We're often asked whether adding all-wheel drive or 4-wheel drive will hurt a vehicle's fuel economy. Some shoppers swear it won't, noting that a car with four driven wheels is more efficient than a vehicle with two driven wheels and two more that are "along for the ride." Others are convinced of the exact opposite. So which is it?
Yes, It Hurts Gas Mileage
There's no denying it: Despite what some might say, all- and 4-wheel drive will hurt a car's gas mileage. There are two main reasons for this, but the primary -- and most important -- reason is simple: weight. After all, a vehicle equipped with all- or 4-wheel drive will weigh hundreds of pounds more than a 2-wheel drive version of the same car. That means more stress on the engine, leading to worse fuel economy.
In some cases, all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive also can hurt a car's fuel economy because they require the engine to perform more work, sending extra power to extra wheels. With all-wheel drive vehicles, which use extra power only when necessary, this isn't usually the case -- but it can certainly be so with vehicles that use full-time 4-wheel drive.
So Should You Skip All-Wheel Drive?
Now that we know what effect all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive have on gas mileage, the big question is: Should you even buy a car equipped with either of the features? Our answer is: It depends.
The main factor to consider is how much you'll be using the system. If you live in a snowy climate and you need all- or 4-wheel drive a lot, you'll probably want to be sure that your next vehicle has one of the systems. A decrease of one or two miles per gallon is worth it if it means staying out of snowdrifts when the weather gets difficult.
But what if you live in an area mainly known for warm weather and mild temperatures? In that case, we'd skip all-wheel drive. If you'll only be using the system a few times per year, there's really no benefit to spending the extra money on it -- or carrying around the extra weight. That's especially true since you'll be losing money at the pump, too.