It’s often said that all-wheel drive will help you handle difficult terrain, such as snow or mud, and in certain situations that’s true. However, there may be too much importance placed on power going to all four wheels, especially if you hold all-wheel drive over a set of really good tires. We’re here to take a closer look at what’s really better, all-wheel drive or a quality set of tires.

First off, let's state the obvious. If you can, you should have both all-wheel drive and excellent tires for optimal traction. One without the other isn’t going to render the best results. If you have, say, a Ford Escape, you’re going to get the most out of it if you have a good set of tires as well as the model's all-wheel drive system. Still, if you had to choose which is better, what would you go with?

The Merits of All-Wheel Drive

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There’s a reason you see a lot of rally cars and vehicles fitted for snow and off-road with all-wheel drive. Power going to all four wheels helps move you down the road, and if one wheel slips, you’ve got three others that can keep pushing you along. This is great, as that's exactly what you want the car to do, but the limits of an all-wheel-drive system don't extend as much to stopping or turning in snow or mud. Automotive engineer, Neil Hanneman told the Popular Mechanics, "When it comes to snow, it is all about the tires." That being said, all wheel drive is still helpful in most situations. 

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All-wheel drive can give you some extra control in the event of an oversteer situation, keeping the back end in check when it decides to slip around. Overall all-wheel-drive vehicles feel better planted to the road, but there are limits to what an all-wheel-drive system is capable of. It doesn't matter if you have power going to all four wheels if those wheels are sliding across the road surface. Even with today's advanced all-wheel drive systems, there's only so much shifting power around to different wheels can do. 

The Merits of a Good Set of Tires

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A proper set of tires for the right driving situation can go a long way to ensure that your car stays on the road with you in control behind the wheel. The right tires impact acceleration, stopping distances, and turning and handling capabilities. Also, tires that are correctly inflated and cared for can increase fuel economy, reduce road noise, and generally give you a better driving experience. 

There’s a lot of variation in tires. Summer tires are good for warm weather and dry roads. Winter tires are for snow, ice, and cold weather. All-season tires are for everything in-between. The difference lies in the tread pattern, size, and tire compound. Each kind of tire is differently formulated and will perform best when used in its intended environment. While this may necessitate you owning a couple different sets of tires, if you really want to get the best performance from your car, that's the price you have to pay. 

So, Which is Better?

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As Mac Demere makes very clear in his article for Popular Mechanics, in the snow, he’d “rather have a Camry on four new snow tires than the best all-wheel-drive vehicle on all-season tires.” His reason? All-wheel drive doesn’t really help with the car's handling, whereas the kind of tires you have definitely does. With the exception of some of the new all-wheel-drive systems that use torque vectoring to help pull a car around a turn, all-wheel drive is really only great for getting some extra traction for accelerating. Both stopping and turning generally come down to the tires you have on the car.

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We’d have to agree with Demere. As good as modern all-wheel-drive systems are, the right set of tires is generally a better investment as it affects everything. If you need some visual evidence, check out the video below from AutoExpress. It shows the side-by-side difference between an all-wheel drive car and a front wheel drive car in the snow. They also compare summer tires to winter tires. It pretty much proves the point that the tires make all the difference.