There’s an assumption that all-wheel-drive is the best way to get around in rough winter weather. However, with today’s high tech winter tires, is there still an advantage to a vehicle with all-wheel drive? The answer depends on a number of factors.

Front wheel drive, or FWD, became the popular layout for economy cars back in the late 1970s. Cars like the Honda Civic and Toyota Corolla were beating their rear-wheel drive competitors such as the Chevy Monza and Ford Pinto because FWD layout benefited the emissions regulations and gas mileage figures of the era. Unlike a rear-wheel drive car that needed to carry a heavy driveshaft to transfer power to the rear wheels, the FWD design keeps everything compact and under the hood. This means less weight to carry around, and less drivetrain loss spent spinning that extra equipment, resulting in less gas used. As the ’80s went on, FWD took over mid-size cars, then full-size, and Ford even considered transferring the Mustang to FWD during this time, but instead created the Ford Probe. Today, you’ll see FWD underneath nearly every class of vehicles, including popular crossovers like the Buick Enclave and Lexus NX.

All-wheel drive took longer to find mainstream acceptance. Subaru‘s entire lineup, minus the BRZ sports car, is AWD and has a huge following in New England, the Midwest, and Pacific Northwest. These areas are huge markets for AWD vehicles due to slippery road conditions and the perceived capability of AWD systems. Recently, AWD has found its way into more vehicles, like the Ford Fusion mid-size, and Dodge Charger full-size sedan.

All-Wheel Drive Pros:

  • Capability – YouTube is filled with videos of Subarus easily cruising through whatever the most recent snowpocalypse can throw at them. Four wheels putting power to the ground means that if one or two wheels lose traction in wet/muddy/icy conditions, you will still power forward.
  • Stronger resale value – CBS News found that FWD vehicles do not hold their value as well as AWD vehicles in colder parts of the country. You’ll win when it’s time to sell.

All-Wheel Drive Cons:

  • Four tires every time – Let’s say you put 25,000 miles on a set of tires. This might represent 50% of a tire’s lifetime mileage, meaning they are about halfway worn out. If you run over a nail and puncture the sidewall on a tire and it can’t be repaired, you are replacing all four tires at this point, even though only one is bad. Tires lose tread as they accumulate miles, becoming slightly smaller as you drive. If you drive with only one new tire and three older tires, the difference in size puts stress on the AWD components. New tires are cheaper than new differentials, so owners swap all four tires every time.
  • Gas mileage penalty. AWD components add weight and drivetrain inefficiency, thus using more gas.
  • Higher initial price. Due to additional complexity, and perceived increased capability, manufacturers and dealers ask more for AWD vehicles.

Front-Wheel Drive Pros:

  • Front-wheel drive cars are generally more affordable than all-wheel drive cars. This is due to less parts, and a perceived lack of utility. For example, Car & Driver says the most affordable new FWD car in the U.S. is the Nissan Versa, with a totally stripped base model MSRP of $13,000. On the other hand, the lowest priced AWD car you can find is the base Subaru Impreza at a bit over $19,000.
  • Cheap new tires – You can change the tires one at a time, making for easy tire replacements when on a strict budget.
  • Gas savings – FWD will achieve better fuel economy, due to a lighter drivetrain and higher efficiency design. Using the Versa and Impreza examples above, the Versa hits 31 mpg city/39 mpg highway, while the Impreza’s AWD takes a penalty to get 28 mpg city/38 mpg highway. FWD is cheaper to buy, and cheaper to operate.
  • Snow tires are a cheaper option than AWD. For well under a grand per set, automotive blog Jalopnik proved snow tires will get you through even a “bomb cyclone” with grip to spare.

Front-Wheel Drive Cons

  • Lack of capability. Most front-wheel drive cars actually only drive one front wheel. If that wheel hits a patch of ice and slips, your ability to drive is severely hampered. Some cars, like the Audi A4, do offer the ability to drive both front wheels for increased grip, but drive wheels are like cupcakes: 4 is better than 2. Audi knows this, and the A4 offers AWD too.
  • Winter tires are terrible on dry pavement, as they are loud, a bit harsh riding, and quick to wear. They also need swapping out at the end of the season, and require a place for storage all summer.

Should You Buy AWD or FWD?

There are benefits either way here, with no clear winner overall. If spending as little as possible on a vehicle’s purchase price or operating costs is your primary concern, stick with front-wheel drive. If you live in an area with heavy snowfall and absolutely cannot miss work, or resale value is a concern, get an all-wheel drive vehicle. For most drivers, the choice will come down to what vehicle has the features you want at the right price. If it has AWD or FWD, most drivers can’t go wrong either way.

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