Should I consider an all-wheel-drive car?
September 30, 2012 12:09 PM   Subscribe

Should I buy an all-wheel-drive car?

I'm shopping for a car. I'm looking for a five-door hatchback, such as a Subaru Impreza WRX or a Nissan Juke, or something along those lines. I'm open to new or used.

Currently, I mostly drive in dry conditions, but I may move to a snowy area at some point in the next few years.

Let's say I buy a Juke. You can get FWD or AWD. Nissan has what they call "torque vectoring All-Wheel Drive."

I've heard that AWD is only needed if you drive in ice and snow a lot and that AWD systems cost more to maintain and produce lower gas mileage.

But maybe that's old news -- perhaps the story has changed with the newer generation of cars or something?

Also, I thought it's worth asking because each manufacturer implements AWD in their own way, so perhaps the above is more true of some than others.

(Also, anyone have any thoughts on the WRX or Juke?)

Any help or information would be greatly appreciated. Thanks!
posted by eeby to Travel & Transportation (26 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
We have a Subaru Outback, which replaced the sedan version of the same car (Subaru Legacy). We live in the Seattle area where it snows significantly only once or twice a winter, but each time we were glad to have it.

The CVT in available on certain Subaru models is pretty amazing, yielding better gas mileage than our backup car (2003 Hyundai Elantra) despite being a much larger vehicle with a bigger engine and all-wheel drive. Also, very smooth to drive because there's no shifting. This probably isn't available on the WRX though (it's only available with the normally-aspirated four on the Legacy).

On the whole, I can recommend the Subaru AWD.
posted by kindall at 12:19 PM on September 30, 2012

AWD is also helpful in rainy conditions and on unpaved roads. And in the case of the WRX, makes it corner like a champ.
posted by spilon at 12:28 PM on September 30, 2012

Keep in mind that with AWD cars, replacing one tire means replacing all four. We live in the snow belt outside Cleveland and are thinking about getting rid of our Forester, since the incremental convenience of having it is not worth the incremental cost (the control is a Toyota Prius, which is fine in the snow. Forester is automatic; Prius is CVT).
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 12:30 PM on September 30, 2012

My husband has recently acquired a Subaru Impreza (although not the WRX) and I hear about the awesomeness of the AWD basically every single day. We live in North Carolina, too, so it's not like we have difficult weather conditions here; he just really, really likes the way it drives. The cliche is that once you're a Subaru person, you're hooked for life, and that certainly seems to be the case in our household.

The gas mileage is not good for such a small car, however, ours is a 2010 and the new models that are just coming out are much, much better.
posted by something something at 12:38 PM on September 30, 2012

It's nice for the snow, but snow tires are nicer. However, snow tires are not sexy, don't sell extra cars, and nobody likes to be told to use snow tires. It's the automotive equivalent of flossing.

AWD won't help in the rain unless you are hanging the tail out around corners. "AWD Safety" is a marketing myth.

Buy whatever tickles your fancy. If you like the idea of surplus capability, and maybe tearing around in the snow for two weeks a year, then go for it. It's a valid thing to spend money on. You'll pay more in upfront costs, fuel, tires, and parts, but cars are fun. Buy what you like.
posted by colinshark at 1:11 PM on September 30, 2012 [5 favorites]

I bought a new outback in 2002 which I still drive. Fortunately, I don't drive much anymore to get to work, because the mileage does kinda suck. Maybe 22 mpg in the city. I also live in Seattle, and it really is great on the rare occasions we get snow because many streets aren't plowed before the snow has melted a few days later. I do drive a little more fearlessly in the pouring rain because of the AWD and I don't know if it truly is safer or not in wet weather, but I have never ever skidded or hydroplaned in this car. Subarus are hella reliable.

The real thing I love about the car is that it's great for weekends and vacation. There are lots of places and seasons on the outskirts of Seattle that are simply inaccessible without AWD and it's been grat taking the kids above the tree line or snowshoeing and skiing.

So, I would say if this is a car for commuting and city errands and you don't live in like Buffalo or Alaska, I would really get something easier on the mileage.
posted by Slarty Bartfast at 1:40 PM on September 30, 2012

Have lived in a rainforest all my life and worked in Northern Canada. Am old enough to have driven rear/front/side/horse propelled vehicles. Agree with colinshark. Save your money. Use the appropriate tires for the climate, learn to drive safely in the climate, then drive safely. It won't matter what you drive.
posted by larry_darrell at 1:50 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

AWD helps you move forward, and not much else in normal driving. I find it quite useful in snow I shouldn't be out in anyway. Otherwise FWD is fine. If you get snow tires, FWD is still fine.

