Home / Auto News / News article: Should You Buy a Car With All-Wheel Drive? - AutoGuide.com News
 |  Sep 17 2012, 1:26 PM

It’s every driver’s nightmare to lose grip in slippery conditions, but is that a good enough reason to buy a new car with all-wheel drive?

Just about every automotive segment has an all-wheel-drive vehicle for drivers concerned about the road conditions they drive in. Additionally, many cars out there have an optional AWD drivetrain.

“There’s more AWD options available today because of the added stability in poor weather as well as dry weather,” said Karl Brauer, CEO of TotalCarScore.com

While all-wheel drive used to be reserved for trucks and utility vehicles, the added safety benefit is proving to be an important factor in just about all markets. In fact, it’s so important to luxury car buyers that Jaguar is adding an AWD option to the XJ and XF sedans to compete with the popularity of Mercedes-Benz and BMW’s AWD equipped sedans. Even Hyundai is getting on the AWD bandwagon, and is planning to offer an AWD option to the Genesis Sedan to stay relevant in the luxury marketplace.

SENSE OF SECURITY

Just because a car has all-wheel drive, it doesn’t mean it’s invincible. All-wheel drive doesn’t impact braking performance. Even though the all-wheel system gives traction when accelerating, when it comes to stopping, it just won’t help. Obviously the use of proper tires, like snow tires in wintry conditions, will help in such situations. For first time owners, AWD can present a false sense of security.

STABILITY CONTROL STEALING AWD’S THUNDER

Safety is an important part of why AWD is more readily available these days, but it’s not the only sure-footed technology out there. All new cars sold in North America come with stability control, a technology that measures the car’s grip on the road and its steering angle.

A vehicle equipped with stability control is constantly checking to see if there’s grip, and when it detects a loss of grip, or that the car’s trajectory is not in line with the steering angle (suggesting it’s going too fast in a corner), it can apply certain brakes or even cut engine power to slow the vehicle and bring it back on its intended course.

This means that even without all-wheel drive, cars are safer in different road conditions. However, it’s still unfair to say that a rear or front-wheel drive vehicle will be as composed as a car equipped with all-wheel drive and stability control.

If you’re looking for an AWD vehicle, be sure to check to see if it has a part time or full-time AWD system. Many vehicles that boast AWD actually use a part-time system, often operating as a front-drive car, which only splits power and sends it to all four wheels after slip is detected.

In contrast, a full time all-wheel drive system, like Subaru’s symmetrical all-wheel drive, have a proactive take on traction. It’s always working to grip and send power to all four wheels.

Many sportscars follow this philosophy of sending power to the correct wheels all the time, and it’s a major reason why sporty cars like the Subaru Impreza WRX STI and Audi TT are so popular with enthusiasts.

DISADVANTAGES

All-wheel drivetrains are also improving and many past concerns are now just small side-notes – though not all of them.

In the past, AWD systems used to be quite heavy, and this would have a noticeable impact on fuel economy. “New engine and transmission technology is making up for that disadvantage,” says Brauer. Industry-wide there’s also been a trend of reducing weight, which also lends to better fuel economy.

Take a look at the Mazda CX-5 (above) which is available in either FWD or AWD. According to the EPA ratings, there is only a one mile-per-gallon difference between the two, with the FWD model getting 29 mpg combined, and the AWD model getting 28. Is one mpg a significant hit to take for better all-weather performance? Other new vehicles follow the same trend. The MINI Countryman and Nissan Juke lose just 2 mpg combined in the transition to all-wheel drive.

Even vehicles with full-time AWD systems can manage solid fuel economy. The compact Subaru Impreza offers reasonably competitive fuel economy in its segment, even though it’s the only option available with full-time all-wheel drive. One major element to thank is the car’s fuel-friendly CVT, although the lighter construction and smaller, more efficient engine are just as important.

There are some statistics that point to all-wheel drive vehicles having costlier repairs however.

“AWD models are a bit more expensive and parts/independent repairers may be a problem to find on some imports,” says Phil Edmonston, author of the Lemon-Aid new car-buying guides. Lemon-Aid uses a combination of owner-reported problems and cross references that data with Consumer Reports’ Reliability Data in its annual member survey published every April. “AWD is more expensive than RWD and FWD simply because there is more complexity and more things that can go wrong,” added Edmonston.

