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  #1  
Old 11-22-2010, 11:51 PM
Leviosaurus Leviosaurus is offline
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4x4 vs AWD vs SUV vs ??? (Need snow vehicle)

As a midwesterner, I have always scoffed at people who needed tire chains, 4x4 or AWD to get through the snow. I have always driven big sedans, sometimes with rear wheel drive, through ice storms and blizzards with no problem. Since moving to Seattle I have taken a perverse joy in sailing by all the frustrated natives, stuck in the ditch at the first sign of snow, while I climb up hills and navigate twisty turns on the blackest ice with ease.

Then, a couple years ago, I moved into a rural area in the foothills below the cascade range. The roads go unplowed here, there is no grading so every few yards is a sharp dip or steep rise. The road isn't a full two lanes, it's really only one and a half. For the first time, I find myself getting stuck. Last year, I bought chains for the first time ever. I still got stuck once. My nephew showed up with his Durango with big knobby tires and pulled me out. My wife and I looked at at each other, and said "We need one of those!"

So I'm looking for a SUV or something that I can drive under extreme conditions, particularly snow and ice. I understand the technical difference between 4x4 and AWD. But how does it actually play out when you are driving on the street? Is one noticably better performing than the other? What factors should I be thinking about? What *doesn't* work?

Thanks in advance for any input.
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  #2  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:35 AM
GreasyJack GreasyJack is offline
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The trouble is that there isn't a technical difference between AWD and 4WD. The two terms obviously literally mean the same thing (on a 4-wheeled vehicle anyways) and when each gets used has more to do with marketing than anything else.

The definition that the automakers have sort of settled on after basically using them interchangably during the 80's and early 90's is that 4WD has a fixed front-to-back axle ratio and often a low-range, whereas AWD has some sort of differential-like device that allows them to turn independently. But there's plenty of AWD systems out there with center locks and there's a lot of different "automatic" 4WD systems that allow the axles to turn at different speeds. So there's not much you can say overall about the performance difference of one or the other since there's so much diversity in what the 4WD/AWD systems on different cars actually do.

The really important difference is simply that 4WD is usually on a truck-based vehicle whereas AWD is on a car-based ones. 4WD vehicles will usually do better in deep snow conditions, mostly just because they're trucks with better ground clearance, off-road style tires and lower gearing. AWD is usually on car-type vehicles and so is geared towards being better for slippery on-road conditions. It used to be that you couldn't use 4WD on dry pavement at all, but this isn't true for everything that calls itself 4WD these days.

Anyways, my point is don't get too hung up about whether a vehicle has an AWD or 4WD badge on it. The real question to ask yourself is whether you need a car or a truck based vehicle. An AWD car like a Subaru will drive a lot better in light snow and icy roads (and obviously get better mileage and better on-road handling). A truck-based SUV like a 4Runner or a Durango or a Pathfinder will be what you want if you're having to break trail through deep snow. Read reviews carefully for car-based SUV's like the Rav-4, CR-V, Liberty, Escape, etc, as some of these do okay in deepish snow, whereas some are just plain terrible even on-road.

Also, especially with regards to AWD systems, there's huge differences in actual capabilities. Some are essentially just a center differential that, just like a regular differential, can be "fooled" into sending the power the wrong direction. Some like the Honda CR-V only kick in after the wheels are actually spinning which is of questionable usefulness. The Subaru AWD system is by far the best among (relatively) cheaper cars-- all three power distribution points are limited-slip and so basically short of high centering or spinning all four wheels you're not going to get stuck.
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  #3  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:59 AM
Declan Declan is online now
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Leviosaurus View Post
So I'm looking for a SUV or something that I can drive under extreme conditions, particularly snow and ice. I understand the technical difference between 4x4 and AWD. But how does it actually play out when you are driving on the street? Is one noticably better performing than the other? What factors should I be thinking about? What *doesn't* work?

When I got my escape last january, the weather for the two preceding weeks was a lot of snow, and then once I actually got the escape , we got no snow at all for the rest of th winter, beyond a dusting, so I am interested in how its going to handle this year.


One thing I did notice, was that with the AWD, I was told it was computer controlled. For the majority of the time , if it was dry pavement, it would mostly be front wheel drive. On snow, the computer would determine when to cut in the rear wheels, and there was a lag time. So going around corners there would be a swish moment before the AWD cut in.


