Why Do You Need All Wheel Drive?

Why Do You Need All Wheel Drive?

There is one thing you can count on living in the Northeast and that’s foul weather.  Whether its torrential rains in the spring, heatwaves in the summer, leaf covered roads in the fall or snowstorms in the winter, driving conditions are always changing.  If you frequently face these types of anxiety-producing weather conditions and you’re in the market for a vehicle, you may want to consider buying one that is equipped with all-wheel drive (AWD).  All wheel drive cars, truck and SUVs offer a heightened advantage when driving in slippery conditions.  What does all wheel drive mean?  Technically, a vehicle equipped with AWD has a drivetrain that employs a front, rear and center differential which distributes power capability to all four wheels of the vehicle.  In layman’s terms, the vehicle will determine which wheels have the best grip to the road, the power will be redistributed to assure for a stable purchase to the pavement.  What makes the all wheel drive system unique is the way that the vehicle’s torque is distributed across all four wheels, often allowing the wheels to spin independently of each other to maximize control.  Traditionally, front wheel or rear wheel vehicles have had all the torque sent to one set of tires while the other pair are passive.   That is why in many cases vehicles with a single differential will spin, slid or fail to stop in hazardous road conditions.

And before we get too far into this, it is important to address the question is all wheel drive the same as 4 wheel drive (4WD).  The short answer is…no.  There are a variety of difference between all wheel drive and 4 wheel drive.  For the sake of making this easy, All Wheel drive is usually an automatic drive system that is on all the time and reacts instantly to the road conditions. Four-wheel drive is a part-time use system that needs to be engaged by the driver when they feel they need added traction/steering control in extreme conditions.  Vehicles equipped with 4WD are more commonly designed for driving off road or for the occasional extremely slippery roads or worksites.

While it certainly helps with nasty road conditions, All Wheel Drive advantages and disadvantages do exist.

Pros and Cons of All Wheel Drive

Traction in Slippery Weather

There is no question that All Wheel Drive driving performance will be markedly better than traditional rear or front wheel drive in snow and ice.  Depending on the conditions, front wheel drive vehicles will have a higher chance of slipping and sliding on untreated surfaces than an all wheel drive SUV.  The AWD system will not only improve grip, but will allow drivers to accelerate safely without the fear of losing control in wet or snowy conditions.  Even on dry roads, AWD vehicles are better at handling curves and acceleration.  Because the system distributes power to all four wheels, there is less burned rubber when accelerating from a stop in an all-wheel drive vehicle and better control when cornering.

However, it is important to note that even the best all wheel drive cars will not work well on ice.  By nature, ice is a slick, grip-less surface that can only be safely negotiated on with vehicles equipped with chains.

Cost of Ownership

As with any option or accessory on a vehicle, for most vehicles all-wheel drive is an additional expense.  In some cases, AWD can add thousands to the sticker price of a vehicle.  There are one or two rare exceptions to this rule. Subaru All Wheel Drive comes standard on all their models with the exception of their BRZ sports coupe.  Similarly, Audi Quattro, is a standard feature of their entire line up.  You may even find, depending on where you live, that your local dealers have taken driving conditions into consideration and stock their inventory with all wheel drive sedans, SUVs and minivans because they have anticipated the needs of their customers.

Buying a vehicle with AWD also leads to a variety of additional added expenses that you may not think of when picking out your vehicle.  In particular, because an all wheel drive systems add weight to the vehicle, there is a negative impact on a vehicle’s fuel economy.  While rarely significant, if you compare all wheel drive vs front wheel drive fuel economy, the FWD would win this battle. Take for example, the 2021 Chrysler Pacifica.  One of the minivans available with what AWD has best fuel economy among all wheel drive minivans, the Pacifica with standard FWD achieves fuel economy of 23 mpg combined (19 mpg city/29 mpg hwy), where as the model equipped with optional AWD will drop to 21 mpg (17 mpg city/25 mpg hwy).  If you expect to drive the vehicle for 7-10 years, that would make for a significant additional dent to your bottom line.

And if you are considering the additional maintenance cost of all wheel drive, you can’t forget tires.  Because all wheel drive puts a significant demand on your tread, tire care and maintenance is essential to your system working effectively.  That’s why all wheel drive cars need the same tires with essentially the same tread wear.  Which is a real pain if you get a flat tire.  While with the standard FWD you might have to replace the damaged tire and its axel partner, with AWD vehicles you may have to face changing all four tires so you don’t damage the AWD system.  This also answers the question “why rotate tires all wheel drive”?  By rotating your tires every 5,000-6,000 miles you will extend the life of the tires.  And if you do get a flat, you may be able to stave off replacing the other tires if they are wearing evenly.

Need vs. Want

If you’ve read this far, then you know the next question you need to answer is “Why do I need all wheel drive?”  And that is a question only YOU can answer.  Because in most cases AWD is an added expense, you need to decide if it makes sense to spend the money based on your own driving conditions.  If you are regularly confronted with harsh weather circumstances and questionable road conditions it may be a wise investment.  All wheel drive vs front wheel drive will offer you more control and handling when you are forced to battle Mother Nature.  If, however, you rarely experience vast changes in weather conditions or can avoid driving when not absolutely necessary when bad weather arrives, it may make less sense to spend the money on an all-wheel drive in your vehicle.

Whatever you decide to do, remember to compare the benefits and detriments of All-Wheel Drive on your next vehicle before you even start shopping.