AWD Extraneous

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Advertising can be described as the art of selling people that which they don’t really need by convincing them of its urgent necessity.

All-wheel-drive is an excellent for-instance.

Something like two-thirds of all new vehicles have it or offer it. Exclusively rear-drive or front-drive cars are very much in the minority – even though two-thirds of the buying public probably doesn’t need more than two wheels driving most or even all of the time.

Go back to 2000 or a few years prior and only a few cars had or offered all-wheel-drive. Mostly, these were made by specialty car companies such as Subaru and Audi, which were known for this specialty in the same way that Volvo was once known as the “safe” car company. Now all three are just car companies that sell different-colored and sized versions of pretty much the same things every other car company sells, since pretty much every car company now sells both AWD and “safety.”

This is the Catch 22 of doing – of selling – what everyone else is doing. And selling. The same problem elaborates as everyone sells crossovers – the Universal Transportation Appliance – differentiated by not much and soon to be differentiated by nothing at all, once electrified. A yellow or a white or a green box in small, medium or large.

Insert plug here.

Back to the over-selling of all-wheel-drive.

What is the use of AWD? Additional traction, obviously. But how many people need it? If you live in an area where it hardly or even never snows – LA, for instance – there is very little need for it.

Of course, it rains in most areas and – in theory – AWD increases traction when it does. But for the most part, only if you are hot-dogging it at speeds much higher than most people drive. Especially in the curves, where having AWD can indeed help a car get through those curves at much higher speeds with much greater stability.

How many drivers of AWD-equipped Universal Transportation Appliances do that? Hot-dog through curves posted 35 at 55? Do you see that, much?

When it snow, especially if the road hasn’t been plowed, AWD can absolutely, significantly, reduce the chances you’ll get stuck or slide off the road.

But how often does it snow in LA?

This is precisely why specialty car brands like Subaru and Audi were once the specialty brands for people who did have to deal with lots of snow, regularly – or who regularly hot-dogged and thus needed the additional traction that AWD provided.

Most, however, don’t.

Yet many are sold.

Convinced – by advertising – that AWD is a must. For “safety.” Just as advertising has convinced most people that a new car isn’t “safe” unless it has a slew of “advanced driver assistance” systems, such as auto-correcting steering and intercessory braking, both of these “advanced” systems being entirely unnecessary if the driver pays attention to his driving and drives responsibly and competently.

How long, one muses, will it be before the toilet paper industry begins to advertise “advanced assistance technology” to prevent streaks and kling-ons? Perhaps a nano-bot weaved into each sheet, with video-VR capability to “assist” the process of wiping?  

That might even be useful, or more so than many of the AWD systems over-sold to too many people, who don’t need it. Especially given the fact that many of these AWD-equipped models are designed – and shoed – in such a way as to negate most of the advantages of having AWD. 

One way that happens is by not endowing the AWD-equipped vehicle with the ground clearance necessary to make AWD functionally useful in snow, for instance. Probably half of the vehicles equipped with AWD haven’t got enough daylight in between the surface of the road and the undersides of themselves to give their AWD system much of a fighting chance if the road hasn’t been plowed. The wheels – all four – will spin once they lose contact with the road, which will happen as soon as the car rides up on the snow.

And there you don’t go. 

Compounding this problem are tires not meant for snow, which is what many AWD-equipped cars are fitted with from the factory, especially if they are optioned with what is usually styled the “sport” package. This will typically center on a set of larger diameter wheels fitted with tires that have  . . . sporty characteristics. These usually have shorter/stiffer sidewalls and thus flex less, which is a way to increase high-speed cornering grip as well as sharpen up steering feel.

But it doesn’t help much when there’s eight inches of unplowed snow on the road – especially when your AWD-equipped car only has six inches of ground clearance.  Or less than five, as in the case of the 2022 Benz S-Class I recently wrote about (here). Beautiful car, with AWD standard – and good luck if it snows much. 

Ironically, the vehicles that need AWD the least – because they tend to have adequate ground clearance, standard – are the ones that sell AWD the hardest. These being the Universal Transportation Appliances.

The crossovers – as they are styled.

With the right tires plus the necessary ground clearance, these will get you through most snow better with just two wheels (the front wheels) driving than an AWD-equipped car without the clearance and shoed with the wrong tires (for snow).

