Everything You Need to Know About All-Wheel-Drive Cars
All-wheel-drive is becoming more popular these days and we are starting to see it being applied to everyday sedans as well as some of the best sports cars. But are all-wheel-drive cars worth it?
When it comes to choosing a vehicle some people may be hesitant to tick the option box for AWD because they aren’t really sure what it does or if it’s needed. It can be a pretty pricey option in some cases too and on average all-wheel-drive cars come with a $2,000 premium attached.
Don’t worry fam, I got you.
We are going to go through everything you need to know about AWD cars so you can stroll into the dealership with the confidence and bravado of Tony Stark.
What is an All-Wheel-Drive Car?
- Provides power to all four wheels
- Can be “permanent” or “on demand”
- Usually utilizes a front, rear, and center differential
An all-wheel-drive car is one that has the ability to utilize all four wheels at once, or independently, depending on which type of differential it employs. This is why some all-wheel-drive systems are “permanent”, or always active, and some are “on demand” and only kick in when traction is lost.
I won’t bore you with technical talk but essentially it sends power to all four wheels of the car through front, center, and rear differentials and some sweet technology.
Nowadays, all-wheel-drive cars range from extremely complex to only moderately complex with some systems biasing front-wheel drive and some biasing rear-wheel drive. And some even emulating rear-wheel-drive handling characteristics through magic called “torque vectoring“.
Difference Between AWD and 4WD
- AWD utilizes front, rear, and center differentials
- 4WD uses two differentials and a transfer case
- 4WD torque usually evenly distributed
- AWD works across all gearing, 4WD usually biases low gearing
- AWD might not always be in AWD
This is a common question when it comes to all-wheel-drive cars – what’s the difference between AWD and 4WD? And the answer is kind of technical. I’m not going to go into that because I’m not an engineer or a rocket scientist, but I can give you the basics.
We’ve all seen those logos on big trucks and SUVs that say “4X4”, which refers to 4WD. This is usually a system that is not permanent and is either turned on or off by the driver, according to their needs.
The reason it appears heavily in off-road vehicles is that it tends to bias high-torque low gearing outputs that are suitable for towing or getting through hard-to-pass terrain like mud.
Usually, 4WD is an evenly distributed system, meaning it puts an equal amount of torque and power to each wheel regardless of traction and the systems are usually used in off-road applications.
This deviates from AWD which focuses mostly on channeling power and torque to the wheels which have the most traction. This is the basis of AWD and it assists in providing vehicles with better traction in various road conditions.
Another differentiator is that AWD systems are not always all-wheel-drive 100% of the time in some cases. This is a major deviation from 4X4 vehicles. In fact, some AWD cars push more power to the rear wheels and some bias the front wheels.
The final distinction is that in most circumstances you can drive an AWD car off-road, but you might not be able to easily drive a vehicle in four-wheel-drive mode on the road.
All-Wheel-Drive Cars vs Front-Wheel-Drive Cars
Front-wheel-drive (FWD) cars are probably the most common type of car on the road today and it’s such a shame because FWD systems are such utter shit.
Because the systems are usually compact they create more cabin space and put more weight over the front end of the vehicle which is supposed to increase traction on the front tires.
Another car that has a lot of weight over the front end are trucks – and you know all the amazing traction trucks have right? For those who don’t know I’m being sarcastic. Trucks are known for their rear-ends sliding.
Essentially the car is being pulled by the wheels instead of propelled by the wheels, which is the same type of setup you might recall seeing in classing Roman Gladiator arenas when the horses come out pulling those little carts.
I hate front-wheel-drive cars. They handle like a wheelbarrow, accelerate like a Flinstones car and overall drive like a small donkey pulling a cart full of lead bricks.
Benefits of All-Wheel-Drive Cars
- Increased traction in all road conditions
- Better resale value
- Improves towing capabilities
- Stronger acceleration
First, you will notice that “safety” is not on the list of benefits. This is because all-wheel-drive doesn’t necessarily make a vehicle safer. Better traction in certain driving conditions can translate to increased safety, but the problem is that it does not increase braking ability in adverse road conditions.
However, the traction benefits derived from all-wheel-drive are substantial and can really boost confidence. For most drivers, the added comfort of knowing your car has more traction in rain or snow makes you a little less edgy on the morning commute.
