• Jan 20, 2012
AWD systems, like that on the Subaru Forester, are grea... AWD systems, like that on the Subaru Forester, are great in snowy conditions (Subaru).
The Northeast, Great Lakes and even Seattle have been hit with winter storms this week. Is it time to consider whether or not you need or want an all-wheel drive-car or SUV to better handle the snow and slush?

Not surprisingly, sales of all-wheel-drive vehicles spike in winter months. But there are pros and cons to owning one. Also, before you buy you should understand how the systems work, and how they are different from four-wheel-drive systems.

Check out our new feature--TechSplanations-- to get an easy-to-digest take on how these systems work, and then check out our gallery of AWD and 4WD vehicles to get our editors' comments on each vehicle. Finally, if you are interested in pricing and more detailed information, research the car on our easy-to use shopping tool.

What is All-Wheel-Drive

All-wheel-drive vehicles have systems in which the engine drives all four wheels at the same time, as opposed to just the front wheels in most cars. By means of sensors and the vehicle's central computer power from the engine is routed to each wheel depending on your traction. If you are traveling on a dry road, your car will operate in front-drive mode or rear-drive mode, depending on its orientation. A BMW all-wheel-drive vehicle tagged with the "x" designation will travel in rear-drive on a dry road. A Subaru Impreza will move in front-drive mode in dry conditions. But if that car is in snow, wet leaves, gravel, sand, or the like, the sensors will automatically send power to each wheel in the right proportions to maximize traction.

How does it work?

An AWD system is made up of the front and rear differentials and the transfer case. The differentials are located between the front wheels and the back wheels. The differentials transfer torque (power at low engine revolutions-per-minute) from the drive shaft to the drive wheels. Sensors will shift that torque to each wheel depending on traction needs, literally putting the power to the pavement to maximize control of the vehicle. Besides providing drive power to all four wheels, an AWD system can also help your vehicle make turns--the inside wheels and outside wheels of your vehicle take different paths during a turn, and having them move at different speeds makes your vehicle corner more effectively.

The beauty of the AWD system is that it woks automatically, leaving the vehicle in two-wheel-drive when that's all that is needed, which is most of the time. If an AWD system worked full-time, the vehicle would unnecessarily burn a lot of fuel. Why would I want it?

If you live in the Northeast, Great Lakes, Pacific Northwest or any place that is going to see snow four or five months of the year, or if you live and drive on a lot of unpaved roads, an all-wheel-drive vehicle is the ticket. It's not for no reason that these are the strongest markets for Subaru, which has long offered AWD systems as standard equipment.

Is there any downside?

These systems are terrific on pavement and unpaved roads, but an AWD car or crossover is not the same as a Jeep or Range Rover, and is not designed to handle the same sorts of off-road courses. AWD systems are different than four-wheel-drive systems which have levers or buttons inside the car that enable the driver to lock the differentials, putting the car into a low-range mode where all four wheels are engaged for real off-roading and trail crawling. AWD vehicles also carry a fuel economy penalty, as the weight of the system means your vehicle will get about 5 mpg less than if it wasn't equipped with AWD.

What vehicles offer it?

All Subarus come with AWD as standard equipment, except for the new BRZ sportswear. Audi's Quattro AWD system is an option on its vehicles, but it is offered on all models. Some family sedans, such as the Ford Fusion and Suzuki Kizashi have AWD as an option. BMW AWD cars are marketed as "xDrive"; Mercedes-Benz AWD vehicles are marketed as "4matic"; Volkswagen markets its AWD vehicles as "4Motion." Suzuki markets one of the few small-car AWD systems in its SX4. Virtually all SUVs and crossover vehicles have AWD options.

Bottom line

If you drive in the snow or travel lots of unpaved roads, it's tough to find a better insurance policy than a solid AWD system. The worst vehicle we can think of to drive in snowy climes would be, say, a Ford Mustang or a light, two-wheel-drive pickup truck like a Dodge Dakota.