Traction control provides some extra safety by keeping the car from getting too far sideways. I turn it off when driving in the snow, though, because it's way too aggressive for me in the cars I've driven in crappy weather. It ends up making the car do unexpected things, rather than keeping tracking properly. I've driven in enough ice and snow to know how to keep the car moving in the correct direction.

Basically, IMO, the only thing that truly improves safety in those situations is the antilock brakes. I can threshold brake like a champ, but ABS can do better since it controls the braking applied to each wheel individually.

From what I've seen, if you really do want to go AWD, Subarus are by far the best. A lot of AWD cars with traction control will fail to move when only one wheel can get any grip. My SO's RAV4 is really bad about that, but it can be worked around by turning off traction control and forcing it into 4WD mode. Subarus just don't do that. (See this video for an example of what happens with TC on in a Toyota)
posted by wierdo at 2:10 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I had a very similar question a while back, when I moved from the Southeast to New Jersey. The choice was between a Honda Fit and a Subaru Forester. I ended up going FWD, and am very happy with it. Just drive safely — allow plenty of time to stop, take it easy around corners, etc. — and you'll be fine. I haven't lost traction once, in two winters of driving around suburbia.

Caveats: (1) My Fit has "traction control," although I don't think it's had to engage. (2) They clear the roads pretty well around here, so I'm rarely driving on more than a half-inch of snow.
posted by dondiego87 at 2:25 PM on September 30, 2012

There's also resale value to consider. An AWD car will have higher resale value than the same car with FWD.
posted by ShooBoo at 3:14 PM on September 30, 2012

I had an older Audi with AWD and it preformed amazingly well in the snow. I live in a snowy area and cops would just wave the car through "snow tires required" sections of highway and I never had a problem in up to 6 inches of snow. I'm sure different cars behave differently but for snowy climates I definitely recommend AWD
posted by Podkayne of Pasadena at 3:26 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I drive a Subaru Impreza Outback Sport. LOVE it. My parents live on top of a "mountain" in NJ (it's really just a very steep hill - living in Seattle taught me what a real mountain was (; ) that's a big pain to get to in the winter due to the steep, twisty, gravely roads. The subaru makes it dead simple to get up there. My husband drives a Civic and has no problem with 3 feet of snow with his car, but then I'm a much more timid snow driver so I appreciate the extra traction and ease of mind.

Oh, and Subarus do for sure hook you..... I bought mine two years ago and since then my dad, my mother, and my brother in law have all bought Subarus after driving mine around a bit.
posted by lyra4 at 3:27 PM on September 30, 2012

AWD is nice. It does improve traction in all conditions-wet or dry. However you have to drive them somewhat different to get the maximum benefit from it. For the improved dry traction to matter you have to be driving like a maniac however as the grip levels from modern tires are really, really high and you will get nowhere near the limit in ordinary, legal speed driving. however in a hard swerve to miss something you can use the traction to help keep the car stable. However this is not something they teach you at drivers ed, you kinda have to either really experiment (dangerous) or take lessons from an expert driving school for this to be useful to you. In wet/icy conditions it is really nice to have and can help you a lot maintain control of the vehicle. And it can help you slow down in those conditions (just not by braking). When you downshift the transmission you use the engine compression to 'brake' the car and with awd you spread this force out over all 4 tires and it can really help but it will jack squat when you stop on the brake and you WILL slide even with ABS if you do that on icy road. The joke is you still slide through the interesection with ABS you just do it straight instead of spinning in a circle. This is where the driver skill thing comes in.

The Subaru system (and subarus in general) are optimized to maintain traction and get the power down in poor conditions. The system on the juke is mostly there to tame something called 'torque steer' (i have a fwd juke manual transmission juke-and it does this like crazy). Torque steer is when you are asking the front tires to do too much all at once like steer and accelerate hard. It makes the car a little tough to control since the car 'gets confused' is the easiest way to describe it and tries to steer itself. That is why Nissan calls it torque vectoring-the AWD system mostly just helps the car handle better and isn't optimized for bad weather traction (although it will do a whole lot better than a two wheel drive car).

Snow tires are great, and are the best way to go if you have lots and lots of snow or are commuting to work at the ski lodge. However switching out tires twice a year sucks. Snow tires suck on drive pavement and wear out really, really fast if you try to drive on them year around.

