For 37 years, I lived in the south. (And technically I still do, though most would call my current locale the Mid-Atlantic.) And in the south, we only get snow once – maybe twice – a year. And when we do, it’s typically an inch or two (and the governor still usually declares a state of emergency). Despite this, all three vehicles in my household’s garage have all-wheel- (or 4-wheel-) drive. I’ve insisted on it.
Now, many folks believe all-wheel-drive is only useful in snow or mud (or otherwise slippery conditions). I recall about 8 years ago, when I test-drove a VW Passat, I asked the salesman about 4Motion – Volkswagen’s all-wheel-drive system. His reply was, “You can’t get that down here! Those are only for up north!” (…We then went to the Audi dealer and bought an A4 Avant – with Quattro all-wheel-drive – instead.) And sure, the biggest advantage for a vehicle in which all 4 wheels are driven comes when the weather gets treacherous. …I’m thinking about this now, because I recently had the opportunity to drive through the middle of The Blizzard Of ’09. It took 6 hours to go what is normally a 2-hour drive. Toward the end, I saw rear-wheel-drive cars pirouette across icy bridges, front-wheel-drive cars struggle to exit nearly level parking lots, and even an overturned tractor-trailer. Overall, I probably witnessed over 50 vehicles nosed into a guardrail, stuck on the shoulder, or otherwise scarred and motionless. (Quiz: What do you think the car was that stood out to me out as being the most unusable in the snow? Answer at the end of the post.) The A4 soldiered on, as if the event were simply a light rain.
Of course, an AWD vehicle isn’t the only way to handle snowy roads. A capable driver with a front-wheel- or even a rear-wheel-drive car (especially with a limited-slip differential) and proper tires can maneuver quite well. (An even smarter driver may decide to stay inside and enjoy some hot buttered rum!) But physics dictates that the more contact-patches moving the car along, the more likely it is to move at all. (Stopping is a different matter. All cars have 4-wheel-brakes. Unfortunately, it’s the loose nut behind the steering wheel that is often the weak link!) The fact that I saw a few 18-wheelers (with two driven axles, totaling 8 wheels) spin their tires and go nowhere on the slightest incline testifies to the road conditions 2 nights ago.
But what about the 99% of the time when you don’t need all-wheel-drive? I mean, doesn’t it just add weight and inefficiency? Well – yes, it does. But, it’s still worth it. Drive a front-wheel-drive car near the limit – try to accelerate while turning. The front-end will just plow (that is, understeer, or in NASCAR-speak: push) to the outside of the turn. A rear-wheel-drive car is much more sporting in that regard, but apply too much power and the opposite effect occurs: oversteer, when the rear-end breaks loose. But an all-wheel-drive car can make even the worst driver look talented.
And what about that other 1% of the time when the weather dictates that an all-wheel-drive system might be beneficial? Absolutely worth the price paid (which is usually no more than a DVD or a navigation system).
QUIZ ANSWER: I saw several of the latest generation Dodge Magnum wagons during my drive. I think every one of them was stuck. If you live north of the US/Mexico border, you probably shouldn’t buy one.