But the advertising people don’t get paid if you don’t buy what you don’t need. They do get paid, if they can convince you to buy it – even if you end up getting stuck, regardless.

. . .

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19 COMMENTS

  1. Anything up to 6″ of snow my little 2wd S10 does just fine, snow tires on the back and a 300lb slab of 1″ steel plate bolted in the bed. Its called knowing how to fn drive.

  2. Got to have my 4WD, in Florida. Can park it anywhere – in sand, ditches, etc.
    No wheel spin in my pedal-to the-metal “sleeper”. Has about a perfect compact SUV tire size (P225/65R17), 4WD cuts out at 25mph – what’s not to like?

  3. I’ll paraphrase a comment that I saw recently on an article (Zero Hedge?) regarding cars. If you really need “lane keep assist” or “braking assist” or any of that other crap, then do all of us a favor and burn your driver’s license.

    And I’ll be honest – those oversized wheels with the low-sidewall tires? I think they’re absolutely fugly. If I ever bought a used car with those on it (and the only reason I would is because the price is right), that’s the first thing I’d change on it.

      • About 5 years ago my wife had a E350 MB and my son had a Focus sport something, in the NE. 5 bent rims, 4 tires destroyed in about a year.
        All were insured, but the time/aggravation was not worth it.
        Enough. Wife now has a somewhat normal tired Grand Cherokee and the kid got a pickup. No problems since, even with my wife driving over curbs which she tends to do, haha.

  4. Front wheel drive and snow tires will do better than AWD and “all season” tires. Really good snow tires are very soft rubber and have channels cut in the treads. They’re only good in the winter and in snow. Dry pavement they can get a little squirrelly and in summer they get way too soft. Around here tire shops will store your off-season tires for a nominal fee, although it isn’t too hard to find a spot for them if you’re not in a high crime area. (heck, even if you are who steals used tires?)

    Another good thing to have in the trunk are tire socks. These are cloth covers that serve the same purpose as chains without the clearance and other issues. I’ve never needed to use them but because Colorado requires drivers to have approprate winter gear from September to May I had a set (for 2WD vehicles it is required. AWD/4WD vehicles are OK as is).

    • Tire socks — your mention is the first time I ever heard of them.

      Makes sense: tire chains are crude, gothic, brutal devices … best accompanied by chain mail armor and a broadsword to slay wild game when marooned in a blizzard, rather than other people (Donner party, etc).

      Just saw off my brother and wife on their way back to a Front Range town in their AWD Subaru (complaining about La Niña induced lack of snow).

      Farther southwest, where we get only two or three heavy snows each winter, a FWD daily driver (for simplicity and lower weight) backed up by a 4WD pickup with snow tires serves my needs.

      Never owned an AWD vehicle. And the ways things are going, with Jackass Joe and Volt Daddy Pete turning new cars to battery-propelled, chip-cucked dogshit, probably I never will.

    • A thing to keep in mind re snow tires, they have an very low speed rating compared to highway or all season tires. So not only squirrelly, but may fly apart if you don’t slow down.

    • NO fwd with snow tires is better than awd with all season tires..

      I thought like you before,I read and seen the bogus tests about just adding snow tires(they are just trying to sell you snow tires thats it)..Until I rented a 4×4 and drove it in the snow on vacation,WOW the all seasons hooked like crazy and it was the same car as mine but mine was just fwd vs the awd rental! The rental was ten times better than my car with Blizzaks that were NEW!

      I live where it snows,Very Close to the Rocky Mountains and I have a fwd with new snow tires(blizzaks) and a awd with 30% tread aka bald tires and the awd went everywhere! Never struggled just went!! I bought the awd car used and 75,000 miles on original tires all hwy use,tires wear out faster)

      Every winter people always say fwd with snow tires is better than awd with all seasons..No it isnt even close!!

      I can nearly floor my awd vehicle(6.1 0-60 when dry) in the snow and have full traction,nearly 3/4 full throttle off the line and it hooks and goes.My 6.6 second fwd (when dry)you cant use 1/4 throttle in same conditions in the snow with new snow tires! The snow tire fwd struggles like other fwd with snow tire cars uphills here,my bald tire awd just hooks and books up the same hills passing people!!

      Now do people in dry climates where it doesn’t snow need awd or 4wd,NO!!! But when you have up to 4 months of snow yes good idea!

