All-wheel drive is one of the biggest selling points in modern cars. In the past, the option of having power distributed to all four wheels was limited to trucks and SUVs, and cars from only a select few manufacturers, primarily Subaru and Audi.
Nowadays, AWD vehicles can be purchased from almost every single car maker, and it has both benefits and drawbacks. We're going to take a look at some of the facts about this drivetrain setup, and whether it is really worth purchasing.
What is it?
First of all, let's get something out of the way: there is a difference between the four-wheel drive layout of a pickup truck, and the all-wheel drive setup that you will find in your typical, run of the mill family sedan.
The differences are very technical, but the primary distinction to keep in mind is this: AWD is on all the time. The name kind of clues you in. 4WD, which is a feature typically found in trucks and some SUVs, allows you to select to be in two-wheel drive or 4WD. 2WD offers the benefit of increased fuel economy, because it will use up more gas distributing power to all of the wheels as opposed to just two of them.
How does it help?
AWD offers one primary advantage: it provides traction and grip. The times you will most notice this is off the line when initially pressing the accelerator, or in a corner in slippery conditions.
It's much harder to get the wheels to spin in an all-wheel drive vehicle. Furthermore, its ability to distribute the car's power to each of the wheels will often allow smoother acceleration in situations where the road doesn't have a lot of traction, such as on snow or gravel.
What about braking?
All-wheel drive does absolutely nothing in terms of helping a vehicle come to a stop. This is one of the largest myths about it, and is why you may sometimes hear people say that it is for "going, not slowing."
Think about it for a second: every vehicle on the road has brakes on all four wheels. When you press the brake pedal, you are using the brakes on every single wheel. Whether or not you have AWD does not change anything.
This is while you hear some experts warn about the confidence one might gain when driving these types of vehicles. Many drivers who do not know any better will see that they are able to accelerate and corner without too much drama in the snow. They may notice that their car doesn't spin or slide around as badly as the other vehicles on the road, which makes them feel better about driving faster. This is asking for trouble! Remember, you still have to be able to come to a stop, and there's nothing special about your braking that will allow you to do that any better than anyone else.
What role do tires play?
In short: a much bigger role than anything else.
If you start to really research this feature on the internet, you will find this come up again and again, and that's because it's true. With a set of dedicated winter/snow tires, you will out-accelerate AND out-corner anything else on the road. Tires mean everything.
For whatever reason though, some people still seem to think that the idea of having a special set of winter tires is a marketing myth. For those people, I recommend checking out the video I have posted below.
Here's what is going on in the video. They take 2 of the same cars. One of them is front (two) wheel drive, while the other is equipped with AWD. The AWD car has a set of normal, "all-weather" tires, which are what most drivers on the road put on their vehicle. The standard 2WD car has a set of dedicated winter tires. As you will witness, the 2WD absolutely destroys the AWD car because of its superior tires. It doesn't matter what parts of the car are getting power distributed to them: if your tires are in bad condition, you won't be going anywhere.
In defense of the AWD car, the study eventually puts proper snow-tires on it, at which point it is superior to the 2WD. So if you really want the best that money can buy, AWD with snow tires is the way to go. However, since many people just run cheap all-season tires, you may find that your current car is fine for the cold weather with an investment in good tires built for the conditions.
So, should I get a car equipped with AWD?
That is really going to be a case by case type of question. Personally I enjoy driving vehicles with AWD. That being said, I think a lot of people think that they need it, when in reality they just need to put a halfway decent set of dedicated snow tires on their car.
In a lot of different places throughout the United States, it has gotten to the point where people feel that they need an all-wheel drive car because it snows 2 or 3 times per year where they live. In those instances, it is almost certainly not necessary. The fuel economy loss (these vehicles aren't gas sippers) would be a huge drawback every day.
Let's also keep in mind that if you go back in time 20 years, almost everyone managed to get through the winters just fine. Living in "snow dusting" states like North Carolina do not really warrant the need for a gas guzzler, especially if you consider how sophisticated and advanced modern traction control systems are.
Overall, it can be a nice feature to have under the right circumstances. If you live in an area with tons of snowfall annually, it is definitely worth looking into. However, always remember to keep in mind that this is just something to help you drive safer, and does not give you an excuse to drive fast or recklessly in low-traction situations. We have already seen that braking is unaffected regardless of whether you are driving a truck or a sports car. However confident you may be in your car, nobody has a right to start endangering other people on the road.