AWD Vehicles

What are the disadvantages of all-wheel drive?

You’re ready to shop for the vehicle that’ll drive your dreams, but the choices are endless. One important decision has to do with the drive system — do you need all-wheel drive (AWD) or 4-wheel drive (4WD)?

We’ll fill you in on the difference between all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive, as well as highlight some pros and cons for each system to help you decide which vehicle is right for you.

Car shoppers looking at any vehicle with all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD) as an option face a difficult decision. Is AWD that much safer and worth the roughly $2,000 premium these systems command?

The short answer is this: AWD and 4WD help a vehicle accelerate in slippery conditions, but they don’t aid with braking and only sometimes improve handling. That said, you shouldn’t necessarily cross the feature off your shopping list.

All Wheel Drive (or AWD) is a system in which all four wheels of a car operate simultaneously to improve traction and handling. While a car can have continuous AWD capabilities, it is far more common for one pair of wheels to engage only when sensors detect that the other pair has begun to slip. There are both advantages and disadvantages to AWD systems.

No doubt even the most seasoned car buyer has gotten confused about all the differences, pros, and cons of AWD vs.FWD. This article serves as an in-depth look at both so you can understand the differences, pros, and cons of each and what might be the best choice for you or your family.

The overriding difference between AWD vs.FWD is simply where the engine will send its power. If you have FWD, the engine power goes to the front axle. If you have AWD, the engine power goes to both (front and rear) axles. Many of the cars on the road in 2020 do indeed have FWD. However, the number of cars (not just SUV’s) that have AWD increases every year – and is a choice that can always be added if you are willing to pay the increased price for the AWD. What we want to try and help you determine in this comprehensive guide is to know whether it is worth the extra cost? Which is better for you? AWD or FWD.? Ultimately, of course, the choice is yours.

In making this decision, it should be important to note that since 2012, all passenger vehicles manufactured came with standard equipped “electronic stability control”. This combined with the traction control does significantly advance the ability of all road-handling and conditions, despite if the vehicle is AWD or FWD.

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What’s the Difference between All-Wheel Drive and 4-Wheel Drive?

Many people are confused about the difference between all-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive — and rightfully so. But we’re here to help clear up any confusion. For starters, the simplest way to tell the two driving systems apart is to remember that all-wheel-drive systems are always on, while 4-wheel drive is typically disengaged and needs to be turned on. But there’s more behind these two systems to understand before you decide which is right for you.

AWD Vehicles

Traction

In intermittent AWD systems, the rear wheels engage when sensors detect slippage from the front wheels. Under these circumstances, the vehicle effectively detects and compensates for dangerous driving conditions such as standing water, snow, ice or gravel that could otherwise compromise control of the vehicle. By engaging the second set of wheels, the vehicle experiences two additional points of contact on the surface of the road, allowing greater likelihood that its tires will grip the surface and allow the driver to retain control. The additional weight of AWD systems also encourages more grip on the road and the added points of contact distribute the vehicle’s weight more evenly over points of propulsion.

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Fuel Efficiency

The primary disadvantage of an AWD vehicle is its cost. The drive train and related equipment necessary to provide both continuous and intermittent AWD is complex and expensive, often requiring sensors and computers that are not necessary on two- or four-wheel-drive vehicles. This cost increases the initial market value of the vehicle and can also affect the cost of repairs. In addition to these costs, AWD systems require more fuel to power the additional wheels and are less fuel-efficient than comparable two-wheel-drive vehicles.

Braking Distance and Collision Avoidance

While the weight of AWD vehicles improves their handling, it also increases the distance they require to stop. In a scenario where the vehicle must make a sudden stop and cannot swerve or turn, a collision becomes more likely than with a lighter car. Under similar circumstances, but ones in which an accident can be avoided by turning, AWD vehicles offer superior collision avoidance than similar vehicles with less effective handling and turning capabilities.

What are my options?

Before we get into drivetrains, let’s get one thing out of the way. There is no perfect drivetrain.

You may find other articles, videos, or even car manufacturers claiming to have the perfect drivetrain, but the reality is that there is no such thing.

Now that we’ve gotten that out of the way let’s take a look at your options.

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RWD (REAR-WHEEL DRIVE)

This is the first drivetrain ever used, which can be dated back to the 1885 Benz Patent Motor Car, commonly regarded as the first car ever. Even Henry Ford’s Model T had an RWD drivetrain.

While the rear-wheel-drive was the first drivetrain ever used, most major automakers are moving away from this drivetrain for a couple of reasons.

