AWD minivan?!?
September 15, 2010 8:42 AM   Subscribe

Do I need an AWD minivan?!?

Southerner who just moved to central NY state, so I have yet to see a winter here. In the market for a minivan for the family and looking at the Toyota Sienna. Is it worth the extra 2K to get AWD or are snow tires sufficient? Van is going to be used to haul kids around town, family vacations, etc. The area where we live is rather hilly, but the natives say roads get cleared rather quickly. Asking friends in the area has gotten me several different answers - those with AWD swear by it, those without it say its useless. Wife has already ruled out an SUV. Your thoughts appreciated.
posted by defenestrated to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total)
Snow tires are a must. AWD may get you moving, but snow tires will help you stop. AWD won't. If it's an either/or, snow tires. If you can, do both.
posted by Geckwoistmeinauto at 8:44 AM on September 15, 2010

I lived in Ithaca for 20 years, never had AWD, but did always have good tires. I have a Sienna, front wheel drive and good tires are fine unless you're on a lot of back roads.
posted by mareli at 8:49 AM on September 15, 2010

For only $2 I would get it because you may feel more comfortable driving in the winter with it. Plus at some point you WILL get stuck in the snow (at a stop sign on the way to a kids play date etc). Its not a big deal you can just rock the car, push it out or get the neighbours to help but I cannot imagine the stress of doing this with little kids in the back. So I would spring for it. If it gets me out or keeps me out of two snow piles then it is worth it.

FWIW I am Canadian and grew up with cat litter and shovels in the back seat and was often on "rocking duty" while dad or mom pushed.
posted by saradarlin at 8:50 AM on September 15, 2010

$2 = $2000

posted by saradarlin at 8:51 AM on September 15, 2010

Unless you have a crazy driveway (or your work place does) studded winters and 2WD is sufficient; AWD just lets you get stuck farther from home.

Be aware though that it isn't just $2K up front as AWD forces you to get the large engine and even when everything else is equal AWD incurs a significant fuel economy penalty (16/22 vs 18/24). Plus AWD requires more maintenance.
posted by Mitheral at 9:04 AM on September 15, 2010

Grew up in Northern Wisconsin and never owned or needed snow tires. My day even quit buying them in the seventies.

I've also never owned a 4WD vehicle and got buy just fine. I even drove a Chevette for two winters with no real issues.
posted by DieHipsterDie at 9:14 AM on September 15, 2010

Snow tires are very important. AWD might help you if you are stuck in a pile of snow or if you are starting up a steep and snowy hill, but it won't help you avoid obstacles or stop. AWD doesn't really help from a safety point of view. Also, bear in mind that you will burn more fuel in the AWD version (the EPA estimates an additional $200 per year).
posted by ssg at 9:19 AM on September 15, 2010

Another Wisconsin resident here so winter driving is a built in skill set: I don't disagree with the snow tires argument, but I'll counter it with good tires. I never use snow specific tires on my cars in winter, but having reasonably good tires is a must.

I spent my first winter with an AWD vehicle last winter, and I will never go back. Starting is easier, sliding sideways is less of a problem, and general road confidence goes way up.

Also worth considering: a small folding shovel and a bag of cat litter thrown in the back. It's remarkable how many snow related problems these two mundane items will get you out of.
posted by quin at 9:40 AM on September 15, 2010

I have a front wheel drive minivan (2000 Honda Odyssey) that I drove around for two winters in NH with no snow tires and was fine. I think the front wheel drive thing is key, so if it's not front wheel drive I'd go with the AWD.
posted by Aizkolari at 10:20 AM on September 15, 2010

Sienna is front wheel drive.
posted by mareli at 10:22 AM on September 15, 2010

I think because you aren't used to driving in the snow, you should get the AWD. While I do fine in my Odyssey with snow tires and no AWD, I've been driving in winter conditions forever. Everything helps. Just remember that even if you have those things the laws of physics still apply to you. There nothing that gives me greater pleasure than having someone pass me on a snowy road going way too fast because they've got "AWD" all over their car only to see them stuck in the median a mile later.
posted by Sukey Says at 10:23 AM on September 15, 2010

Just to say, if you're from the south, snow being cleared "quickly" might well mean something other than you think. Yankees know from removing snow.

When I was in grad school in North Carolina, quick snow removal would mean "within a couple of days after the snow fell." Slow would mean "It takes a week or more."

Where I live now, in a suburb of Buffalo, quick snow removal means "before it is done falling." Slow snow removal means "Gone from the main drags the same day, and the side streets the next."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:33 AM on September 15, 2010

To me, a life-time resident of the snowbelt, the most important factors are decent ground clearance and good tires. All-wheel or four-wheel drive are useful in deep snow, but only as a distant third behind ground-clearance and snow tires. 4WD doesn't help much if you've hung up because your clearance is low and the tires are all spinning because they are full of snow.

