-wheel drive wagons from various manufactures continued until recently, when we were offered an exceptional deal on a slightly-used 2016 Volvo V60. Yes, it’s the front-wheel drive model (this column wouldn’t work otherwise). As the season of snow and ice approached, I sorted a set of factory 16-inch steel wheels fitted with Nokian Hakkapeliitta (Hakka) R2 winter tires. It’s philosophically a similar tire to the “studless” Bridgestone Blizzak WS80 and Michelin X-Ice Xi3, sacrificing a certain amount of dry- and wet-weather handling for greater snow and ice traction.
I’d be lying if I stated that Alice was 100 percent on board with the move away from all-wheel drive. It’s all she’s known in snowy Michigan, making her understandably leery. Her cars have always carried winter tires in the cold weather, so she felt like she’d enjoyed the best of both worlds — the right tires and the right drivetrain. I liked the price of the Volvo, and the fact that the front-wheel drive model was the only V60 in 2016 to carry the fuel efficient, turbocharged four-cylinder engine. Leveraging a bit of spousal, I trust convinced Alice that signing the paperwork on the front-wheel drive Volvo wagon made sense.
When the first snow hit, there was no question we made the right decision. Alice returned from her first expedition in a winter storm with a huge smile. “I love it,” she said. “It’s so sure footed, and the braking and overall handling is spectacular. I actually prefer it to my old Mercedes (E350 4Matic wagon) in the snow.”
I questioned that last bit, so I stole the keys to the V60 and went out for a run of my own. We had been slammed with a good 8 inches of snow and very cold temperatures. Plus, the plows were particularly slow to respond. But like the honey badger, the Volvo didn’t care. Sure, the traction control stayed busy due to only two wheels receiving power, but the Nokians confidently clawed their way through the deep white powder. Indeed, the braking was amazing.
Even more impressive was the performance of the tires once the inevitable understeer set in due to my aggressive driving. With many tires — even winter tires, once you approach the limits of grip in the snow — they tend to lose their surface grasp quickly and don’t easily recover composure. That’s not the case with the Hakka R2 tires. They resist understeer like a champ and keep clawing for grip. I’ve never felt a winter tire with such a depth of traction in deep snow.
But is the V60 truly better than our old all-wheel-drive Mercedes in the snow? I see Alice’s point as far as braking and overall handling, but I miss the ability to rocket away from a dead stop due to all four wheels receiving power. “You drive faster than I do,” Alice noted. “The Volvo is like a mule. It just plugs along at a comfortable pace.
Yes, it isn’t as fast pulling away from a traffic light as my old Mercedes but the V60 never struggles. I no longer feel like I’m always having to lift-off the throttle due to cars in front of me not driving off quickly enough. The Mercedes also occasionally felt a bit tail-happy in deep snow.” She continued, “Not so in the Volvo. I just safely and comfortably drive around in the snow. I love it. I don’t know why most of my friends think they need an all-wheel drive SUV. I don’t. I prefer the front-wheel drive Volvo.” Well said, Alice. Just another excellent reason why I married you.
Obviously, a key component to all of this are winter tires but remember that all winter tires aren’t created equal. I love the Hakka R2 tires setup for us because we get a ton of snow in West Michigan and our Volvo V60 T5 isn’t a performance car. Steering response and grip aren’t very impressive with the Hakka R2 tires when the snow melts, but it’s manageable on a non-sporting car like the Volvo. The Michelin X-Ice Xi3 is a happier tire when the roads clear. Adding a few psi of air pressure to the Hakka R2 tires does seem to improve dry road performance. The snow and ice grip advantage over its competitors makes up for this shortcoming but I’d consider a less-aggressive winter tire for milder climates or higher-performance automobiles.
The big confirmation that came out of this experience is that winter tires are, without question, far more important than all-wheel drive. All-wheel drive doesn’t help you steer or brake, meaning that all-season tires aren’t good enough no matter how many axles receive power. But many car people in the know are already up to speed on that fact.
The bigger lesson has to do with the combination of all-wheel drive and winter tires. I always thought it was the holy grail setup for winter but I may be changing my tune. When you start looking at the lower purchase price and improved fuel economy of most two-wheel drive models versus their four-wheel drive siblings and add in Alice’s thoughts on her Volvo experience, maybe all-wheel drive isn’t the preferred setup for most drivers in the winter. It’s surely something to think about.