Reader Question: Thoughts on AWD?

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Here’s the latest reader question, along with my reply!

Zane asks: Curious what your thoughts on everyone needing AWD. I used to be one of those people until I’ve experienced driving in the snow with RWD vehicles with snow tires and my current truck is default RWD (and I can’t go past 55 in 4WD High).

Almost all my friends are rather smart, but despite me explaining to them that instead of getting say a gimped V6 AWD Charger, they could get the V8, they prefer the AWD version.

Everywhere I look in the area, all the German luxury cars have some badge proudly displaying the added weight and false sense of security of AWD. Sorry if it’s a bit rambling, just figured I’d ask the real expert about this. Also can’t wait for your GLI review, those are good cars, got a job years ago while on a solo test drive in one.

My reply: I agree with you – AWD isn’t needed in most areas, most of the time – and given the driving most people do. It is also a lot less fun. You can’t hang the tail out, slip-slide away from a red light – enveloping Teslas in tire smoke.

But it has been marketed – very successfully and very profitably – as a saaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaafety must-have. Hausefraus (and men) have been convinced it’s almost like driving on bald tires while drunk to commute to work on a summer day in car without AWD.

The hilarious thing is that probably two-thirds of the AWD cars on the market lack enough ground clearance for AWD to make much difference in any significant snowstorm. And most of these also have tires meant for dry/paved roads; many even have “summer” performance tires – which practically negates any advantage of AWD when it snows.

In the rain, AWD does enhance traction – chiefly while cornering at high speed. How many people actually corner at speeds high enough to break traction? At speeds within 10 MPH of the posted speed limit, the additional lateral grip that AWD provides is mostly theoretical. It is of little or no practical advantage.

Same – even more so – on dry roads.

You generally have to be really moving before any modern car – RWD/FWD or whatever drive – begins to reach the limit of adhesion while cornering. I am talking about SCCA-style driving, which almost no one does except those who do SCCA race, in which case, they have the skills to deal with controlled slip and often want/enjoy that.

Yes, you can push it even more if the car has AWD. Drift them. But do the people generally buying AWD drift? Or even push it much?

I doubt it.

The main everyday advantage of AWD is power distribution during hard acceleration in a powerful car; there’s less wheelslip, obviously, so the car bites harder and accelerates more quickly, especially if the road is a little slick. A good example of this is the Jeep Grand Cherokee Trackhawk vs. the Hellcat Challenger. Both have the same 707 horsepower supercharged Hemi V8, but the Jeep is AWD while the Challenger is RWD. The Jeep – even though it’s much heavier – accelerates almost as quickly on dry pavement and more quickly on wet pavement because it has more traction.

But that is an extreme case – of vehicles and driving. How many cars run a 10 second quarter mile? How many people use that capability regularly?

For most people, a RWD or FWD car with good snow tires will do the job of dealing with the occasional bad weather day. I find it slightly silly that people will spend the extra money for equipment they might get some benefit from a handful of days each year, but the rest of the year, they drag around uselessly. Plus, the added weight of the AWD usually incurs a mileage penalty and adds one more maintenance/repair item to the car’s cost of ownership.

If a person lives in an area where there is a lot of really bad weather – and really bad roads – then, sure, AWD (and 4WD) makes sense. Especially if you buy the right kind of vehicle to go with the AWD, such as a Subaru – which will have 8 or more inches of ground clearance.

But for most people, most of the time, AWD is a feature they’ve been convinced they need rather than a feature they actually do need.

. . .

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  1. Years ago I had a VW and it was great in the snow but had a lousy heater and defroster. These days I keep an old 4WD AMC Eagle for winter duty that’s pretty much unstoppable except in the worst storms. It definitely gets better traction that front or rear drive but of course you still need to watch what you’re doing. Too many people forget that 4WD doesn’t make you Superman.

    • We have a 1988 Cherokee that will go almost anywhere in the “Full Time” (AWD) position even with just regular tires. I had to put on some new tires last winter and the shop for some reason put it in 2wd without telling me. I drove it several days in the snow and then one morning started cussing the new tires because I couldn’t get up our driveway, before realizing that it was in 2wd!

      We use it mostly in the wintertime to get back and forth 1/4 mile to the barn sometimes through two feet of drifted in snow. The jeep suspension is amazing: it keeps the weight equal on all four tires and goes right through even with three open differentials.

  2. Some homework is required on part of the consumer to check out the details of the AWD system. For example, I have a 95 Subaru Legacy and 05 Outback wagons which have *mechanical* AWD. It puts 50/50 between the front and rear wheels. Volvo’s AWD in their XC models puts 80/20 front/rear. So if the front wheels get stuck, there’s not enough torque going to the rear to push you thru. I think Subaru then went to electronic AWD in later, more current models. I think it senses wheel slip, then opens a valve inside the center differential to let viscous fluid into passages within the differential unit that then sends power to the axle whose wheels are spinning.

