When you first move to Tahoe, it only takes one experience of lying on your back in a slush puddle at night, flashlight in your mouth, as you try to wrestle on chains because you need to get over the pass or even just up the road to your house. As the dirty ice water seeps down your back and down your pants, you decide at that very moment to start the All-Wheel-Drive savings account and upgrade your car or pickup at the earliest possible moment.
For those of us in snow country, AWD has transformed our lives. But are they all the same? And if not, which is the best?
Here’s a quick primer.
First, many people wonder what is the difference between all wheel drive (AWD) and four wheel drive (4WD or 4X4).
Back in the old days when four wheel drive was invented, one had to shift from “normal” 2-wheel drive into 4WD. Most driving was done in 2-wheel drive. It was only when you got stuck in a snow bank or when you strapped a snow plowing blade to the front of your pickup that you shifted into 4WD. The reason for shifting back and forth was that when driving in 4WD, the engine power got sent evenly to the front wheels and the back wheels. That was okay for the slow grind out of a ditch or plowing snow. But in normal driving, every time you turn, your front wheels are going a slightly longer distance than your rear wheels, because your rear wheels are "cutting the corner," hence a shorter distance. Because 4WD tries to make the wheels all turn the same speed, your front and rear wheels end up “fighting each other.” Thus your vehicle does not track well in 4WD.
If you were driving faster than a crawl, 4WD gave you LESS traction instead of more. Back in the ’90s, a friend of mine had a Jeep Wrangler. When we had a ton of snow, he wanted more traction on the roads. But he said it was impossible to drive faster than walking speed in 4WD without the Jeep wanting to skid and slide and spin around. Our own experience with 4WD came when we rented a Toyota 4-Runner during a particularly snowy winter. The 4WD option worked well at speeds appropriate for, say, plowing a farmer’s field. But it was worthless for normal driving on the roads. Just turning a corner, where the front wheels have to track a bit farther than the rear wheels, the 4-Runner bucked and shook and slid until you shifted out of 4WD. Then it ran just the way you’d expect.
(Please note that the manufacturers never recommended 4WD for normal driving!)
Manufacturers eventually realized that a reliable 4WD with perfect balance of power to all four wheels, i.e., a vehicle that tracked well at any speed, would be a great advantage in any snow country, especially in the mountains, because people would have much more traction at any speed. So they developed 4WD systems that used both sophisticated mechanics as well as computers to send power to all four wheels yet keep them from fighting each other. This new approach would always be “on” so you never had to shift into it.
Voila! It worked. These new systems were called All Wheel Drive and, as you know, there are many manufacturers that produce AWD cars and trucks and vans.
But are all AWD vehicles the same? Do they work equally well? Nope.
Of course, everyone who has driven multiple vehicles has preferences. And many have written about those preferences. So I’m adding my personal experience to the mix.
My wife and I have had four different makes of AWD vehicles. Like all vehicles, each has its strong points and weak points. But when it comes to the AWD aspect, one stands out.
The other three brands we’ve had are clunky. If you go around a slippery corner, you can feel the vehicle making these little jerks as if it’s trying to decide which wheels to send power to. If you go up a hill and either a front wheel or a back wheel starts to spin, the clunkiness is even more dramatic. It’s as if the system waits until a wheel starts to spin, then it detects it, then it thinks about it, then it stops sending power to that wheel and starts sending power to the other wheels. It makes noise, and the vehicle jerks, and then it starts to grab.
Two of the three clunky AWD vehicles are late models and have electronic stabilizing (non-skid) systems. But I’m not sure they do any good at all. And if they do help, they are hobbled by flaws in the AWD design.
On the other hand, the Subaru just drives. We never think about its AWD system because we never notice it. No jerking, no clunkiness, no weird sounds. And if we turn up a hill after a fresh snow storm, we can be pushing snow with the front bumper and we still don’t pay much attention. Our other vehicles (two of which we still have) can’t even make it up a street when the snow is as deep as the bumper. (We learned that the hard way.)
Bottom line: AWD is great for regular driving, much better than 4WD. It's a thousand times more convenient than putting on chains. But of the AWDs we’ve owned, Subaru is not just the best, it is far and away the best.
Are there other great AWDs out there? No doubt. There are many brands we haven’t tried. But from our experience, you wouldn’t go wrong with a Subaru.
P.S. In a recent Consumer Reports study of which AWD vehicles worked best in snow, their Number One choice was the Subaru Outback.
Here's the link: Consumer Reports Best AWD
Here's the link: Consumer Reports Best AWD
Here's the Consumer Reports ranking of AWD, which concurs with our own experience:
P.P.S. Now the usual qualifiers and disclaimers... AWD won't keep you from sliding off the road or hitting another car or causing any amount of deadly mayhem if you drive too fast. AWD won't make you stop any faster. So if it's snowing or slippery or icy, SLOW DOWN.