Another odd benefit is that AWD cars tend to have better resale value. This is especially true for cars in areas with adverse weather and winter precipitation. It even extends to SUVs and Trucks as they are often used for towing or off-road driving.
This can be especially useful knowledge when valuing your trade-in which we cover in our post: How to Buy A Car.
When it comes to towing all-wheel-drive cars can outperform two-wheel-drive cars in some cases, mostly where road conditions aren’t ideal. Certain scenarios like rain and snow are obvious times when AWD would outperform a 2WD towing vehicle.
But a more common example would be a boat ramp, where traction gained from AWD can make pulling a boat out of the water or even dropping one into the water a much more enjoyable experience.
The final benefit is the most fun and that’s acceleration. All-wheel-drive cars almost always out accelerate their two-wheel-drive counterparts and most of the most exotic cars are AWD for this reason.
Drawbacks of All-Wheel-Drive Cars
- Creates the illusion of safety
- Higher Maintenance
- Costs more
- Lower fuel economy
Again we start with safety. Although all-wheel-drive does provide better traction it comes with a false sense of security. In fact, AWD systems are sometimes even marketed as “safety” option, but that’s not the case.
AWD does not necessarily mean you can’t lose traction, it just means it works to create better traction. In addition, it does not assist in braking and can create understeer in cornering.
Another factor to consider is higher maintenance cost as the differentials require oil changes. In addition, they are usually a little more costly to repair than a more simple two-wheel-drive system.
Often times the tires on AWD vehicles wear evenly as well which might sound great till you have to replace all four tires rather than just two.
The added cost for maintenance and repairs is not the only additional cost. All-wheel-drive systems can range from the $1,000 range to several thousands of dollars depending on the vehicle.
And the added weight and higher load on the engine end up decreasing fuel economy by about 1-2 mpg depending on the make and model. This might not sound like much, but it can be anywhere between 5-10 percent less than a two-wheel-drive variant of the same vehicle.
When to Consider an All-Wheel-Drive Car
- Daily drivers
- Drivers in areas with harsh winters
- Wet locations
- Mountain locations
- Off-Road use
- Sport Driving
Drivers who are going to use this car daily should consider an AWD car. Especially if they live in areas with harsh winters or consistent precipitation like the northwest and the southeastern United States.
Anyone living in mountain regions where inclines and steep grades are made more difficult by wet conditions should definitely consider buying an AWD vehicle.
In addition, anyone who will be going offroad, either for fun or for commuting, should consider at a minimum a car with 4X4 capabilities, but might also consider an AWD car.
And finally, anyone looking to drive the car for sporting purposes whether off-road, on the track, or even just as a general enthusiast should consider the traction benefits of an all-wheel-drive car.
See our post: 2013 Audi S4 Review to check out one of our favorite all-wheel-drive sedans.
Choosing the Right All-Wheel-Drive Car
- Understand what the car is for
- Look at average road conditions
- Decide on 4X4 vs AWD
- Include cost into your budget
Knowing that there are additional costs associated with an all-wheel-drive car take some time to consider what’s best for you. Start by really understanding what this car will be used for.
If it’s an offroading car or a towing car consider the circumstances in which you will be utilizing the vehicle. Will you be using slippery boat ramps? Will you be going onto dirt roads?
If this will be your daily driver consider the weather conditions you are most likely to face on a daily basis. Always consider the average road conditions you will encounter.
Does it rain often? When it does rain, do the roads get bad? Is there snow where you live? All of these are good questions to consider before jumping into an all-wheel-drive car.
They will also help you determine if you are really needing a 4X4 or if you are needing a permanent AWD vehicle. If it is the occasional offroad adventure, then opt-in for a 4×4.
In addition, if it’s the occasional mountain vacation a 4X4 may be a better option as well.
No matter what, be sure to consider the additional cost constraints of an all-wheel-drive car and 4WD vehicles when thinking about your budget.
If you only look at the monthly payment you might find yourself in a tough spot when the first big service comes due.
When you’re ready to buy, check out my post: All of the Best Times to Buy a Car. And remember, no matter what, never buy a FWD car. Let’s work together to rid the world of these driving abominations.