Declan
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  #4  
Old 11-23-2010, 07:13 AM
Balthisar Balthisar is offline
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Originally Posted by GreasyJack View Post
The really important difference is simply that 4WD is usually on a truck-based vehicle whereas AWD is on a car-based ones.
My first truck-based Expedition had a dial for different "4WD" modes (I don't recall that there was an automatic mode, though). My second Expedition apparently let marketing get involved, because now it has a dial for "AWD" (I think) with a position for automatic AWD (which is where I leave it, because as said above, the computer handles everything that way). My current, newer Expedition (which isn't mine to own, but mine to use) has some stupid coin holder where the AWD selector ought to be! (I've not seen a lot of snow here.)

Last edited by Balthisar; 11-23-2010 at 07:14 AM..
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  #5  
Old 11-23-2010, 07:24 AM
Telemark Telemark is offline
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You failed to mention the most important of all - snow tires. Make sure you get the right shoes for your vehicle regardless of which vehicle you end up in. IMO, that's actually more important than 4WD or AWD. Remember, the drive train doesn't help you stop.

If you're dealing with unplowed roads then clearance matters. This is where SUVs/trucks will have an advantage, but something like the Suby Outback has pretty respectable ground clearance as well.
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  #6  
Old 11-23-2010, 09:31 AM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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When I lived in Lancaster and L.A. I'd drive up to the mountains to ski. At home I drove dad's Toyota Hi-Lux pickup (RWD) with no slipping. In L.A. one of my cars was a Chevy Sprint (FWD). The Sprint would happily climb the snowy road without chains. I now live in the PNW where it sometimes snows, and I have the Jeep Cherokee I bought in 1999. The snow is different here. In SoCal I drove through relatively heavy show that had a good base. Up here there seems to be more ice. I drove the Prius to Seattle yesterday, and at a couple of points on the way home I wished I had the Jeep. The Jeep is a good vehicle for snow.

In 2008 I turned from Denny to Lenora, which is a fairly steep hill. It was covered in ice. I used 4WD in the Jeep, and it felt a bit dicey. Sunday I went to the gas station near my home in Birch Bay, whose lot was covered in ice. I'd been in 2WD, and it was slippery. 4WD took care of that. I've found that the Jeep performs admirably in PNW lowland conditions. I use stock Goodyear Wrangler tires. I used the same tires in SoCal, when I'd go up into the hills after a rain and drive around steep, narrow, mud-snotty trails usually used by motorcycles. I'm sure it would perform even better if I had actual offroad tires or snow tires.

The important thing, given that many streets are sheets of ice, is to keep it slow and plan ahead. If I'm driving on ice, I try to drive where it's covered in snow instead of the smooth areas where everyone else has been driving.
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  #7  
Old 11-23-2010, 11:04 AM
Fubaya Fubaya is offline
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We don't get much snow so I can't suggest a vehicle, but here ate a few rhings to consider.

The big difference is that four wheel drive often means "two axle drive." The transfer case splits power between front and rear axle, but unless the differentials have their own traction control, power takes the path of least resistance. That means if one wheel starts to spin, it gets all the power and the one with traction gets none. So if you lose traction on one front and one rear wheel, you're stuck (just like the car in My Cousin Vinny).

Most 4WD vehicles have at least some traction control in at least the rear these days, if not both axles. But if you look at a basic 4WD or an older vehicle, it may not. Not that they're entirely bad. I've taken a Jeep with open differentials off road in the snow and got bored because it did so well.

AWD means that all four wheels have power all the time, or can, and a good AWD is much like driving in 4WD with traction control in the front and rear.

4WD can't be used on dry pavement while AWD can. In modern vehicles, you can switch to 4WD on the fly if you get into a slippery spot, while AWD is usually always on.

4WD vehicles have low range, but is usually a bad idea to use it on snowy streets, however it is very good for plowing through deep snow.
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  #8  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:33 PM
Leviosaurus Leviosaurus is offline
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Looks like SD has implemented some kind of timeout that ate the big response I just wrote