      • AWD takes off better but does not stop any better or really take corners better. The fwd spins as you take off which slows down the drivers around the next corner. Coming out of Durango CO there are a series of corners during snowy weather there would be at least one brand new 4 wheel drive upside down with temporary plates on it. Not once did I see a fwd “sleeping” off the side of the road.

        I used to do route sales over multiple passes in SW Colorado all winter long with millions of miles under my belt. Knowing how to drive and slowing down is the answer along with proper tires.

  5. My perspective living in America’s Siberian wastes is that AWD is a trap for the unwary. The only AWD I have driven on the street was a 98 Explorer with the magnificent GT40p 302. They used AWD because that engine was a bit too hard on the warranty claims with 2wd or selectable 4wd- very torquey and good running.

    Unfortunately, on the street in ice it was a scary beast. The AWD transfer case used an adaptive viscous coupling- it sensed torque and transferred it to the front wheels as needed. My experience was that the time needed to sense the torque was just enough to get the rear end out of shape and then to kick in late enough to complicate a recovery from that condition- disconcerting. Used as a 4×4 in mud, loose sand and gravel, or even snow it was pretty good.

    On the other hand the Subaru Legacy wagon I set up for baja racing for my son and I was an incredible machine and won every race we entered until the promoters started soft banning AWD. That thing was an absolute blast to drift around on gravel back roads, fast and controllable.

    • I remember those early Explorers and without a doubt those viscous couplings were a disaster waiting to happen. I’m pretty sure GM did a similar thing with their mid-sized units.
      Modern electronics have certainly made the AWD systems much better.

    • Just sold my v8 explorer, was a good truck especially since the previous owner had swapped out the AWD transfer case for a standard one out of a f150 or ranger idk,but it worked well having a std 4wd system in it, and it had a Meyer snowplow on it was a winter beast

  6. Back in the day, awd 2.0t were Evo’s and other rally derived tuners, or Audi’s.

    The luster and appeals gone, and so are people knowing how to drive. Remember, people been driving before awd was a thing, could manage winters without it.

  7. I’m in the Appalachian foothills where we have much smaller mountains compared to the Rockies, so decent hills. My experience over the past 10 years or so is that people with AWD get lured into thinking that since they can accelerate better on snow/ice they tend to crash more often. They can’t stop or turn any better (well unless they were a good driver which most are not).
    If I am away from home, I now wait till the masses get off the road for the most part. Since I have a real 4×4 with snow tires and a locking rear, and very high ground clearance, I can pretty much go anywhere sans a blizzard. I don’t have to fight the idiots, although I do stop a lot to pull people out of ditches on my rural roads.
    Last year when we were getting a nasty 30″+, I waited and waited, since I can see the roads where I work. I was bedlam. I waited till it got to 8-12″, then no one was moving, and I had the roads to myself and made it home just fine.
    When I’m in the Rockies, people tend to understand the dynamics a lot better. The majority do anyway.

  8. What’s almost funny, if people didn’t really suffer because of it, is how many of the AWD Crossover pilots manage to end up in the ditch anyway. I drive my MX5, which doesn’t have enough ground clearance to clear a beer can, has rear wheel drive, and ultra high performance all season tires, up until the snow gets about 3 inches deep. Even so, I routinely drive by several such AWD SUVs off in the ditch. I can only conclude that there was some sort of panic reaction and they DROVE them into the ditch.

  9. Eric, I do find it funny how the advertise AWD as helping with “safety” – I honestly never get how. My understanding is the only advantage AWD has is with getting power to the road, and in the rain its helpful when you say accelerate out of a bend. Which I dont suspect the soy boy driving the car in the ad will do…. The only other I can think of is off roading…..

    But I suspect the reason for more AWD cars is its easier to add AWD to a Front wheel drive car as an option when the engine has been mounted transversely. The standard /cheap version of the car has front wheel drive then when you upgrade its given AWD. Which is probably trying to replicate via computers the feel of rear wheel drive cars. I see this is what Mercedes and BMW are now doing on their entry to mid level models which are now all front wheel drive….

    but to sell this as improving safety – its practically mis-advertising, and honestly im amazed no lawyer has figured it out yet….

    • The Audi 6 speed Tiptronic has a take-off available for AWD, even if you don’t get it the car is all set up for it. I don’t think it would be a simple as just adding a rear diff and driveshaft but probably not much more involved than replacing the transmission. As long as you can program the computer to know it now has two more drive wheels.

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