A guide to choosing a drivetrain that best fits your needs
When you live in an area like the tri-states where winter makes traveling tough, a common question among vehicle buyers is which drivetrain is best for their needs.
The differences between all-wheel drive (AWD), four-wheel drive (4WD/4×4), front-wheel drive (FWD), and rear-wheel drive (RWD) can be confusing.
Front-wheel drive is exactly what it sounds like, the engine’s power is routed to the front wheels. Most sedans are front-wheel drive.
Rear-wheel drive, which is typically used in high performance vehicles and trucks, sees the engine’s power routed to the rear wheels. It provides better traction if you are pulling a heavy load, but provides less traction on slippery roads. On a performance vehicle, RWD helps to improve handling by balancing the car’s weight evenly front to rear.
Four-wheel drive provides heavy duty traction that can be used in extreme circumstances like off-roading. If your vehicle has the option of turning 4WD on and off, keep in mind you shouldn’t drive on dry pavement in 4WD as it can damage your drivetrain.
All-wheel drive feeds power to all wheels and is great for sloppy road conditions and driving slightly off-road, like on mud, grass, and sand. While all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive seem interchangeable, there is a difference between the two.
“With four-wheel drive, you can press a button to turn it on and at that point, all wheels will engage,” said John Riley, sales manager at Runde Chevrolet. “But AWD means that the vehicle will automatically shift torque when needed. So if the front wheels start slipping, it will shift torque there to adjust.”
Most AWD systems deliver power primarily to one set of wheels, front or rear, in regular conditions. All-wheel drive also costs extra. For example on a 2019 Chevy Equinox, it is roughly $1,800 more.
“I would go with all-wheel drive for the money, depending on the vehicle,” John said. “If you have one bad winter, it pays for itself. Plus an AWD vehicle is typically worth more on trade.”
If you live in a location where you don’t deal with snowy conditions, or if you don’t have to go out when the weather is bad, front-wheel drive may be perfect for you. Front-wheel drive also provides slightly better gas mileage — generally 2 to 3 more miles per gallon on the highway.
“The disadvantage of front-wheel drive is you are asking the front tires to push the car, steer the car, and brake, so you are demanding more work out of two tires,” said Pat Timmerman, service manager at Runde Chevrolet. “That’s why it is so important to get regular tire rotations.”
All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive will give you the best grip on the road in snowy conditions. But regardless of the drivetrain you choose, the most important factor for safe winter driving is having good tires.
“The ultimate winter traction is with snow tires, there’s no ifs, ands, or buts about it,” Pat said. “Your second best choice would be all-season tires.”
Pat noted that most people don’t want snow tires anymore because they do not want to change them, but they are worth the investment and effort.
“Snow tires have wider grooves, more sipes, and softer rubber compound, so they make it much easier to get around,” he said.
Keep in mind you don’t want to leave snow tires on your car all year round as they will wear excessively above 40 degrees. You typically want to have snow tires on by November and off by April.