  3. Forgot to mention Eric, my parents live on a house on a hill and what really sealed it for me was my Audi getting stuck one day and another time, my old Mustang with solid AS tires made it up and down the hill like it was nothing

    Here in Jersey, it’s hit or miss, so that said, why waste the extra $2-3k on awd unless you’re getting a performance car that’s designed for it, like a STI, used Evo or GTR?

    That also ties in with the bastardization of it, as use to be awd+2.0t’s were cars like Evo’s, and other performance Mobsters, now the suburban house wives and their daughters (literal and figurative) are driving yuppie civics (Germans) with awd, 2.0t’s and drive em slower than a Tercel or Geo

    This is why, unless it’s Manual and built around being awd first, don’t ever look at anything that has the option of being awd

    Just my extended 2 cents

  4. Minnesotan here and i wish that was true. RWD cars do get stuck all the time here and i’ve seen lots of chargers and 300’s spinning the tires out. Now i don’t know if they were wearing snow tires but i’ve seen enough of them stuck that i wouldn’t drive a big rwd car without the snow being plowed. My uncle does drive a rx-8 daily and has snow tires here in Minnesota. The difference is also that his car has a 50/50 weight distribution vs the chrysler/dodge charger at 55/45. Even my fwd mini van with snow tires have a hard time in fresh snow. Which you will encounter often and it usually isn’t cleared from the small roads until 2-3 days later unless it snows more again. I think i need to move.

    • Hi Mooeing,

      Sure, of course… Minnesota! But if you don’t live there – or Buffalo – snow days are just that. Snow days. Maybe a total of 20 out of the year (in my area of Virginia) during a bad winter… and most of those days, the snow gets cleared quickly enough that you can get there (and back) in almost anything shy of a 911, assuming you know how to drive – which admittedly is a skill in short supply these days.

      An inept driver in an AWD-equipped car is more concerning to me than a competent driver in a RWD car, regardless of the weather!

    • Back in the Dark Ages when RWD was all we had (except for rare 4×4, and VW bugs), folks did not “get stuck all the time.” You could buy a couple of cheap snow tires for the rear, and maybe a couple extra wheels and swap them out yourself fall and spring. You didn’t need to buy FOUR focking snow tires because of FWD. Or you could carry a pair of tire chains which worked fine because you put them on the rear instead of the front where they would wreck you if you touch the brakes. Then radial tires came along and you could pretty much drive everywhere without snow tires or chains in a RWD.

      Before we moved to MT, we lived in the mountains of western CO and had a 2wd/rwd Suburban and a 2wd/rwd pickup with an old crappy topper. We had tire chains for both but hardly ever used them except going off maintained roads. But of course both trucks were stick shift so you could walk them out of a slippery spot by lugging down the engine.

      Now we live miles off the highway on a mostly dirt road and I won’t consider ANYTHING but a 4×4 or maybe AWD because you can’t get in/out if it rains 1/4″ or more. Only about three months of the year that you can be fairly sure that you can get out and home with the little FWD car, but it gets great gas mileage on the highway. The trouble with AWD is they are all IRS to my knowledge and the rear CV axles don’t hold up well to the mud. The front don’t either but don’t seem to get the mud splash as bad as the rear. Our FWD car just has a drum brake “trailer axle” in the rear so it is pretty darn reliable in that respect.

    • 1) a lot of people don’t know how to drive RWD cars any more. They switch from FWD and are helpless.
      2) tires make a huge difference. Tires that just don’t cut it will get you stuck with RWD while with FWD mostly one can muddle through.

      • A lot of people don’t know how to drive, period.

        As the meme goes, switch to cursive and stick shifts and you’d cripple an entire generation

      • The tires back in the old days were mostly taller and narrower than today so they literally did “cut” through the snow.

        • Nothing ruins a car than oversized rims.

          Now, wider tires are good for dry weather traction if you’re gonna race or use it’s power (I.E. Widebody Hellcat’s), but if you’re going through Satan’s dandruff, you’re gonna want narrower tires

          • Trouble is all the new stuff is coming that way standard.

            Radials were originally a great improvement in traction. Just a generic highway tread radial would go through snow/ice better than a bias ply snow tire. They were both about the same aspect ratio.

            Apparently now all the new cars are designed/equipped for one thing only: racing through the canyons in sunny southern California.

            • Because everyone lives in Sunny Calimexistan /s

              I hear they give Speeders the Death Penalty in Virginia, and where are you racing to in the Concrete Jungles across America?

      • I’ve got one of each. A Camry and a large rear drive Holden Statesman. Both have V6 and auto transmissions. I much prefer the stato.

    • My RWD Magnum had no trouble climbing a steep grade in snow after replacing the awful tires with Winterforces. The only limitation became ground clearance.


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