View Gallery: AWD Vehicles



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    • 1 Second Ago
  • 73 Comments
      • 2 Years Ago
      The Subaru system is a full time, all wheel drive, at all speeds, not just when there is slipage....check your facts!
      wil2660
      • 2 Years Ago
      Have an 07 Ford 500 AWD, in the snow it's great, like being on tracks.
      • 2 Years Ago
      Whoever wrote this doesn't have a clue and shouldn't write of what he/she doesn't understand. Many all wheel drive can go anywhere a 4 wheel drive can go. usually the difference is wheter the transfer case has low range or not. The transfer case must also have the ability to lock the center differential. Toyota sells both 4 wheel drive and all wheel drive vehicles their all wheel drive vehicles such as Sequioa, 4 Runner, & Land Cruiser will go anywhere a Jeep will go and more.
        paul and cheri
        • 2 Years Ago
        all wheel drive does not have a locking differential,,they use traction control [brakes] to control wheel slip... on dry pavement they only have 1 wheel pulling in the front or rear...on 4 wheel drive [which is incorrect] they normally have one wheel pulling in the front and in the back..[ without traction control] if you have a rear locking differential and an " open" differential in the front you have a 3 by 4... a true 4by 4 has a locking differential in the front and rear...this is dangerous at speeds as you will not be able to steer correctally in snow and ice...no car dealer will put a locking differential on the steering wheels or steering axle because of the inability to steer on ice and snow... going really slow off-road both axles locked will really help you...i have a dually ford crew cab with locked axles so i just unlock one of the front hubs in snow or ice so i can steer...and yes i do like manual locking hubs that way i know when the are locked or not----no guessing !!!!
      • 2 Years Ago
      that was about as useless an article as a buffalo ny resident has ever seen. don't run this junk anymore.
      ragtopman04
      • 2 Years Ago
      My 2010 CADILLAC CTS WAGON and AWD, and its just AWESOME in winter or summer. Sure footedness on dry roads or if you hit a little gravel, and flawless driving in the winter in snow and ice! Cant believe i waited so long before i bought the Cadillac system. This came after much driving and comparing with BMW, and Mercedes systems which were just too noticeable or interfered with normal driving. Check out AWD, i love it!
      • 2 Years Ago
      Here is the thing. Most full time all wheel drive systems incorporated a differential or limited slip differential into the transfer case where as a true 4x4 splits the power 50/50 to the front and rear axle differentials. Speaking of a true a 4x4 it will have the option of also locking the front and rear axle differentials providing each tire with 25% of the power all the time. Correct me if I am wrong as my information may be outdated to the newer technology, But the fuel savings of a full time AWD vehicle are not true due to the fact the front hubs are always locked into the front axles. This creates more rolling resistance. In a "manually" selected 4x4 the front hubs are only locked in when you select 4 Wheel.
      moeelmore
      • 2 Years Ago
      Bought a Subaru wagon in October 87 in Texas and drove it back to NC. In Dec they had a hard series of storms that closed schools for two weeks. I was one of the only ones who was able to get to and from work in all the snow and ice. Years later I made a numer of runs from VA to NC over ice covered I-95 and helped other cars get out of ditches etc. We had Subarus for some years until I needed a truck. It went hunting and drove easily to where guys in 4WD pickups failed to go. Not really off road, but it sure performed up to advertising. Today I have a VW Jetta on lease but I sure am thinking of another Subaru - just wish they could get better gas mileage.
      Legodaddy57
      • 2 Years Ago