Thanks for the suggestions. As a ridiculously tall person, some of the options mentioned (like a Subaru or a Jeep) aren't an option, because I don't fit behind the wheel.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Fubaya View Post
4WD vehicles have low range, but is usually a bad idea to use it on snowy streets, however it is very good for plowing through deep snow.
What do you mean by 'low range'?
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  #9  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:44 PM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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I'm in a similar situation, as I've moved from the PNW (hey, Johnny L.A.) to bad ass snow country in Atlantic Canada. Most of the time the roads are plowed, but at 2 a.m. I might get called in to work. Right now (as in, this week) I'm looking at Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV and Hyundai Santa Fe/ Tucson. Any pros, cons or comments would be appreciated as well. Need Answer Fast.
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  #10  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:48 PM
GreasyJack GreasyJack is offline
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Originally Posted by Leviosaurus View Post
What do you mean by 'low range'?
Low range is a setting usually found on 4WD's that drastically reduces the overall gear ratio. When you're in low range (or Low-4), the rig can only move at a snail pace, but it maximizes the amount of torque at the wheels. Low range makes life a lot easier if you've got a manual transmission and is great for stuff like crawling up really steep hills or pulling a boat up a slippery ramp, but if you've got an automatic it's not essential for snow.
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  #11  
Old 11-23-2010, 12:56 PM
GreasyJack GreasyJack is offline
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Originally Posted by Attack from the 3rd dimension View Post
I'm in a similar situation, as I've moved from the PNW (hey, Johnny L.A.) to bad ass snow country in Atlantic Canada. Most of the time the roads are plowed, but at 2 a.m. I might get called in to work. Right now (as in, this week) I'm looking at Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV and Hyundai Santa Fe/ Tucson. Any pros, cons or comments would be appreciated as well. Need Answer Fast.
You should definitely look at some Subarus. There's some drawbacks to them, like they're finicky about tires, but they are basically unstoppable in snow.
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  #12  
Old 11-23-2010, 01:40 PM
Telemark Telemark is offline
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Any of those choices will do well in snow if you get snow tires. And learn how to drive in snow but let's assume you know that already.
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  #13  
Old 11-23-2010, 03:28 PM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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Originally Posted by GreasyJack View Post
You should definitely look at some Subarus. There's some drawbacks to them, like they're finicky about tires, but they are basically unstoppable in snow.
Ms. Attack is anti-Subaru, based on earlier models.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Telemark View Post
Any of those choices will do well in snow if you get snow tires. And learn how to drive in snow but let's assume you know that already.
Cool. I drive like a Quebecois. That may or may not be a compliment.
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  #14  
Old 11-23-2010, 03:44 PM
Duckster Duckster is online now
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I grew up in the Midwest. I'm used to snow, ice, black ice, whatever. Growing up I never used snow tires, chains, 4x4, AWD, etc. Never, ever got stuck. Of course, when the first real snows arrived every fall/winter that meant a trip to an empty, open parking lot (meaning no hidden islands) so I could play. Skids, spinouts, starts, stops, you name it. It was getting my snow legs back, so to speak. Even then during winter driving, when I was driving on an empty street I practiced starts/stops just so I was fully aware of current conditions.

Here in the PNW, my current car is FWD. No snow tires, no chains (car cannot be equipped). I'm not concerned. My wife's vehicle is an AWD SUV. No snow tires, no chains. I'm not worried.

Granted, having the snow equipment would help, but do not discount the experience. Just because you may drive a 4x4 with big knobby tires, have chains, studs (they really don't work and tear up the roads something awful making it worse) and 500 pounds of sand in the back often gives too many drivers a false sense of over confidence. It really doesn't matter how good the tools you may have. If you don't have the proper experience using an quality tool, you will soon find out getting stuck, or worse.

Driving safely and correctly in bad weather is often more important than having chains or snow tires.

Last edited by Duckster; 11-23-2010 at 03:45 PM..
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  #15  
Old 11-23-2010, 03:50 PM
Stranger On A Train Stranger On A Train is offline
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Originally Posted by Attack from the 3rd dimension View Post
Ms. Attack is anti-Subaru, based on earlier models.
How much earlier? Subaru has basically been building all of their cars (or at least those that they export to North America) on two common platforms for about the last twenty years with evolutionary improvements, which means that the design and components have a high degree of maturity and thus, reliability. I have to agree with GreasyJack that these are probably the best general purpose passenger car for light snow, and the Forester actually has more clearance than many SUVs, though for really heavy unplowed snow/offroad use you're going to need a truck or truck-based SUV. I'd also agree that Subaru has the best AWD system in its class, surpassed only by (some) of the Audi quattro systems. (You have to be careful because Audi has branded three separate all wheel drive systems as quattro.) Most of the faux-SUVs have a very simple AWD system that uses the brakes to prevent slippage rather than having a locking or limited slip differential which is nearly useless and may even be dangerous in slippery conditions. (Note that this is true of even some very expensive onroad "SUVs").

