Ever since Audi made history by applying four-wheel drive to a turbocharged rally car there has been a public fascination with all-wheel drive cars. Subaru’s “All-wheel drive – it’s all I’ll drive” marketing campaign brought traction to the masses. These days every manufacturer offers all-wheel drive on many of its cars, crossovers, and sport utility vehicles. The question is, does all-wheel drive live up to the hype, or is it an expensive, unneeded addition to a passenger car?
Crossovers with the ability to power all four wheels make sense. These vehicles are usually higher off the ground. That is logical for snowy or soft-roading conditions. Most crossovers have higher ground clearance to get over the snow-berm your town’s plow operator created at the end of your driveway. Being up higher also allows for a view over the top of a snowbank at intersections. Adding all-wheel traction makes sense in these vehicles. For SUVs, these issues plus the ability to pull a big boat and trailer up a slimy boat ramp makes four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive a sensible configuration as well.
The question is, does all-wheel drive make sense in a family sedan or sporty sedan? The truth is that the all-wheel drive does not help a driver stop or turn on an icy or snowy public road. Torque vectoring rear differentials sound great, but torque vectoring is not the main issue. Traction is. The only way to increase traction on a passenger car is to remove its all-season tires and put on winter tires. Testing has proven without much debate that winter tires decrease stopping distances and allow the vehicle to turn more effectively in snowy and icy conditions.
AWD also comes at a cost. We recently tested a 2015 Chrysler 200S. This is a fantastic new vehicle by a manufacturer doing many things right these days. The one we tested had the optional V6 engine and AWD. Compared to the front-wheel drive version of this car the AWD Chrysler 200 gets 4% worse combined fuel economy. On the highway, the EPA estimated fuel economy drops by 11%. Using Chrysler’s model selection tool, we can see that adding AWD bumps up the MSRP by $4,200.
In many AWD equipped passenger cars, the AWD is coupled with other options like larger diameter wheels. Larger, lower profile tires make driving a car in snow and ice harder, not easier.
There is one big advantage to a car with AWD. It will for sure start off and accelerate better than a two-wheel drive car when the road is covered in snow and ice. If you live on a side road at the top or bottom of a hill, this is very handy. Once you get onto larger roads they may be in better shape having been plowed and sanded before side streets are. AWD may enable you to get in and out of the house on work days when the bad weather hits.
If you are shopping for a car that will be safer in winter driving conditions, be wary of any safety advantages from AWD advertised by automotive manufacturers. The best way to equip a car for driving in slippery conditions is also the most cost-effective. Use winter tires. Better yet, if your budget allows, get an AWD sedan and also use winter tires.