About the two cars you mentioned-the WRX is kinda the Japanese version of a muscle car. It is built to handle well and accelerate hard but it is not really a great daily driver. The suspension is kinda hard and the engine is tuned to produce a lot of power but not in a way that is really useful for driving around town. They are crazy fast though for what they cost. The Juke is a small urban car. It has a lot power also (and is smaller and lighter than a WRX) but not as much as the WRX. It is kinda tight and I wouldn't recommend it for any more than small (1 child) family. The smallness is great for tight parking lots and narrow streets and small garages however. It does have a lot more ground clearance than the WRX though (about the same as an outback) and if you are driving on non paved roads or rural roads this is really, really nice and the ground clearance also can keep you from getting stuck in the snow.

I got the juke because I like small cars, it is just the wife and I (and two small dogs), it is kinda funky and different and no one wants to race me at the stop light(the enthusiast street racers favor the WRX here in the US), and most of all my wife couldn't see out of the WRX good at all (she is too short and the car is too low to the ground).

So the best thing is to test drive both and just set in them and really look for the differences-how well can you see? how often do you need the back seats and how small are they for you? can you adjust the seat to be comfortable (why i didn't buy a fit-which are great cars). Which dealership do you like better? Both cars need premium gas to get the most out of their engines so is that a deal breaker? (most turbocharged cars need premium).

All that being said Both are good cars and chances are if you are unhappy with either one it will be because of human factors like the seat doesn't fit you right over a mechanical issue since they really aren't all that different.
posted by bartonlong at 3:35 PM on September 30, 2012

Look at the Suzuki SX4. Push button 2wd, AWD and 4wd. AWD is only worth the gas hit if you drive in the snow a lot, imho. Like a rural snowy area or living on a steep hill in a snowy area.
posted by fshgrl at 4:22 PM on September 30, 2012

As colinshark points out, don't make the mistake of thinking AWD or even 4WD will make you "safer".

They primarily keep you from getting stuck as easily. And if stuck, while a huge nuisance, you don't really have any danger involved.

The simplest way I've ever heard this phrased - ALL cars have "four-wheel brakes". 4WD just lets you get in trouble faster.

/ Currently drive a FWD hybrid sedan in mid-Maine. We plow and salt the roads up here, don't think of it as trying to make a winter crossing of the Yukon. And, if I did pick a vehicle just for its snow performance, I'd go for clearance over number of drive wheels.
// And studded snow tires. Seriously. Get a set. They make more difference than anything else you can do (but will get you ticketed if you don't get them off by whenever the local police say so).
posted by pla at 4:59 PM on September 30, 2012 [1 favorite]

I have a 2012 Subaru Impreza and it gets 33 mpg, which I consider to be pretty good.
posted by shiny blue object at 5:06 PM on September 30, 2012

We have an AWD Infiniti, an AWD Audi, and a Prius. I put Blizzaks on them in the winter and they're all fine.

I'm fairly certain that the AWD is just evidence that I'm susceptible to marketing, since I really like it but can provide no practical reason that you should get it. I mean... if you gun the throttle in the muck it'll get going slightly sooner, but that's about it. It might feel slightly more planted, but that might also be placebo.
posted by grudgebgon at 7:30 PM on September 30, 2012

I just bought a juke. I love it. In addition to vectorization AWD, you can switch it to full time four wheel drive too. I live on a dirt road and it has already helped in mud.

I wanted to look at the WRX as well, but the combo of low ground clearance and stick shift turned me off.

If you have more specific questions on the juke feel free to memail me.
posted by slateyness at 8:55 PM on September 30, 2012

My family has driven Subarus since the mid-80s. We have never once had to maintain the 4WD system, or transmission at all, on any car we have owned. Point: We have never had an automatic.

I'm sure the Juke is a nice car and all that when it's new, but even ignoring the AWD, the Subaru is so much better-made than anything else.
Everyone used to say a Subaru could drive to the Moon but it would rust out first. Sometime around 1998, something changed and now they make Subarus that will drive to the Moon and not rust. My parents have a '98 Forester with 260,000 miles on it and it just keeps on going as well as when we got it. I drive an Outback Sport which is over 200,000 and it drives like it's new.

Personally, I would avoid the Tribeca, Outback and current-model Forester, because they've gotten larger over the years, become unwieldy and lost that magic formula that's really defined a Subaru. The Impreza, on the other hand- such a versatile, capable little car.
posted by dunkadunc at 12:32 AM on October 1, 2012

An AWD with either a manual transmission or a CVT makes it much easier to slow down using engine braking. With an automatic, not so much.

