- Thursday, August 10, 2017
AWD means all-wheel drive, not all-wheel stop.
I love my WRX. Somehow Subaru was able to make something that's fun to drive and fast around corners, yet easy on your spine when you drive it every day. One of the things that "makes a Subaru a Subaru" is all-wheel drive, which comes standard on all of their cars except the BRZ. All-wheel drive is a really nice feature, but people often have unrealistic expectations when it comes to using it in inclement weather.
I live in the Pacific Northwest. For those who don't know, this region is a temperate rainforest which receives a lot of rain, but not a lot of snow. When it does finally snow, all hell breaks loose; many drivers and vehicles are not equipped to handle the freezing temperatures, and this brings traffic around the Portland metro area to a standstill. From the few snows we had this year, I witnessed the aftermath of countless accidents and stranded vehicles. Fortunately I was not involved in any of them. I'm writing this article with high hopes that it might clear up some common myths about what AWD machines are capable of, since many of these accidents could have been avoided if the proper precautions were taken.
So, what is AWD?
There are many different types of AWD, and the term can apply to any vehicle that is capable of transferring power from the engine to all four wheels. That doesn't necessarily mean power is sent to all four wheels all the time, and it certainly doesn't mean you won't get stuck if you start to lose traction. Rather than list out all the different types of AWD systems out there, I'll provide a few links at the end in case you want to learn more.
What are the pros?
The biggest pro is added traction under acceleration. This means when you floor it, you're more likely to surge forward rather than sit in one place and spin your tires. This also allows the car to pull itself out of the mud, ice, or snow so long as it has the proper clearance and is equipped with a good traction control system or limited slip differentials.
What are the cons?
AWD systems are heavy and complex. This causes a reduction in fuel economy compared to a front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive vehicle due to the added weight and drivetrain power loss. The added complexity also requires additional maintenance. For example, if you neglect to rotate your tires religiously, you could mess up the differentials. Information like this is listed in the owner's manual so there's nothing to worry about if you know your maintenance schedule. You do know your vehicle's specific maintenance schedule, right?
Does AWD help you stop faster?
Unfortunately, no. The benefits of AWD end when you let off the go-fast pedal. Stopping is left completely up to your brakes and tires, the latter of which are the only points of contact between your 1.5 ton metal cage and the rest of the world. To properly prepare for bad weather, you're better off having winter tires over an AWD car. It'll save you money too; an extra set of wheels and tires is much cheaper than trading up for a different car or getting into an accident!
If AWD isn't the answer to life, the universe, and everything, how can I prepare for bad weather?
There are a several things you can do to prepare your vehicle for inclement weather right now, many of which don't even cost money!
Know how your vehicle performs at and beyond its limit
- Hone your driving skills so you know what will happen if you lose traction and start to slide. I highly recommend the book How To Drive by Ben Collins; the former Stig knows what he's talking about.
- Autocross will certainly help with this. Bonus points if it rains.
- Remember to give gentle inputs for throttle, steering, and braking in low-grip situations to avoid losing traction. A slipping tire has less grip than a rolling tire.
- Always increase your braking and following distance when the ground is not bone dry!
Buy winter tires
- OK... tires ain't cheap, but I cannot stress this point enough. When I bought my car, it came with summer performance tires that become solid hockey pucks below freezing temperatures. Regardless, dedicated winter tires perform far better than all-season tires in cold weather and can even offer comparable performance in warmer weather. The only downside is increased wear, but the benefits could mean the difference between a safe stopping distance and your life literally spiraling out of control.
- Try not to use studded tires if you can help it. Studless technology these days is so good that studs aren't really necessary, and studs are terrible for the roads when there's no ice and snow on the ground.
Wait... but aren't you a Subie fanboy?
Why yes, yes I am... and that's exactly why you should listen to me! As much as I like Subaru and their AWD systems, I'm sharing this information for the good of all so that I don't have to see anyone else stranded on the side of the road because they ran into a ditch, a telephone pole, or another car after a little rain or snowfall. I also don't want any of you running into me, of course.
Why is AWD so popular?
Though it could have something to do with confusion about features, I think it's due to marketing. Much of the time AWD isn't really necessary on a road car, yet I actually believed many of these myths not so long ago because that's what manufacturers and salespeople told me over and over again. This of course doesn't apply to situations where you're going off road. In those cases, I would absolutely advocate for some sort of AWD or 4WD system* and the proper clearance to avoid turning into a beached whale.
I've done my best to link as many sources as I could think of, so don't take my word for it; see what the experts have to say. Thank you so much for reading this far. Please share this information (be it my article or someone else's) so that all may benefit. If you want to learn more, please check out the links below.
*There's an old saying that 4WD will still get you stuck, you'll just be twice as far away from civilization when it happens. My dad taught me to keep it in 2WD until you get stuck, then only use 4WD to dig yourself out. It's worked for me so far.
- Engineering Explained: AWD Cars
- Engineering Explained: What Is The Best AWD System?
- Car and Driver: AWD systems explained
- Edmunds: AWD pros and cons
- Popular Mechanics: AWD myth
- Bridgestone: Studded snow tires vs studless snow tires
- Tire Rack: Winter tire test results
- I use Bridgestone Blizzaks and they're phenomenal. They've lasted me two seasons and still have plenty of life left.