ALL-WHEEL DRIVE GAMECHANGERS

All-wheel drivetrains are progressing as fast as anything else in the industry. While earlier iterations just sent power to all four wheels, newer systems can vary the amount of power sent to the front or rear wheels. For even more grip, some systems like Honda’s Super-Handling All-Wheel-Drive (SH-AWD) vary power left-to-right in the rear, enabling full torque to be sent to just one wheel in order to better help the car rotate in a corner. This combines a philosophy of excellent grip and performance, and is used in Acura‘s TL (seen above.)

Other manufacturers are combining electric motors with all-wheel drive trains. Lexus uses its Hybrid Synergy Drive as an AWD powertrain in the RX450h. The system uses two electric motors, one in the front that works with the vehicles’ engine to power the front two wheels, and another electric motor in the rear to power the vehicles rear wheels. The rear motor sends power to the back two wheels under full-throttle acceleration and when the front wheels lose grip.

“Since electric motors have instant torque, combining electric motors with all-wheel drive make these vehicles deliver power that much faster,” explains Brauer.

He also mentioned that other car companies are putting electric motors at each wheel like the Mercedes-Benz SLS AMG E-Cell (seen right). Honda is also currently preparing to launch a new version of the Acura RL using a electric motors in the rear and a gas engine in the front to deliver a hybrid AWD system. The advantage of this is that there would be no drive-shafts under the car, leaving more room for passengers, or battery packs. Not having a central tunnel connecting the front and rear axles is helpful to free up interior space, particularly in the rear center seat, however, electric components tend to be heavy, negating any benefits of having fewer mechanical parts.

PRICE: THE DECIDING FEATURE

With fewer drawbacks and improved grip and safety, all-wheel drive vehicles are becoming more desirable. However, AWD vehicles still hold a price premium over two-wheel drive alternatives. Combine that with the potential for costlier repairs and the decision to buy an AWD vehicle will teeter on your budget, and most importantly on the where you live.

  • CA_Refugee

    With a resounding, HELL YEA!!!

    After what I did with my ’08 Legacy on last years hunting trips in WA state, I can tell you AWD is WELL worth it, in every regard. I drove in some nasty snow on off road trails, (where everyone in 4×4 trucks were either shocked I made it that far or laughing heartily) to a severe snow storm, and well, western Washington is well known for the rain too. I have never felt more confidence in a vehicle as I do in my Legacy. I bought it in SoCal and it was perfect for there. Now that I moved to WA, I wish I would have bought the Outback. The ground clearance being the only reason. 

    Not AWD systems are the same! Make sure you do your research on each type of system that the car manufacturers offer. I like the Audi system, it works VERY well, and is my second preference, but the way the Subaru system is, I feel it is the best one out there, bar none. Audi and Subaru have been doing AWD system for decades, so you know they are well engineered, and can withstand the test of time. 

  • http://www.shopsar.com/ Michael Vanacore

    I would have to agree, You need the extra handling and also grip. No matter where you live you. The additional help is always appreciated. 

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/J2T4LM3FB2MJ3XFXXORS3XI6PU chavitz chavis

    Once in an dark cold wet heavy-fog weather, I drove my AWD car into a newly filled flowerbed. If it was a front wheel drive car, I would have to call towing truck to pull my car out. You know how long you have to wait the towing service in such nasty weather for towing and safety concern, right!

  • Highcast

    I bought my 4WD Dacia Duster diesel last November and now there is no going back to 2WD vehicles. The way I can drive to the REALLY hard-to-go places and back without assistance from others is really addictive..
    The car is high-end model of the model tree so its not that ascetic than the cheapest models.

  • Waryman

    Just remember that AWD adds weight which affects the handling, acceleration, and fuel economy of many cars.  It also leads to more parasitic power losses due to the extra differentials.  This hurts s cars with smaller engines.  AWD works best when used with a potent engine with good low end torque.  In addition, you must replace all 4 tires if you lose one (if they have been worn enough) as you could ruin the differential if the tires are not of the same spec.  If I was purchasing a car for regular every day use, I would not aim for AWD due to these reasons. But it really depends on the area where you are living in.

  • Dave R

     Amazing points! Thanks. That tire wear issues is definitely a concern for me.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/NAKFN7DKVQW3BN44T54UWPPO4U Mark

    I’ve heard numerous variations regarding the tire replacement issue.  Some say you have to replace all 4 tires, some say just the two sharing the same axle and others will tell you to simply match the replacement tire to the others (same brand/model/size of tire).  The best thing to do is check with the manufacturer’s suggestion for tire replacement.

