Chevrolet Impala
(General Motors)

Most vehicles on the road today have front-wheel drive (FWD), meaning all the power from the engine goes to the front wheels. But the number of vehicles – and not just SUVs – with all-wheel drive (AWD) is increasing. Often, it’s an option that can be added to a vehicle, which means you’ll pay more when you equip your new car with all-wheel drive. But is it worth a few thousand dollars more to check that box?

The Case for Front-Wheel Drive

There are some benefits to front-wheel drive; that’s why so many cars use it. It’s a simpler system, so it’s easier and less expensive to maintain. It’s lighter, so front-wheel drive cars tend to have better fuel economy than all-wheel drive vehicles. Those two factors alone mean that you’ll likely pay less over the life of the vehicle if you don’t check the “all-wheel drive” box on the options sheet.

There’s also more room inside a front-wheel drive car. There’s no hump in the floor of the rear seats where the transmission tunnel would be for an all-wheel drive vehicle, so there’s more leg room for back-seat passengers. Also, since all of the mechanics are up front, they can be designed and engineered to make the most of that space. That has meant roomier cabins for front-seat passengers as well.

If a tire loses traction in a front-wheel drive vehicle, there’s only one other tire with power going to it to find some grip. But front-wheel drive does have better traction when it comes to climbing hills, since all the weight of the engine is over those front wheels.

Front-wheel drive is fine for anyone who mostly drives in dry or rainy conditions. This system can even handle light snow. Modern technology, like anti-lock braking system (ABS) and traction control, means that front-wheel drive performs fine in these situations.

The Case for All-Wheel Drive

Dodge Charger AWD
(Fiat Chrysler Automobiles)

In an all-wheel drive system, all the wheels get power, thanks to a pair of differentials at the axles that split the power front and back. Because all the wheels get power from the engine, they can all compensate when one starts to slip. It’s not quite the same as four-wheel drive, which has lower gearing for slow going through tough terrain.

There are many different ways to set up an all-wheel drive system. Some vehicles use all-wheel drive all the time, which means that some percentage of the engine’s power output is driving the rear wheels, with the rest going to the front. The percentage can change depending on conditions.

Some all-wheel drive systems operate part time, which means the rear wheels only receive power when conditions require it. Otherwise, the vehicle operates with power going just to the front wheels, which usually improves fuel economy.

No matter how it’s set up, all-wheel drive improves traction in snowy and common off-road conditions. If you want to go far off the grid and explore real rough territory – like rock crawling or fording creeks – then true four-wheel drive will help get you out of trouble once you find yourself in it.

All-wheel drive is heavy, though, which means fuel economy is likely to be worse. And because the system is more complicated and reaches from one end of the vehicle to the other, it can be more expensive to maintain and repair it. So, you’ll not only pay more for the option, you’ll pay more while you own the car.

An Alternative: Winter Tires

Winter Tires
(Johner Images)

All-wheel drive helps with inline traction. That’s why some sports and performance cars have it – it’s not for driving in snow in those cases, it’s for better traction at launch. Any traction is good traction in snowy or icy conditions, but a set of winter tires will improve overall handling no matter what vehicle you drive.

Winter tires have rubber compounds and tread patterns that help with turning and stopping in slippery conditions more than any all-wheel drive system. A front-wheel drive vehicle will benefit from winter tires as much as an all-wheel drive vehicle can.

The Future of All-Wheel Drive

With the advent of hybrids and electric vehicles, there are more possibilities for getting power to the wheels. In hybrids, the gasoline engine can be situated up front, like usual, with motors providing electric assist at the back axle or even at the wheels. Some EVs have an electric motor up front and one at the back axle. It’s even possible in an EV to put an electric motor at each wheel, delivering personalized power from the motor to its wheel.

No matter how all-wheel drive is configured, you should rely on it to get you out of trouble, not use it to get yourself into trouble.