I love cars and I have had over 12 4×4 or AWD vehichles. I currently own a Lexus AWD SUV with traction control and a Jeep Wrangler 4X4 with a suspension lift kit and 33 inch off road tires. Obviously as others have said things such as your speed, road conditions, tires, etc make a world of difference if you will be in the ditch or not. I dont know all the technical reasons behind things but I do know what my experience has been. I think that not only does traction control, transfer of power etc, matter but also what percentage of power is coming from the rear tires and the front tires. Obviously this might be accommodated for by systems which distribute and readjust power. But in older vehicles or less sophisticated ones, this might make a huge difference. My Lexus way out performs my Jeep in light snow (few inches) or ice. The Jeep which is an older model but in great shape, will still fishtail easily in 4WD if I am testing out its traction while the Lexus will not. But I would put my Jeep against the Lexus any day in much deeper snow, mud or crossing a river (lol). I think the Jeep is geared towards having more of the power distributed to the rear tires which is traditionally needed for more powerful thrust and would rather have more power in the rear wheels if I am in deeper mud or snow. But rear power has the ability to fishtail a vehicle while front power does not unless going around a curve. I believe the Lexus has more evenly distributed power or emphasis on front tires or greater ability to adjust power. So just be careful and know your vehicle. I’m even more careful with the jeep in light snow or ice but its grabs great in heavy snow.
I completely concur that Jeep’s can be less controlled than their AWD (w/ traction control) counterparts in the small stuff and there’s several reasons for it like you’ve alluded to. One of the biggest is wheelbase and any SWB (all pre-2004 and then non-Unlimited models 2004+) suffer from their shortness making them more prone to spinning their rear ends forward. That and when it comes to traction control, no human can pump the 4WD handle on and off or activate their lockers to manually control their traction faster than a computer can. But like you said with the deep and challenging stuff … it’s a different story then.
Oddly enough, I switched out my BFG-KM mudders to the highly regarded BFG-KO ATs last summer. I was never able to lose control of the Jeep on those KMs – even when I intentionally tried in parking lot to find my performance envelope limits. So when everyone on forums swears the KOs outperform the KM/KM2 mudders in the snow, I figured it was the way to go since I’m not in mud enough to justify them. Lo and behold, the Jeep has skidded twice on the ATs in the past two weeks … once at a paltry 10mph and another doing a long controlled stop to a light. It’s amazing the difference in tires alone makes … and I’m bothered that I seem to have lost traction with what is allegedly the more snow capable tire.
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