Years ago, vehicles being offered with all-wheel drive were few and far between. Outside of pickups and the early versions of SUVs, you’d have been hard-pressed to find a standard people hauler being powered by all four wheels. In today’s automotive marketplace however, even a run-of-the-mill family sedan often has an AWD option. But if you don’t live in Alaska or somewhere in the Snow Belt, do you really need it?
Why is it necessary?
First and foremost, traction is the biggest advantage of AWD systems. Rather than only the front or rear wheels rotating when you step on the gas, all four are in action producing twice the amount of grip than on a non-AWD vehicle. If you’ve ever been stuck spinning in one spot on a pile of snow or in the mud while behind the wheel of the latter, you’ll know what I mean.
Caveat: although AWD is great, it does not replace a season-appropriate set of tires. In colder temperatures (below 40 to 45 degrees), the rubber on summer and certain all-season tires begins to harden and lose functionality.
Is two-wheel drive really that bad?
Today, cars are highly advanced pieces of machinery full of electronic wizardry. Sensors and computers can control the amount of torque sent to a wheel to provide more or less power when it starts to slip in order to keep the driver in control. So for people doing city commuting in relatively mild climates experiencing little snow or ice, chances are they’ll be fine.
It’s a different story, though, if you ever find yourself driving up the mountain to ski/snowboard, or going down a winding gravelly path to get to a lakeside cabin. In these cases, a closer look at AWD may be warranted. The same goes for parents who would benefit from the extra bit of safety that the technology affords.
Are there any downsides?
The biggest issue with AWD is fuel economy. Because all four corners of the car are working constantly, a larger amount of fuel is consumed meaning a heavier hit at the pump. That said, modern advances in powertrain design mean contemporary automobiles use a lot less gasoline than their predecessors, but a comparative 2WD offering will usually be more efficient.
Select brands, like the FCA Group, feature AWD disconnect which can automatically disengage the rear axle under optimal driving conditions, essentially turning the vehicle into 2WD until it senses increased traction is required.
What about purchase price?
Generally speaking, there is a premium placed on AWD vehicles — expect most to be priced at least $1,000 above what you might pay for something 2WD in a similar segment. As an example, a base-model 2014 Impreza in good condition, made by AWD-specialist Subaru, is valued on Kelley Blue Book at an average of $12,400 in the state of Washington. A similar spec Honda Civic LX sedan comes out at $11,180.
Is AWD an absolute requirement when choosing a car? For a lot of people, probably not. However, if you live in a place that gets a lot of rain, sleet, or snow; your recreational activities involve driving on slippery road surfaces, or you simply want the peace of mind that comes with extra grip, then maybe. Just remember to save a few extra dollars first.