      I bought my 2011 Subaru Ouback in June of 2010. It's the fully loaded limited edition with the CVT transmission mated to the 2.5 liter Boxer engine. I had it customized with interior blue mood lighting under front dash and inside the cup holders up front, sill plate lighting "Subaru", and had wheel lip arch moldings installed all the way around, smoked colored side window air deflector's, front end smoked plastic nose guard. Also purchased the bike rack and kayak carrier which is used summer/spring/fall. Have Garmin GPS on Dash, one thing I didn't like about the subaru was it's complicated GPS nav/cd/radio combo system. i instead opted for the easy to operate the 490 watt Harmon Kardon 9speaker setup with the big subwoofer in the back with 6cd changer and auxilary for ipod up front on dash. Also has Bluetooth for my smart phone which is really nice when you're driving, the phone rings and music fades out, then all you do is press a button on the steering wheel and talk completely hands free it links the phone conversation to the speaker system in the car through a mic on the dash. Then just hit the button to disconnect the call and the music fades back in... awesome. Steering wheel is both tilt and telescopic, both seats up front heated leather power seats for both driver passenger. Subaru not only does it have the true AWD, it's also has very well balanced unique "Boxer" engine / cvt. This vehicle is very good in snow has close to 9" ground clearance underneath , which comfortably/safely got me home from work in the Christmas Blizzard of 2010, it punched through those middle of the road snow drifts without spinning out. The snow came up over the hood and bounced off the windshield it was that bad outside with 50mph wind driven snow with close to 3 foot drifts in middle of my street. Other vehicles were left spinning their wheels, while the Subaru just plowed right on through without losing it's grip. The Vehicle rides quiet and nice, on rough, really rough roads the Outback just glides over the bumps where other vehicles rattle your teeth. Very good quality, very well built, good reputation for reliability and safety too with 6 - 7 airbags all the way around and roll over protection. One of the only cars on the market that have a 5 star rating for almost every crash category, no other car maker can say that. Subaru's deserve more credit than most people give them. I have close to 30k on odometer and not one single mechanical issue. The service and attention I get from the Dealer is 5 star rated, jeep / subaru in shrewsbury nj. I trust Subaru and would recommend to anyone looking for a reliable mode of transportation with good performance , safety, and reliability in any type of weather !!!!! Good looking outstanding vehicle! Best vehicle I've ever owned....seriously. On scale of 1-10, it's a 10.
        LJ
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Legodaddy57
        Cool story bro.
        wrxfrk16
        • 2 Years Ago
        @Legodaddy57
        They are indeed great cars, though I have to say your choice of the CVT wasn't the best. The 6-speed manual is a nice box, and at least the standard automatic would give you the SportShift option, troublesome as it is to actually try and use. But personally, I found the CVT to be a bit grating, and a lot of people have experienced it to be a big performance killing option. Not that the EJ25 is hitting that hard anyway in the Outback, but the CVT definitely doesn't help. If you can get past that though, the Outback is a great vehicle all round.
      MikeH22020
      • 2 Years Ago
      I like the way Infiniti does their AWD. You can set it for 50/50 split in "snow mode" which also lowers throttle respose, but in normal AWD mode, after starting with a torque split of 60/40 , under normal/dry conditions it goes virtually RWD and changes the split based on conditions if needed. I never feel the change however, smooth as can be still with 96K on a G35X
      tbensonny
      • 2 Years Ago
      "If you drive in the snow or travel lots of unpaved roads, " I live in northern Minnesota, I drive in the snow, live 700 feet in elevation difference between work and home -I drive on hills. " The worst vehicle we can think of to drive in snowy climes would be, say, ... or a light, two-wheel-drive pickup truck" I drive a two -wheel drive Madza pick-up in the winter (the Lexus SC is garaged). I have owned 3 different four wheel drive vehicles in the past, but have not had one in years I don't need one and neither do most of the other drivers who have spent needlessly to buy and own one. You need good snow-tires - I often have to go around four wheel drive vehicles that 'can't make the hill' because they have all-season tires and I have snow-tires on all four wheels of my truck (Blizzaks). Any car or truck with good snowies