Snow tires are definitely recommended if you are driving over hardpack or ice on a regular basis. Many shops will mount them for you for winter and then unmount and store them for the rest of the year (although they'll dry-rot after a few years of this). They're much easier to deal with and safer than chains, which are really only useful in heavy or hardpack snow. If you do drive in conditions that require chains more than a few times a year I would invest in Spikes-Spiders or something similar, as it is too easy to screw up installing chains if you are impatient and unwrapping a chain from the axle or replacing a torn CV boot because of a chain that came loose is a pain in the ass. And remember, if you do have an AWD or rear wheel drive car then you should put snow tires or chains on all four wheels.

Quote:
Originally Posted by Duckster View Post
Granted, having the snow equipment would help, but do not discount the experience. Just because you may drive a 4x4 with big knobby tires, have chains, studs (they really don't work and tear up the roads something awful making it worse) and 500 pounds of sand in the back often gives too many drivers a false sense of over confidence. It really doesn't matter how good the tools you may have. If you don't have the proper experience using an quality tool, you will soon find out getting stuck, or worse.

Driving safely and correctly in bad weather is often more important than having chains or snow tires.
Absolutely true. Snow tires and chains will improve your grip marginally, but it isn't comparable to driving on dry pavement, and once you break loose the laws of ballistics take charge of your vehicle. I took a performance driving class this year and then instructor was impressed with how well I handled the "skid car" (car with a special kit to induce controlled oversteer and understeer conditions), which was entirely due to experience driving in ice and snow. You basically have to learn to slow down, give a lot of extra room for stops and turns, and not overcorrect for steering and skidding. You learn to let the vehicle go where it is going to go, and just roll on and off the gas and brake smoothly rather than the herky-jerky motions most people do on dry pavement. It's not rocket science, but it does require experience and conditioning.

Stranger

Last edited by Stranger On A Train; 11-23-2010 at 03:55 PM..
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  #16  
Old 11-23-2010, 03:58 PM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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I will revisit the Subaru issue. Thanks.

All Quebec jokes aside, I'm not a big monster truck overconfident driver, I'm reasonably cautious, as I grew up down south. Way south; I remember the time the pond froze. We're currently driving a Honda Fit, which has some attributes of a good car for winter, notably studded tires. However, I need to be able to get to work at Oh-Dark-Thirty regardless of weather, so AWD become important.
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  #17  
Old 11-23-2010, 04:06 PM
dolphinboy dolphinboy is offline
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My wife and I grew up in California, so the only time we drove in snow was on a rare ski trip to the Sierras. We moved to NW Montana 2 years ago and have had to adjust to 6 months of winter. Sometimes snowy, sometimes icy, sometimes both.

We bought a 4Runner with a V8 because we wanted a relatively heavy SUV that could handle any winter driving conditions (and pull our power boat). We replaced the stock tires with all weather ones (not snow tires) that feel a lot better in the snow and ice. It's a 4WD, but you can't put it in 2WD, so it's "4WD High" during the summer months. "4WD Low" gets us through just about anything we are faced with in the winter. The 4Runner handles well and I would strongly recommend it if you can afford one. The RAV4 and CRV just didn't have the power and gravitas we were looking for...

We needed a truck to pull the horse trailer so I recently purchased a 4WD Tundra, which sits higher than the 4Runner and gets me through anything.
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  #18  
Old 11-23-2010, 04:08 PM
Attack from the 3rd dimension Attack from the 3rd dimension is offline
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Sorry to double post. Nearest Subaru dealer is about 5 hours away. Nearest Honda and Toyota dealers are about 5 minutes away. Oh well.
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Old 11-23-2010, 05:48 PM
enipla enipla is offline
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Lots and lots of snow where I live. I use 4x4 about 180 days a year. We are the last to get plowed and I often find myself driving through a foot or more of snow.
I prefer the truck based SUV. One of the reasons is if you are the one doing the towing, the truck is based on a frame. Though, that’s getting rarer for even mid-large SUV’ (1212[?]Ford Explorer).

Also, the 4x4 will be more likely to come with low-range. Much better for pulling people out of the ditch (provided that you have traction of course).
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Old 11-24-2010, 06:25 PM
Saint Cad Saint Cad is offline
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I spent winters in the PNW with nothing more than a Dodge Shadow and FWD. Worked like a champ. First winter in the Springs and my SRT-4 had trouble, not with traction (although there was once going down an ice covered hill that the automatic traction control made things worse) but with clearance.
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Old 11-24-2010, 07:13 PM
jasg jasg is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Johnny L.A. View Post
I now live in the PNW where it sometimes snows, and I have the Jeep Cherokee I bought in 1999. The snow is different here. In SoCal I drove through relatively heavy show that had a good base. Up here there seems to be more ice.
You have nailed it - more ice. The explanation I have heard is that in most snow belts, the ground is below freezing and the snow tends to blow off before it melts.

