The AWD Con… .

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Are you thinking about buying an all-wheel-drive car? You might want to think about it a little more.

I can tell you from my test driving that the AWD version of a car is often noticeably slower and also heavier feeling than the FWD/RWD version. In a compact (or even mid-sized car) the extra weight (typically 150-250 pounds) is something you’re also gonna notice at the pump, in the curves and 0-60.

AWD is also expensive.

It can add $1,000 or more (sometimes, much more – because you have to step up to a higher trim version of the car, or buy it as part of a “package”) in up front costs and you’ll also be paying more down the road, in maintenance costs. 

As an example of the up-front costs: The 2011 Toyota RAV4 has an MSRP sticker price of $21,925 with front-wheel-drive. The AWD version starts at $23,325  – a $1,400 premium. Meanwhile gas mileage drops from the FWD version’s 22 city, 28 highway to 21 city and 27 highway with the AWD. Granted, it’s not a huge difference, but it is a difference – and with gas at $3 per gallon (and rising) it could add up to real money down the road, over the course of five or six years.  

And for certain, you’re gonna lose some speed.

The usual AWD penalty – all else being equal – is 2-3 tenths to half a second or so, 0-60. That may not sound like much but (trust me) it is something you will feel in the seat of your proverbial pants, every day you drive the thing. 

 I come to the Big Question…. why?

The world managed to turn ok when AWD was something a few Audis and Subarus offered and almost no one else did.

Today, AWD is probably 50-plus percent of the market (either standard or as an option). AWD is sold in minivans,  which is kind of like selling Viagra to nuns. 

I can see it – maybe –  if you live in a place like Vermont or Minnesota, places that have routinely severe winters and lots of snow. Even in those situations, a good driver in a FWD car equipped with a set of Blizzaks (or equivalent) will usually be ok. AWD is a crutch for weak drivers; skill can make up for a lot – even in a rear-drive car.  

The truth is that ground clearance – whether the roads have been plowed recently – is probably as much a factor as far as whether you’re gonna get stuck or not as having AWD (or even 4WD). And most AWD-equipped cars (excepting a few models like the Volvo Cross Country and so on) don’t have all that much ground clearance – or more, at any rate, than an equivalent FWD or RWD version of the same car.

Ride up on piled-high unplowed snow and you’re not going to get where you’re going – AWD or no AWD.

And most of the time, most roads are plowed. Yes, there are the occasional Big Storms – but (for one) you probably ought to stay home anyway and (for two) does it make sense to buy a car based on needing its capability maybe a handful of days out of the year – and the rest of the year, paying more for gas, getting less in the way of acceleration and handling – and knowing that it’s going to cost more to maintain/fix it as it ages?

But what about the handling advantages of AWD the rest of the time?

Yes, AWD offers a theoretical cornering advantage on dry pavement – but this only becomes a real-world cornering advantage if you are driving at a much faster than legal (and much higher than most people’s skill level) rate of speed.

The baseline handling limits of any new/late model FWD or RWD car are already much higher than the skill set of most drivers, in terms of their ability to reach the “limits” of the car’s chassis.

Hence, the issue of AWD is moot. 

And even if the driver in question is a high-skilled one, the reality is you have to be really moving to approach the built-in limits of grip in almost any new car, even a basic economy car. 

On the streets, within the envelope of legal speeds – even with a margin of say 10-15 MPH over the typical posted limit – AWD is an irrelevance. If you routinely drive fast enough for AWD to be a factor, you probably won’t be driving (legally) for very long. The cops (or your insurance company) will see to that.   

And: All new (2011 mode) cars come with some type of traction/stability control, which to a great extent obviates AWD for most routine driving scenarios. The electronics keep the car in line.

Back in the slippery ’70s (or even the ’90s), in the days before stability control, having AWD did increase the car’s controllability at real-world/legal speeds, during the occasional situation that might crop up such as hitting a slick spot in a curve. But today, the stability control will take care of such situations 99 percent of the time as effectively as having AWD and for much less money (and weight and loss of performance and decrease in fuel economy).

The PR flacks have convinced the public otherwise, of course, by getting them to envision themselves as the cool dude in the commercial, getting sideways on an always free-of-traffic (and cops) Pacific Coast Highway that’s (small print at the bottom of the screen) “closed to the public… professional driver… do not attempt.”

But in the real world, it’s a waste for nine out of ten drivers, just like 4WD.

Throw it in the Woods? 

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1 COMMENT

  1. On the other hand, on the Left Coast all wheel drive vehicles are generally not required to chain up for the snow when chains are required for 2 wheel drive vehicles. It is worth a couple of hundred a year to avoid chains.

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