Affordability

For those in the market for a cheap car, rear-wheel drive may not be the way to go. This is due to reduced production volumes (because of the increased popularity of FWD vehicles), greater weight, and the additional materials needed to produce these drivetrains.

Fuel Economy

Rear-wheel drivetrains often mean heavier cars because of the metal driveshaft, which is needed to take power from the engine to the rear wheels. This extra weight means that RWD vehicles often have lower fuel economy than their FWD counterparts.

FWD (FRONT-WHEEL DRIVE)

Automakers are increasingly choosing to include this type of drivetrain in their cars, especially for the affordability, fuel economy, and everyday traction that these drivetrains provide. That is not to say, however, that FWD drivetrains are for everyone.

Driving Conditions

Having a car with FWD means that the two front wheels do the work of pushing your car along and steering at the same time. This often means that the two front wheels wear down quicker than usual and put more strain on components like the driveshaft. FWD cars are often more fragile than their RWD cousins because of this.

FWD cars are also harder to control since the two front wheels are doing all the work. This is further aggravated when accelerating from a complete stop. Thankfully, this can be minimized by slowly pulling your foot off the gas pedal while accelerating.

All-wheel Drive Advantages And Disadvantages

Now, what is the difference between AWD and 4WD?

Don’t worry, and it’s actually quite simple. All-wheel drive is a newer version of the four-wheel-drive where specific amounts of power are sent to each wheel. On the other hand, the four-wheel-drive simply sends the same power to all four wheels.

For the sake of simplicity, let’s simply refer to AWD and 4WD as simply AWD because of their similarity.

Logically, it would make sense that AWD is superior to FWD and RWD in every way. As it turns, that is not exactly the case.

Advantages

Let’s take a look at why AWD may be the right drivetrain for you. To do this, we’re going to have to dig a little deeper. Here are the major benefits of AWD over its cousins:

Stability

Since modern AWD cars are often equipped with sensors to monitor the individual wheels, these cars often achieve superior traction in a variety of terrains and weather conditions (pebbles, snow, ice, rain, etc.). A car that does this particularly well is the 2019 Dodge Charger SXT AWD.

Performance

Being able to monitor and adjust power individually to four different wheels is no easy task, which is why AWD is often found in modern performance vehicles. The Dodge Charger mentioned above is an excellent example of how versatile AWD can be in providing the best of both worlds in safety and performance.

Fuel Efficiency

Not only is AWD automatically engaged from the ignition, but it also provides superior fuel economy than its RWD counterparts.

Disadvantages

While AWD may seem to be the sweet spot for drivetrains, it does come with some considerable drawbacks.

Too Many Options

AWD only gets more complicated as you learn about it. The wealth of options to choose from can make it challenging to pick the right car for you.

  • Part-Time 4WD – this is the first 4WD drivetrain to be used, dating back to the Jeeps used in WW2. This drivetrain is designed to be used on rough terrain and at low speeds.
  • Full-Time 4WD – as the name suggests, this drivetrain operates at any speed and on any terrain. One major drawback is the significant amount of fuel that it consumes. The tradeoff is the stability and safety it consistently provides.
  • On-Demand 4WD – for most, this is the golden gem of 4WD drivetrains. Complex sensors let the car’s computers recognize and even predict slips before they happen. When the danger has passed, the car goes back to its fuel-efficient drivetrain, which may be RWD or FWD. This 4WD variation provides the best of both worlds in fuel economy and safety.

Evaluating which drivetrain is right for your needs is a major challenge when it comes to purchasing a car, and the wealth of AWD options can make this decision harder. Furthermore, the specific drivetrain that you desire may not be offered with the make and model of car that you are looking to purchase.

Fuel Efficiency

Depending on which of the variations mentioned above of AWD and 4WD you pick, the sacrifice you make could come in the form of fuel efficiency.

Here is a ranking of which drivetrains are the most fuel-efficient to least fuel-efficient:

  • On-Demand 4WD
  • Part-Time 4WD
  • Full-Time 4WD

What is the difference between all-wheel-drive (AWD) and front-wheel drive (FWD)?

Initial Questions to ask to help you determine

  • Some quick basic questions will help you determine and narrow down what you truly need in short order.
  • How much snow and ice do you drive-in?
  • Do you drive in high altitudes?
  • How much rain falls in a year where you live?
  • Do you drive on dirt and gravel roads regularly?

