Rear vs Front Wheel Drive in Winter
Name: Pamela E.
What handles better in the winter, a vehicle with rear
wheel drive or front wheel drive? Both have anti-lock brake systems. I
drive a car now that has front-wheel drive. That's all I have ever
driven. My husband is looking at buying a car with rear wheel drive and
I am concerned about how it will handle in the winter on icy roads and
such. We live in an area that does get quite a bit of snow.
I apologize for being very late in answering this question, but I have a
strong personal opinion and seem to disagree with the others who answered
your letter. I was born and raised in northern Wisconsin and have had
considerable experience driving on slippery roads.
My opinion is that although the extra weight on the front gives front wheel
drive better traction in accelerating the car, it has a severe disadvantage
in going around corners.
If you step on the gas too strongly while going around a corner, the wheels
can lose traction as they spin and so will lose all ability to steer the
car. In that case, the car will continue in a straight line and so go off
the road; if the road is curving to the left, the car will tend to leave the
road on the right.
With rear wheel drive, if you spin the wheels while going around a curve,
the front wheels will continue to guide the car around the curve and the
rear wheels will slide toward the outer edge of the curve. This can,
however, be countered by straightening the steering wheel or even turning to
the right on a left turn. I find this much more reassuring than the almost
total loss of steering in front wheel drive cars.
I have checked this many times, often by "fishtailing" down a straight
slippery road. I find it easy to control and even fun on a rear wheel drive
car, but extremely dangerous on a front wheel drive car. I recommend anyone
who doubts these statements to try "fishtailing" themselves. But be SURE
there is no other traffic on the road, keep your speed low, and start any
maneuver slowly until you know what to expect.
Best, Dick Plano,
Professor of Physics emeritus, Rutgers University
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Update: June 2012