For you purposes, a FWD mini-van with good tires would do the job. FWIW, the cars I see in the ditch or flipped over on medians every year are almost always 4wd SUVs, often without snow tires, driven by folks who seem to think that 4wd makes their tires grippier on ice. Driving in snow means learning patience, using your momentum, and knowing when not to hit the gas.
posted by bonehead at 10:51 AM on September 15, 2010

Seconding what bonehead says about who is in the ditch!
posted by mareli at 10:56 AM on September 15, 2010

A minivan is something of a pig of a vehicle to drive in the first place due to its relatively high center of gravity. Not as bad as a full-size van or truck, admittedly, but still, I would want AWD on that thing for rain, let alone snow. An SUV would only be worse. What you really want is a Subaru Forester or Tribeca, which not only gets you AWD, but also the low center of gravity provided by Subaru's horizontally-opposed engines. However, the styling on those vehicles may not be to your wife's taste. But you will surely see lots of others driving Subarus in that area, and for good reasons.
posted by kindall at 10:57 AM on September 15, 2010

(Be sure that anything that you buy comes with a blockheater. Cars are much better cold-starters now than when they were carburated, but a -35 night can make anything hard to start. Blockheaters can be put on aftermarket, but, IME, it's better to get them as a factory option.)
posted by bonehead at 11:08 AM on September 15, 2010

Mrs. Smoobles drives a Sienna and swears by the AWD. I drive a similar vehicle (Honda CRV) and also am thankful when I feel it kick in.

But be aware of the following...
It's a basic AWD system. The vehicle is FWD until the system senses traction loss up front, then it sends that overage of power created by the spinning wheels through a drive shaft to the back wheels. Once the front wheels regain traction, it's back to FWD. As such, at any given time you will really only have three-wheel drive power at the maximum, never actual AWD. Don't ever accelerate when the system kicks in, thinking that you will send more power to the wheels that are biting = you'll fishtail like crazy.

Also our Sienna came with run flat tires and no spare. Toyota claims that the extra mechanisms under the body negates the space for a spare tire. It seems unconscionable for an AWD vehicle to not include a spare, and the run flat tires have a very harsh ride thanks to the stiffened sidewalls. They are also much more expensive than regular tires. We intend to purchase regular tires and a spare to secure inside in the back next time we need to replace the tires. I've seen Siennas all over town configured like this.
posted by No Shmoobles at 11:45 AM on September 15, 2010

What you really want is a Subaru Forester or Tribeca

Or an Outback, which is a mildly lifted old-style station wagon.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:49 AM on September 15, 2010

I'm in WNY, Buffalo, and just bought a 4wd sienna last year. It's a TANK in the snow, unstoppable. I'd say it was worth the extra money. It's rarely useful, but when I need it, it's worth every penny.
posted by Blake at 12:12 PM on September 15, 2010

We live at the top of a =very= steep street. My wife, who's grown up driving in the winter, can't get her front-wheel-drive hatchback up the hill in a heavy snow. We traded in my old beater sedan for a small SUV with AWD as a baby-hauler last summer, and it worked like a champ - whenever it hinted at snow, she'd take the SUV, and had no problems getting anywhere she needed to go.

But please be aware - quadruple your estimated stop distances in the sloppy stuff, and take it slow and easy the first few times you're out there in bad weather. There is a tendency to ride close behind the car in front of you, some kind of herd instinct, you'll see a whole line of closely bunched cars during snowstorms - this is very, very bad practice. Be aware of it and don't do it. It's how pile-ups happen. Give the slowpoke ahead of you looots of room to do his thing.
posted by Slap*Happy at 12:17 PM on September 15, 2010

My Forester has served me well: as others say, it's not going to stop you from sliding down the hill. But it sure is useful when the snowplows block your driveway! I just go through it.

If you're near Ithaca, and you want to watch people sliding down the hill in their cars, have a beer at the Chapter House during a snowstorm.
posted by kestrel251 at 12:27 PM on September 15, 2010

Be sure that anything that you buy comes with a blockheater

Does central NY get that cold?
posted by smackfu at 1:09 PM on September 15, 2010

In order of increasing importance:

3) AWD
2) Snow Tires
1) Slow the fuck down.

If you're not accustomed to driving in the snow, go to a snowy parking lot and experiment. If you have ABS, slam on the brakes and see what happens. You might be surprised.
posted by klanawa at 1:57 PM on September 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Yeah, people don't realize: ABS keeps you from losing control of the car when you brake on a slippery road. It doesn't enable you to stop in a shorter distance. In fact, your stopping distance may actually be longer, because the way it keeps you from losing control is by releasing the brakes briefly when they lock up. So go slow and leave plenty of room between you and the car in front of you.
posted by kindall at 5:42 PM on September 15, 2010

ABS not only keeps you from losing control of the car, it also enables you to stop in (very, very nearly) the shortest distance possible. Why? Because you want to maximize the braking force, without skidding the wheels (if you skid, the rubber of your tires is moving relative to the road, so the maximum stopping force is limited by the dynamic friction, which is less than the static friction that is in effect when your wheels are rotating (and the rubber of your tires is not moving relative to the ground)). ABS allows you to brake as hard as possible without locking the wheels, thus applying the maximum possible braking force.

So if you think that ABS allows you to stop as quickly as possible, then you are right. ABS is, of course, excellent in the snow, though some ABS systems are better than others.
posted by ssg at 11:05 PM on September 15, 2010

In snow, the theory is that the wheels stop turning and a pile forms in front of them, which slows you down. I doubt this is the case.

However, ABS in snow can prevent you from stopping at all. If the available friction is blow some level, the wheels will simply not stop turning and you'll roll right off the road. It has happened to me a couple of times and is the reason I wish ABS was disabled in 4H rather than just 4L.
posted by klanawa at 8:37 PM on September 16, 2010

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