Truth or Myth? 10 Facts about AWD/4WD vs FWD/RWD
by Richard Ha
The new car buying process often starts with determining a price range, followed by conducting a lot of research to narrow the list of cars you can afford,
down to the handful that you’d actually buy. Although there are many criteria (e.g. brand and fuel economy) that can help you narrow down that list, we
have all been guilty of disqualifying a vehicle because of the number of wheels the drivetrain can provide torque to.
On many cars nowadays, especially SUVs, AWD comes standard. However, some vehicles still offer multiple options when it comes to drive configuration:
FWD & AWD, RWD & AWD, or RWD & 4WD. Is the importance of choosing four-wheel drive over two-wheel drive as important as we make it out to
be? What is the true value of having AWD/4WD over FWD/RWD? Maybe you’re looking at a RAV4 because of the peace of mind that you get with AWD,
when a C-HR may be sufficient for your needs?
Here are 10 facts about four-wheel drive versus two-wheel drive that might change your perception of the benefits and drawbacks of each.
1.) Four-wheel drive vehicles accelerate better than two-wheel drive vehicles.
All things being equal, a four-wheel drive vehicle will accelerate better than a two-wheel drive vehicle in any condition, especially in harsh weather. This is
one of the biggest advantages of AWD/4WD cars over their two-wheel drive counterparts: traction is much easier to come by when power and torque are
split up among four wheels rather than two.
One of the main reasons why people choose four-wheel drive over two-wheel drive is a sense of security and peace of mind when rough weather arrives.
This is exacerbated by manufacturer’s advertising making it seem like every aspect of driving in less than ideal conditions will be largely improved simply
by having four-wheel drive. Yes, four-wheel drive can help you gain more traction when accelerating, but braking and handling performance will be the
same if not worse compared to two-wheel drive, due to the added weight of employing a four-wheel drive system. However, having four-wheel drive will
definitely help you put more power down in the middle of a corner, whereas two-wheel drive will limit your ability to accelerate too quickly when traction is
If you’re planning on using your new car to do a lot of off-roading, AWD/4WD should be at the top of your list of requirements. Whether you’re tearing up
some sand dunes or climbing a big rock, there is no substitute for having the ability to put torque down to all four wheels. A four-wheel drive vehicle will also
tow better than a two-wheel drive vehicle, but in ideal conditions such as on a dry, paved, flat road, the difference is negligible. You will not fully capitalize on
the advantage of having a AWD or 4WD vehicle if you stick to driving on city streets 90% of the time. Bottom line is, on any slippery road, having four-wheel
drive will definitely help you get moving.
You wouldn’t take a front-wheel drive car on a winter road trip without winter tires, so why should it be any different if you had a four-wheel drive car?
When temperatures dip below 7 degrees Celsius, all-season tires start to become less effective than winter tires at responding to driver inputs while
maintaining solid contact and traction with the ground. Do a quick search for ”FWD with winter tires vs AWD with all-season tires” on Youtube and you’ll
find countless videos where the car with winter tires always outperforms the AWD car without in every test minus acceleration.
Your tires are literally the only thing connecting your car to the ground. If your tires are old, cheaply made, or simply not the right type you should be using
(e.g. summer tires in winter), getting a good set of tires will not only greatly improve your car’s overall performance, but is the best bang for your
buck modification you can do to your vehicle.
When roads get rough, water levels rise, and snow starts to pile up, you will appreciate the extra ground clearance you get from having an AWD or 4WD car.
No need to worry about scraping, bottoming out, rubbing, or getting stuck when the road ends and the weather gets bad. Speed bumps are a bit more
manageable as well.
The engine will need to work slightly harder to account for the added weight of a four-wheel drive system compared to a two-wheel drive system. Although
the difference is typically only about 5%, that extra cost can add up over time. For example, a RAV4 FWD gets a combined fuel economy rating of 9.0
L/100km, while an AWD RAV4 gets between 9.5 and 9.7 L/100km combined. That ~0.6 L/100km difference may not seem like much, but if you drive
20,000 km a year and pay $1/L of fuel, that adds up to $120 difference over the course of a year. Although this is something you’ll likely be okay with
because of the four-wheel drive capability you get in return, it is still something you should take into consideration if you plan on owning your car for several
7. Four-wheel drive cars don’t cost any more to own than two-wheel drive cars.
We’ve already covered the difference in fuel costs over a year, but what about other costs like maintenance and repairs? A four-wheel drive system is not
only heavier, but more complex and with more moving parts than a two-wheel drive system. In a four-wheel drive car, the center differential—responsible
for splitting power and torque between the front and rear wheels as needed—requires maintenance and, in case of failure, repair or replacement. These
components are important and ultimately, more expensive to keep running smoothly.
As an option, AWD/4WD can be quite costly, typically several thousands of dollars. However, when it comes time to sell or trade-in, a four-wheel drive
vehicle will not only be easier to sell, but will also demand a higher price, especially in areas with colder climates. Although the price difference may not be as
much as it was when you first bought the car, the discrepancy will still be significant and it may save you some trouble explaining why a two-wheel drive
vehicle works just fine when winter hits.
As rare as it is to see a rear-wheel drive car driving around in the Canadian winter, it is definitely not impossible. Tires will almost always be your #1
bottleneck for winter performance, regardless of your car’s drive configuration. Why anyone would actually want to drive a fun, rear-wheel drive
sports car on anything but a nice winding road in the middle of summer is beyond me. The last thing you want in the winter is to have a back end that
drifts from side-to-side as you want to accelerate. Be prepared to do a lot of counter-steering to straighten out your car when you give it too much gas.
On the other hand, in a front-wheel drive car, two front wheels struggling for grip is a lot more predictable than two spinning rear wheels. However, if RWD is all you have, you should be fine as long as you do not try to drive in the winter without a set of dependable winter tires.
10. AWD and 4WD systems are the same in every vehicle.
While an AWD system will always send power to both the front and rear wheels, a 4WD system may allow you to choose between 2WD and 4WD, as well as
different modes (i.e. low & high range 4WD). In winter or moderate off-road conditions, you may select 4 high to limit the amount of slippage and keep you
moving forward at a regular speed. 4 low on the other hand, is used when you require more torque but at a low speed, such as taking your time crawling up
a steep hill. You wouldn’t want to use 4 low in situations where you’d approach city speeds, and you shouldn’t even use 4 high if you’re planning on driving
at highway speeds. Using 4WD on dry, flat, paved roads can seriously damage your transfer case and drivetrain.
AWD systems differ in not only the distribution of power between the front and rear wheels, but also in the way they limit slippage, or don’t. This makes it
important to investigate further whenever you see the word ”AWD”, as one system could have a 60/40 rear wheel bias and an open differential (doesn’t
control slip), while another system could be a part-time system that only powers all four wheels when it senses a loss in traction.
At the end of the day, do your research before you jump to conclusions about what you think you need and what you actually need. If you frequently drive
in deep snow, ice, gravel, and other harsh conditions, an AWD or 4WD car will definitely help you get where your going with less fear of getting stuck or
stranded. The added peace of mind may be well worth the price premium.
However, taking on added costs initially and down the road may not be in your best interests—even if you live in an area with cold winters—if you’re
only going to be taking advantage of the added capability 5% of the time.
Regardless of if you drive a four-wheel or two-wheel drive vehicle, make sure you’re ready when temperatures drop with a good set of winter tires.
Richard Ha is a Marketing Manager at Heninger Toyota. Although this is his first experience in the automotive industry,
his love for cars, and specifically, Toyota’s, runs deep. His first car was a red 1991 Corolla GT-S manual.