  • jdodman41

    My family has a 2011 legacy. Have been through snow storms and there hasn’t been a car I have felt more secure in. The awd is really amazing. The one problem we have come across is the slightest amount of misalignment, you get a vibration. sometimes so bad that after a half hour drive your hands are numb.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/David-Lee-Stephens/1640852169 David Lee Stephens

     Depends on the vehicle. The best AWD systems, like the now-ancient GMC Syclone / Typhoon, don’t get affected if any corner has a bald tire or a new tire.
     Having successfully driven RWD V8 Camaros and pickups in the snow for 20 years, AWD is only for those with no driving skill, or those venturing where cars don’t belong. Want to get off-pavement? That’s what Jeeps are for. Want to tow a trailer in the snow? That’s what 4×4 pickups are for.
     However, I’m currently in the middle of building the world’s first AWD Camaro, using all-GM drive-train components, with a 1200-HP twin-T76 4.8L. Time to show the Subaru / Evo crowd what AWD is supposed to be capable of in a true high performance car.

  • NJdriver

    It’s all about the tires.  I had a Landcruiser wtih the OEM tires and it was a death trap.  Once I changed it to AT tires, it was so much better.  I live in the northeast, so it snows.  For the number of days it snows, it’s nice to have.  Although, for a multi-car family, you could probably get away with just one AWD car.  It’s all about the tires.  I have blizzaks now and they also work great in the rain.

  • OnBoost

     Camaros suck. Your car would get raped in a circuit which is what Evo’s and Sti’s were originally built for. All your 1200 HP piece of shit is good at is beating the competition in the 1/4. And that my friend gets old fast. 

  • Dave

    That guy contradicts himself even. First he says “AWD is only for those with no driving skill,” but then he goes on to brag about how he’s converting his camaro into AWD…Wtf?

  • http://pulse.yahoo.com/_PG66LOTNTI3G6GIBLC3HZKUJDQ Willard Worsley

    AWD is retarded! If I had the funds I’d build a car with the ability to change from front wheel to rear wheel to 4 wheel to all-wheel drive.

  • Zach

    Many people are completely brainwashed into thinking they need AWD.. It simply is a costly option that just isn’t necessary 99% of the time. A front wheel drive car fitted with a proper set of cheap winter tires will outperform an AWD car fitted with all-season tires in the snow. A set of winter tires (even complete with rims!) can be had for a fraction of the price of the AWD option from the manufacturer.

  • R32

    Because with 1200 hp you need all 4 wheels to deliver the power to the street. Otherwise you’re just spinning the 2 rears. Or, if you’re looking for absolutely insane acceleration numbers like the Nissan GT-R.

  • Gil

    In an effort to be helpful and get some help, I’m about to buy a new car and I’m doing research on buying RWD or AWD. I currently have an AWD Acura RL with over 200,000 miles and no drive train related problems. Sounds like if I have them, they will be expensive. The car is a 2009 so I’m mainly interested in safety on wet roads in the Sth East. I drive a lot and I drive fast and with all the research I’ve done, I cant get an objective answer of how much safer AWD is over RWD. I do know this, I also owned a 2004 911 C4S (bought new) that I got sideways routinely (not on purpose) and a 944 bought new in 1986 that never left the pavement after getting sideways at about 120 mph after getting lift in a hard turn on a rough country road. I drove off with 4 flat spots on my tires but alive. My point in all of this is that with substantial personal experience with both RWD and AWD I still don’t know if the AWD provides a statistically valid improvement in safety over the RWD. Unless I can find out it does, I think I’m going back with RWD. One last note, the AWD Acura is unbelievable on the wet, muddy, dirt roads out at our farm. If it doesn’t bottom out, it will NOT get stuck but its not exactly practical for dropping my son off at his hunting spots (although quiet and comfortable) and this doesn’t have anything to do with the highway safety issue I’m concerned with anyway. If someone could point me to a source that addresses highway safety on wet and dry roads with AWD vs RWD or just share the actual differences, I would be appreciative.

  • sam101200

    AWD cars do not oversteer. Especially when coupled with ESC, it is near impossible to swing the tail out. That in itself makes AWD worth it, because 99.9% of drivers do not know what to do when a car oversteers.