Down here in the permafrost, ice and snow of the Wye Valley, I’ve been assessing the relative merits of front and four-wheel drive via the medium of a Peugeot 4007 (aka Mitsubishi Outlander) which lets you switch freely between the two. And I have reached the perhaps unlikely conclusion that in most adverse weather conditions, if your car has ESP, you’re better off with just front-wheel drive.
The problem with four-wheel drive is it lulls you into a false sense of security, as the mate of mine who’s just binned his Honda CR-V will attest. Modern four-wheel drive systems are so good at finding traction where there is none, you only realise just how lethal the conditions are when you have to make even a slight turn and continue straight on, or need to stop. By contrast, with front wheel drive you always know where you are grip-wise and will never miss that moment when your journey becomes a fool’s errand.
Of course four-wheel drive can be a life-saver as all those who have been rescued by off-roaders in the last few weeks know well. But these cars will tend to be Land Rovers and the like which have not only four driven wheels but, just as importantly, tyres designed to cope with these conditions. But modern soft-roaders come with road tyres whose treads clog at the first sign of snow, leaving you little better than four driven slicks.
The point is this: if conditions are too bad to provide safe passage for modern front drive cars with sophisticated electronics, perhaps they should be considered too bad to drive on at all, unless you have the right specialist equipment.
Going out in terrible weather because you have four-wheel drive is not safe: not going out in the first place because you haven’t got four-wheel drive is safe. This is why I like the choice provided by the Peugeot/Mitsubishi arrangement so much: I drive in front drive, relying on ESP and traction control to provide due warning of slippery conditions, leaving the selection of four-wheel drive as a last resort.
But if I had to choose between the two, I’d stick with front-wheel drive.