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Do You Really Need All-Wheel Drive?

To all-wheel drive or not to AWD, that is the question. Winter is rapidly closing in. And winter is when car shoppers’ thoughts historically turn to 4-wheel drive and AWD. Of course, car shoppers in Florida, Hawaii and other states with never-ending summer don’t agonize much over the AWD question — or at least not as it pertains to weather. But if you live in a snowbelt state, having four drive wheels rather than two is always a buying consideration.

A recent study from the consumer website takes a state-by-state look at the ownership rate of 4WD/AWD vehicles. Although the results don’t reveal any big surprises, we think it may help you as a consumer to see the AWD and 4WD trends of your state as you consider ponying up the extra $1,200-$2,000 to have two extra drive wheels.

The Stats

iSeeCars studied more than 11 million vehicles to determine the percentage of AWD/4WD cars, SUVs and trucks registered in each of 50 states and Washington, D.C. The study involved vehicles on the road from January to August of this year, 2019.

To the Letter

When describing the wheels involved in actually powering a vehicle, there are only four basic systems. Rear-wheel drive is the original system, and it’s still the default system of most pickup trucks, truck-based SUVs and sportier cars. The second, front-wheel drive, began gaining traction in the U.S. in the early 1970s.

Pickups and truck-based SUVs usually turn all four wheels with some version of a 4WD system. This is a more rugged system engineered for severe towing and off-roading. More often than not, it is a part-time system engaged by the driver when needed. Finally, the lighter-duty system — and the one typically found on FWD cars and crossovers — is AWD. They can be full-time or part-time systems designed for snow, mud and rain-soaked surfaces rather than true off-roading.

Not a surprise, but worth stating: 2-wheel-drive systems are more fuel-efficient than 4-wheel systems. Meanwhile, AWD vehicles tend to be more fuel efficient than 4WD ones.

States with the Most

At the top of the list of states with the most AWD/4WD vehicles is Montana at 71.8%. The combination of an extended snowy winter and more than 100 mountain ranges accounts for the popularity of having four drive wheels in Big Sky Country. The top 10 list is populated by states with similarly long winters and mountainous areas: Alaska, Wyoming and North Dakota. Here are the top 10 and the percentage of AWD and 4WD vehicles in each.

  1. Montana, 71.8%

  2. Alaska, 70.9%

  3. Wyoming, 70.1%

  4. North Dakota, 67.8%

  5. Vermont, 67.8%

  6. South Dakota, 66.1%

  7. West Virginia, 65.7%

  8. Maine, 65.7%

  9. Colorado, 64.7%

  10. Idaho, 63.4%

In nearly every state in the top 10, ownership of 4WD outpaces AWD. Only Vermont, Maine and Colorado have more AWD than 4WD vehicles. All three tend to be eco-friendly, which may account for more AWD vehicles.

States with the Fewest

Unsurprisingly, the states with the lowest number of vehicles with four drive wheels are the ones in the Sunbelt. Florida, being among the hottest and flattest, also boasts the smallest percentage of AWD/4WD vehicles. Here are the states with the fewest.

  1. Florida, 17.4%

  2. Hawaii, 18.2%

  3. Louisiana, 18.5%

  4. California, 20.5%

  5. Mississippi, 21.4%

  6. Alabama, 21.7%

  7. Texas, 22.0%

  8. Georgia, 23.2%

  9. Arizona, 23.9%

  10. South Carolina, 24.2%

Only reinforcing the impact of recreation on the choice of 4WD over AWD — even in relatively snow-free states like Florida and Arizona — among the 10 states with the lowest percentage vehicles with AWD systems, only California has a higher percentage of AWD vehicles versus 4WD.

Autotrader’s Take

There are many reasons beyond weather to pick four drive wheels instead of two. Some are work related and some are recreational. When deciding between AWD and 4WD, just remember that 4WD is the more competent, aggressive system. It’s best suited to hard work and aggressive off-roading. A full-time AWD system stands ready to provide immediate extra traction and control in a variety of foul-weather, low-traction situations.

“Clearly, most SUV owners and shoppers in snowy areas are opting for all-wheel or 4WD,” said Autotrader’s Brian Moody. “But AWD also offers better handling even on dry pavement, so there is a benefit beyond just inclement weather. On the other hand, if you live in a large city in one of the top 10 states on this list, 4WD might not be worth the extra money, as the streets are likely to be plowed regularly. On a new car, 4-wheel or AWD can add thousands of dollars to the price. So, be sure it’s a feature you really need.” Find an AWD vehicle for sale

Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps
Russ Heaps is an author specializing in automotive, financial and travel news. For nearly 35 years he has covered the automotive industry for newspapers, magazines and internet websites. His resume includes The Palm Beach Post, Miami Herald, The Washington Times and numerous other daily newspapers through syndication. He edited Auto World magazine, and helped create and edit NOPI Street... Read More about Russ Heaps

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