will stop and go better in the snow than any two or AWD vehicle will. "If an AWD system worked full-time, the vehicle would unnecessarily burn a lot of fuel. Why would I want it?" AWD add a lot of wait to a car all the time and burns more fuel than a two-wheel drive car all the time, whether its engaged or not. If the difference between two comparably equipped models, one two wheel one Four wheel, first add a couple of grand to the purchase price and 10% milage penalty (say 30 mpg for the light maybe smaller engined two wheel and 27mpg for the four wheel, 5 years 12,000 miles a year = 600= galloons of gas difference" Same question, Why would you want that $2000 gas bill?
        wrxfrk16
        • 2 Years Ago
        @tbensonny
        While I agree with you that snow tires or studded tires are the best for winter, AWD is popular for a reason. If you aren't getting several feet of snow a year, owning a set of snow tires and wheels can be a waste and swapping them for an inch or three of snow just isn't feasible for a lot of people. AWD is useful in dry weather, great in wet weather and in light dirt and mud, and in moderate snow is still going to beat a 2WD vehicle in an all-season to all-season comparison. Though I do see your reasoning. I found out the hard way that even an AWD Subaru, with a manual, will not do well in snow if it has summer tires on it. I had a Legacy Spec B. and it was the first daily driver I'd owned with summers. Lets just say I was not correct in thinking it'd still do okay in a few inches of the powdery stuff...
          Richard
          • 2 Years Ago
          @wrxfrk16
          I have a 4 wheel drive pickup with all season tires and a front wheel drive sedan with winter tires. Unless there's at least 8" of snow on the ground, the sedan is so much better for winter driving that it's just not funny. Anyone who has used winter tires knows where I'm coming from. BTW, There's not a 5MPG drop with AWD like the article says, maybe 1-2MPG, but the money saved in mileage will pay for a set of decent winter tires, that will allow your FWD car to work better than an AWD SUV in almost all winter conditions.
      epwildkat
      • 2 Years Ago
      I had a 1997 GMC Safari Van with AWD and it was fantastic in the the snow here in Michigan. I now have a 2000 Dodge Dakota Quad cab 4WD with 210,000 miles on it. It also is great in the snow, in 4WD that is. I have owned for almost 12 years now. What a great truck it has been. Still going strong. By far the best truck or car that I have owned in my 40 years of driving.
      • 2 Years Ago
      This article would have been better if they explained the difference between full time AWD and automatic AWD as the full time systems are considerably superior and almost as different as 4x4 vs. AWD.
        siscosdad
        • 2 Years Ago
        Why drive an automatic if you have AWD? Plus I forgot to mention the gas mileage on AWD and 4WD is zilch. All in all, an automotive flim flam.
          wrxfrk16
          • 2 Years Ago
          @siscosdad
          No, he meant systems that switch automatically from two wheel drive to four wheel drive, such as the systems used by Infiniti, as well as BMW and Acura if I'm not mistaken. The other alternative, such as in Subaru, is full time all wheel drive where the center diff is in use all the time, not just when wheelspin is detected. And as for your mileage claim, it hurts around town when you need to start the extra drive axle, but highway it really doesn't hurt for the handling gain in both dry and wet. My Impreza, with a manual, will get close to thirty highway.
          rcyrilj
          • 2 Years Ago
          @siscosdad
          I get 28 to 30 MPG (average) with my full time AWD Subaru Outback. 30 MPG with warm weather blend gas and 28 when the winter blend kicks in. Better than a lot of FWD cars of equal size and carrying capacity.
          raldel
          • 2 Years Ago
          @siscosdad
          Wrong, rubber breath. Check the mileage on a subaru vs. most any other similar sized car.
        wrxfrk16
        • 2 Years Ago
        I know. They completely missed the point that Subaru's system, as in their Impreza example, is NOT an automatic AWD as they indicated. It's symmetrically designed, and full time, generally with a fifty-fifty power split, with the Forester using a sixty-forty I believe.
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