If you answered all the questions no, your choice would be simply – you do not need AWD if your answer was not to all the questions. However, if you answered yes to at least one or two of the questions, then AWD should at least be a consideration taking into effect all other factors. If you answered yes to all four of the questions and all the above conditions apply to where you live and work and drive, then your best choice is to choose the AWD option.

The Rationale for FWD

There are great benefits to owning a vehicle with FWD – which is why a vast majority of vehicles utilize FWD or AWD.

  • A less complicated system
  • A lighter weight system, thus making most FWD vehicles more fuel-efficient than AWD vehicles.
  • An additional room inside, as there is no hump in the back seats where the tunnel for the transmission would be for an AWD, so more room in both front and back seats for comfortability.
  • Great traction for upward hill-climbing terrain
  • Performs well in most weather conditions, including *light snow
  • FWD has ABS (anti-lock brake systems) as well as traction control so an FWD will perform well in conditions listed above.

The Rationale for All-Wheel Drive

Just as there are benefits for owning an FWD, so goes the case for an AWD, let us look at some of the advantages.

  • All wheels get ALL power in an AWD vehicle, and this is because there are a pair of differentials that split the power. Since the power from the engine goes to all the wheels, there is compensation if the vehicle begins to slip.
  • AWD will always improve the vehicle’s traction in snowy and ordinary off-road conditions.
  • AWD is tough
  • AWD is heavy

Differences, Advantages, Disadvantages of Both

As you can already see, there are clear and distinct differences between AWD vs.FWD, and cases to be made for both when buying a vehicle. However, let us dig a little deeper at some more benefits and to some disadvantages to both so that you can weigh your options with all the information available about both systems.

FWD PROS

  • Fuel Economy
  • Additional front and rear space
  • Easy to handle in all seasons
  • Uncomplicated to service vehicle
  • Premiums for Insurance are lower
  • Handling can be enhanced with a set of winter tires
  • Good options from every manufacturer and nearly every price point
  • More affordable
  • Tires are less expensive to replace
  • Snow tires are an option rather than go full forward with an AWD

FWD CONS

Lack of capability, in actuality FWD only drive one front wheel and your ability to control the vehicle is extremely vulnerable if you hit a patch of ice or snow and start slipping.

If you have winter tires, while they perform well on the snow, they do not perform well on a dry pavement or road situation. In addition, you will also have to swamp them out each season.

AWD PROS

  • Just as there are distinct advantages and disadvantages with the FWD option packages, so it goes with AWD options and packages, let us look at a few so that you can be better informed about both.
  • Capability, four wheels pulling power to the ground means if you lose traction in hazardous road conditions (rain, snow, ice, extreme mud due to rain), you will still have power going to two wheels propelling you forward and avoiding slippage or flip overs.
  • Better resale value
  • Better handling in changing weather conditions
  • Power to all four wheels

Special Note: Sometimes, AWD vehicles are often confused with FWD (four-wheel drive) vehicles. While they both do engage all four wheels, there are some key differences, and we want to remind you of. For example, an AWD vehicle can operate as an RWD or FWD. However, the majority are FWD. In an FWD vehicle, everything is done automatically without the intervention of the driver. Also remember, that AWD vehicles can also be available as FWD just as FWD can be an added option for AWD. If you have a vehicle you want – the AWD can be taken *off the package deal and thus saving you money. This choice is especially popular with crossover SUV.

AWD CONS

  • Four tire replacement every time – even if only one is bad. If you puncture a tire, run over a nail, or damage the sidewall, this cannot be repaired, and it must be replaced. Even though only one tire is damaged, as you drive, of course, your tires lose tread becoming smaller with each mile you drive. One new tire and three older tires put undue stress on the vehicles AWD parts and components. So, to avoid having to purchase new parts due to wear and tear, new tires are less expensive, so if you own an AWD if something happens to one tire, you will, in essence, be swapping all four tires each and every time – which in the end run, does run up your cost.
  • Poor gas mileage – the components in an AWD are heavy, and the drivetrain is inefficient so, the AWD will use more fuel.
  • Higher initial “sticker price” – the AWD is complex and has the feeling of enhanced road-handling and capability – therefore, dealers (new and used) will want more money for that AWD vehicle. The price difference can be several thousand dollars, so shop wisely.
  • The higher cost of insurance premiums

Hopefully, these help you lean one way or another, but before you decide, think about your driving style. Are you more of an off-road type, or do you want something sportier? Are you looking for an everyday vehicle or more of a recreational ride? Ultimately the decision is yours. If you’re really on the fence, your local car dealership may be able to give you more details.

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