As if all the other options weren't confusing enough, an increasing number of cars have an all-wheel drive option in addition to the standard front-wheel drive. Don't forget, of course, then four-wheel drive, which can easily be confused with all-wheel drive if you're not careful. What's the difference and who needs which option? If you live in a place like Kentucky, is AWD or 4WD a smart buy? Well, that all depends.
What's the Difference Between 4WD, AWD, and FWD?
Before we dive in, let's talk about the difference between four-wheel, all-wheel, and front-wheel drive. First off, four-wheel drive delivers power to all four wheels and turns them at the same rate. And it's usually a system that you can turn on and off from the driver's seat. Off-roading vehicles, like Jeeps, are the most well-known examples of four-wheel drive.
All-wheel drive also feeds power to each wheel, like 4x4s, but unlike four-wheel drive, the wheels don't turn at the same rate and the system isn't something you control from the front seat. Many AWD vehicles deliver power to the back wheels only when needed. Or they may deliver only a smaller amount of power to the back wheels than to the front.
Finally, front-wheel drive vehicles only deliver power to two wheels. These cars are usually lighter than their AWD or 4WD counterparts because they have half the transmission system. They also generally require less maintenance because there are fewer parts in play.
Is AWD Worth It?
Unless you regularly go extreme off-roading, such as bouldering, tackling steep hills, and splashing through deep water, you won't ever really use 4x4 transmission to its fullest. But what about all-wheel drive? Now that crossover SUVs have become the new family car, many buyers are looking at the costlier AWD option that can come in these vehicles. Some dealers suggest that all-wheel drive is safer, affording better traction and braking.
The truth, however, is that all-wheel drive doesn't help with braking at all and better traction isn't in its repertoire. What it does is help with acceleration and maintaining speed. All-wheel drive really comes into play in situations when the terrain is changing all the time, such as dirt and gravel roads or intermittent patches of ice. It won't help prevent an accident but it will get you going.
Still, unless you live in rural Kentucky, where roads are rough, muddy, and gravelly, your AWD will be more of a liability than an aid. And though we do get snow in winters, we don't get so much to justify needing the extra weight of a redundant transmission. In fact, investing in good snow tires will keep you safer and more mobile in the snow than an all-wheel drive car.