Here in the PNW, winter is mostly above freezing and when we get snow, it hits the ground and melts - then if we get a cold snap, we get ice skating rinks on the streets and highways.
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  #22  
Old 11-24-2010, 09:08 PM
China Guy China Guy is online now
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Any feedback on the Nissan Murano?
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  #23  
Old 11-25-2010, 12:13 AM
Johnny L.A. Johnny L.A. is offline
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Originally Posted by jasg View Post
You have nailed it - more ice. The explanation I have heard is that in most snow belts, the ground is below freezing and the snow tends to blow off before it melts.

Here in the PNW, winter is mostly above freezing and when we get snow, it hits the ground and melts - then if we get a cold snap, we get ice skating rinks on the streets and highways.
There's definitely more ice. But I wonder about the theory that the cold ground prevents sheets of ice. Southern California isn't that cold. Teens and twenties in the mountains (Wrightwood, Big Bear). Of course it's the mountains. Snowfall is heavier up there than it is here near sea level.

How about this? Since the snowfall is heavier, it builds up a base of compacted snow. Melt water flows to the level of the road leaving compacted snow above it, which is easier to drive on. As the season wears on, the ice melts and/or is mixed with the snow to create slush -- which is also less slippery than solid ice. I've noticed that even at my current low altitude, a good snow can build up a base and things are less slippery.
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Old 11-25-2010, 02:32 AM
EKDS5k EKDS5k is offline
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Attack from the 3rd dimension View Post
I'm in a similar situation, as I've moved from the PNW (hey, Johnny L.A.) to bad ass snow country in Atlantic Canada. Most of the time the roads are plowed, but at 2 a.m. I might get called in to work. Right now (as in, this week) I'm looking at Toyota RAV4, Honda CRV and Hyundai Santa Fe/ Tucson. Any pros, cons or comments would be appreciated as well. Need Answer Fast.
RAV4 = Bad. Subaru = Good. Speaking as someone who drives a brand new RAV4 for work, and owns a 2003 Forester. The "AWD" on the RAV4 is terrible, and it mostly only rains here. I don't want to even imagine trying to drive it on snow. The front tires will often spin a little before it kicks in, even on dry pavement. Sometimes it seems like it doesn't engage at all, and the front wheels just spin for a few seconds until I let off the gas. I have a pile of other reasons for disliking this car (engine not powerful enough, needlessly heavy, ridiculously small carrying/towing capacity), but basically if you're buying a vehicle for its 4x4 capabilities, look elsewhere.

By comparison, I took my Subaru to Edmonton in the winter (where they don't plow residential streets), and I had to work to make it slide. Granted you have said that the nearest Subaru dealer is 5 hours away, but you will probably spend more time than that pulling a RAV4 out of the ditch, so it just might be worth it.

I can't comment on the Honda or the Hyundai.
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  #25  
Old 11-25-2010, 04:18 AM
2square4u 2square4u is offline
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Originally Posted by Stranger On A Train View Post
Snow tires and chains will improve your grip marginally
(bolding mine)

Huh? We have snow and ice from mid-October through April, and I would never, ever try to drive under those conditions on summer tires (unless I had snow chains). Even with 4WD.

Now this rant may be better suited in one of the mini-rant threads, but every friggin' fall we have a total chaos at first sight of snow. There's just this big bunch of stupid who try to get to work on summer tires instead of spending that extra three-quarters of an hour changing tires when they wake up to 10cm of slippery snow on top of the pavement. The ditches are littered with stupid who tried to get to work on summer tires. 4WD gives you better traction forward, but sideways and when you're braking, you might as well drive front or rear wheel drive. There is no difference. Two days after the snowfall, even stupid has realized that summer tires on snow and ice is essentially a Very Bad Idea™, changed to snow tires and traffic is good again.
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  #26  
Old 11-25-2010, 04:30 AM
2square4u 2square4u is offline
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Darn, missed the edit window.

ETA: For driving in snow, good tires and ground clearance is a lot more important than 4WD. For driving on ice, good tires (preferably studded if it's allowed where you live) are a lot more important than 4WD. One of our cars is a small front wheel drive Toyota, and even on studless snow tires I'm a lot safer on snow and ice in that one than what stupid driving a SUV with summer tires is. In that little Toyota I can drive by SUV stupid lying in the ditch, and I can drive by SUV stupid stuck on hilltops.
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