Home Car Shopping All-Wheel Drive: Do You Really Need It?

All-Wheel Drive: Do You Really Need It?

Quick Facts About All-Wheel Drive

  • All-wheel drive (AWD) offers better traction and stability in challenging road conditions.
  • Vehicles with AWD often come with increased costs from reduced fuel efficiency and higher maintenance expenses compared to front-wheel-drive (FWD) or rear-wheel-drive (RWD) cars.
  • Consider your needs and the typical driving environment when deciding if AWD is a smart purchase.

All-wheel drive (AWD) is a type of drivetrain system that sends power to all four wheels at the same time. Unlike 4-wheel drive (4WD or 4×4), AWD vehicles are for driving along the road instead of navigating off-road situations.

Many drivers would never choose a vehicle without all-wheel drive. But is AWD really necessary with today’s traction controls and electronic systems? We examined the benefits and disadvantages of AWD for shoppers who may choose the system — or disregard it — without thinking twice.

What Is All-Wheel Drive?

The term “all-wheel drive” refers to how power and torque are distributed among the wheels. Some powertrain systems only deliver power to the front wheels (FWD) or rear wheels (RWD). But vehicles with all-wheel drive deliver power to each wheel. This offers better traction control in difficult driving conditions and increased stability as you steer. Most drivers choose AWD for optimized performance on challenging or unfamiliar roads.

Pros of All-Wheel Drive

There are many benefits to owning or driving an AWD vehicle. While a driver’s safe habits are a big factor in how well a car handles, AWD assists with technology and mechanics to help keep vehicles moving in the right direction on wet roads and icy patches. In areas with harsh winters, you’re less likely to get stuck on snow-covered roads.

Extra Traction

There’s no question that AWD improves traction. The system allows all four wheels to spin, which can be helpful if two of them are on a slick or slippery surface. It can also be helpful if two wheels are stuck. That’s a reality that many drivers in snowy, northern climates have to face. Therefore, we strongly recommend AWD if you live where you often face this type of weather.

Resale Value

Most AWD vehicles offer better resale value than their 2-wheel-drive (2WD) counterparts. There’s a reason: AWD costs more upfront, making a vehicle more capable. No, you won’t see every penny back if you decide to tick the AWD option box. But your car will be easier to sell when that time comes. Also, choosing AWD means you’ll never have to worry about resale if you move to a northern climate.

Peace of Mind

Regardless of where you live, you likely get at least occasional bad weather. Whether it’s snow, rain, or anything in between, you’ll certainly sleep better knowing you have AWD when the going gets really tough. That alone justifies ticking the AWD box on a car’s options list for some drivers.

Cons of All-Wheel Drive

It’s a great feature, but AWD won’t make your vehicle invincible to all road conditions. There are other factors to consider when choosing which powertrain system is best for you.

Cost

While AWD offers improved resale value over 2WD, it also comes at a higher cost. For one, it’s more expensive to buy initially. Many automakers charge a premium between $1,500 and $3,000 for it. But AWD can also be more expensive to maintain since it’s more complex than 2WD. That’s especially important for shoppers considering a used car that may be out of warranty. Find a used AWD car for sale near you

Weight and Gas Mileage

In addition to the extra cost of buying and owning a car with AWD, these vehicles also return worse fuel economy than 2WD models. AWD systems must use more energy to deliver power to all four wheels, and they are also heavier, which hampers fuel economy further. While numbers vary, the Environmental Protection Agency estimates AWD cars lose one to two miles per gallon over their 2WD counterparts.

Tech Advancements

Can modern technology help a 2-wheel-drive car replace an AWD one? Not quite — but it’s getting there. Many modern vehicles offer traction control and stability control, which help keep you on the road even in difficult conditions. Most can completely cut power to one wheel, if necessary, or control a vehicle’s skid to eliminate the possibility of it going out of control. Also, anti-lock braking systems (ABS) help us stop better than ever — in any car. This means it’s easier to get by with a 2WD if you live in an area with milder weather.

Do You Need All-Wheel Drive?

Is AWD for you? The answer is probably yes if you live in an area frequently hit by harsh winter storms and paralyzed by slick streets. Furthermore, AWD can give you additional peace of mind and boost confidence behind the wheel if you frequently travel to areas with challenging weather conditions.

For those who don’t have to deal with such difficult climates, you might not need it as much as you think — especially since it comes with a higher price tag and lower gas mileage. FWD and RWD vehicles can both offer enough traction for most urban and highway driving scenarios.

Regardless of the drivetrain type, quality tires are essential. Tires are the only part of your vehicle making direct contact with the road. Their performance significantly impacts traction, handling, and braking. Choose the right tires for the season and driving conditions. That way, you can cruise safely and efficiently regardless of the power distribution.

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Editor’s Note: This article has been updated for accuracy since it was originally published.

FAQ

  • Does all-wheel drive matter?

    All-wheel drive can make a big difference in how well your car handles difficult driving conditions. For some, it won’t matter at all – especially if you live in a more temperate climate and have a simple commute. Those living in areas with extreme cold may find it’s a better option along snowy and icy roads. The decision will vary from one person to the next.

  • Is AWD and 4WD the same thing?

    No. All-wheel drive (AWD) systems distribute power to all four wheels simultaneously, while 4-wheel drive (4WD or 4×4) locks the front and rear axles together so they’re rotating in tandem. As the driver, you’ll have to manually engage 4WD, and it’s better for extreme terrain and rugged roads. All-wheel drive automatically engages when the vehicle’s sensors detect one or more of the wheels need more grip.

  • What does AWD mean on a car?

    AWD means all-wheel drive, and it refers to how your car distributes power to the wheels. In an AWD system, the torque is delivered to each wheel for enhanced stability and traction control.

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