Buying a decent set of tires really makes a difference for how well your AWD system operates. The tires that come with your car are generally not very good, even related to the identical brand and model bought aftermarket.
posted by Quonab at 7:27 AM on October 1, 2012

Slow down in wet weather or snow, I mean.
posted by Quonab at 7:39 AM on October 1, 2012

I don't know about the Juke specifically - but sometimes, if a car is available in both AWD and 2WD, the AWD version has other changes made to the suspension to accommodate the extra drive components. This could be be in favour of either version - but the two models may handle somewhat differently even when completely excluding the differences in drive wheels.

Actually, a quick internet search suggests the rear suspension on the two Jukes is, indeed, different - only AWD models have an independent rear suspension.
posted by kickingtheground at 8:03 AM on October 1, 2012

Sometime around 1998, something changed and now they make Subarus that will drive to the Moon and not rust.

What happened, I believe, is that Toyota bought a substantial stake in Subaru's parent company from GM, and Subaru began manufacturing cars for Toyota at their Indiana plant. Same plant that makes Legacys and Outbacks also makes Camrys.

The timing isn't quite right (this happened in the mid-2000s) but possibly they were wooing Toyota significantly earlier and quality improvement was a part of the process.

Another advantage of Subarus that I forgot to mention is that their center of mass is lower than many other cars due to the design of their engines. This plus the AWD does make them feel very planted, even taller models like the Outback and the Forester.
posted by kindall at 8:24 AM on October 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

All wheel drive lets you ONLY accelerate better in wet or snow. It usually makes a vehicle heavier, which makes it brake, turn worse and use more gasoline since there are more differentials being used which all of them reduce efficiency. That is why I usually see mostly SUVs in the ditch when it snows. Even you turn off 4WD that vehicle will use more gas since it has 4WD parts in which add weight, although a 4WD vehicle will be more efficient with 4 wheel drive off, but not more than the SAME 2 wheel drive vehicle (sometimes different versions get different gearboxes and gearing which affects mileage and can't be really compared). Also there is more stuff that could break.
AWD will not let you brake or turn better in snow or wet. You need tires with good thread for that.
I live in Chicago suburbs. I only really drive in snow is when it snows. Then it is plowed and salt gets put on the road so you really drive in wet slush but always tires go down to the asphalt.
What I do is have two sets of tires. I used to have two sets of wheels for my old car which made it much easier. Both of them were rear wheel drive and had V8s and stability control. The new one has limited slip differential so when one wheels spins the other one also gets power. With open differential when one wheel starts to spin, it gets all the power making you go nowhere and the other wheel just sits there doing nothing. What traction control does is apply the brake to the spinning wheel making the other, naturally on an open differential since the wheel with least resistance will get power, get some power (what you have seen in the video of Subaru going up the ramp when only one wheel had traction). I would use summer tires for 3 seasons and in November or December switch to new all-season tires till around March or basically use all season tires with very good thread that do amazingly in snow (such as Continental DWS or ContiContact) from when temperature is 40°F or below and then switch to summer tires when temperature is above 40°F. I try to save the all seasons as much as I can as the amount of thread is crucial to drive in snow.
I have never been stuck in my rear wheel drive cars in snow. I also did have about 80lbs worth of stuff in the trunk to improve traction.
Winter tires would be better, but this way when I need to I can run them in the summer. Like others have said winter tires wear very quickly in dry. Also it seems like only half of their thread is for winter, then you need to replace them. Also They are very soft so when you turn the steering wheel there is a slight delay before the car starts going that direction but they do have high performance winter tires that should eliminate that.
posted by AdamG8GXP at 1:21 PM on October 1, 2012

All wheel drive lets you ONLY accelerate better in wet or snow
Not quite true, at least for powerful FWD cars. Accelerating while turning in a front wheel drive car can lead to torque steer, even on perfectly dry surfaces and with good tires. Sending some of the power through the rear wheels can reduce / eliminate this.
posted by kickingtheground at 2:26 PM on October 1, 2012

kickingtheground: I meant "better" as in faster, with less wheel spin on loose, wet surface, or in snow acceleration. Not how it "feels" when you fight the torque steer from turning the steering wheel out of your hand.

Most AWD vehicles are based on front wheel drive drivetrain (CRV, Rav4, VWs, Escape, ...), which will suffer from torque steer, so it still happens with AWD optioned vehicles, because usually power to the rear wheels is only sent when front wheels slip to save fuel. Not many vehicles, probably except Subarus, send any power to the rear wheels when you have traction. So torque steer will still happen on dry road in a vehicle like that if the front wheels have traction as no power will be sent to the rear wheels.
posted by AdamG8GXP at 8:56 AM on October 2, 2012

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