Understanding All-Wheel-Drive Systems

October 18th, 2019 by


A red 2018 Chevy Traverse, a popular option for an all year vehicle at car dealerships in Albany, NY, is driving on a snowy road in a snow storm.

At DePaula Chevy, we’re no strangers to driving in harsh, wintry conditions. Unfortunately for us, it’s pretty much unavoidable as drivers living in upstate New York. Finding the right car for winter driving is a must if you plan on getting around through the four seasons. Every year, winter driving causes a significantly higher percentage of motor vehicle accidents. The mix of sleet, snow, and slippery roads doesn’t bode well for drivers, especially those who aren’t prepared. When you need help choosing a reliable vehicle, don’t just go to any car dealerships in Albany, NY. Only DePaula’s takes the time to clear up your questions on the safest winter vehicles, including the popular question we hear all the time, “Do I need all-wheel-drive for the winter?” 

The Reason Front-Wheel-Drive Is Everywhere

You may have noticed that many standard vehicles begin with front-wheel-drive as a basic option. Front-wheel drivetrains are popular for a number of reasons. They are cheaper to manufacture and easier to transport because they contain less heavy equipment parts. That’s not necessarily a bad thing for car-buyers either. Having a lighter make-up can serve as a driving advantage in some circumstances. Vehicles that weigh less respond to hard braking more readily, such as in an impending accident. It’s easier to stop a lighter vehicle when you face a sudden obstruction or slippery road ahead.

Front-wheel drivetrains are more cost-effective for car owners as well as automakers. Over the years, they can end up saving you quite a bit of money on gas and fluid changes. Because front-wheel drivetrains are lighter, their fuel economy is naturally better. It takes less gas to power a lighter vehicle forward. Additionally, the differentials in all-wheel-drive require more fluid changes than front-wheel drivetrains. These parts can be expensive if they need replacing from wear and tear. For drivers living in mild weather conditions, front-wheel-drive cars make a lot of sense and can be the preferred choice for drive ability and cost-effectiveness.

Modern upgrades to front-wheel-drive vehicles have also improved its reputation from the past. More advanced traction controls and electronic systems have made today’s front-wheel-drive better than it used to be. Automatic braking systems offer enhanced control in slippery conditions. That being said, for snowy weather, it’s still considered safer to opt for all-wheel-drive if you can. However, front-wheel-drive may not be so bad if you take additional precautions and include the latest safety features.

All-Wheel-Drive Versus Four-Wheel-Drive

Although their names may seem synonymous, all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive aren’t the same thing. These two drivetrains have different set-ups, with their own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Both options provide superior traction when compared to front-wheel-drive. If the front or back end of a vehicle loses grip due to icy roadways, there is power on the other end with four-wheel and all-wheel-drive to keep the driver in control of the moving vehicle’s direction.

All-wheel-drive describes a system where power is automatically delivered to the front and rear tires. Depending on the manufacturer, some vehicles have full-time all-wheel-drive (or symmetrical) while others have part-time (on-demand or automatic). If your tires start to slip, such as during icy conditions, the automatic all-wheel-drive system takes over and optimizes driver control without any human direction required and sends power where it is needed. The full-time all-wheel-drive systems send power to both axles, all the time. Although all-wheel drive is helpful in snowy conditions, it doesn’t necessarily improve cornering performance or braking. It’s still important to keep a safe distance and stay off the roads if conditions are really bad.

A switch for 2WD and 4WD is shown.

Four-wheel drive is a heavy-duty option and typically reserved for trucks and large SUVs. Many of these vehicles default to rear-wheel-drive and engage in four-wheel-drive only after the driver prompts it to with a dashboard button, dial, or shift lever to engage the transfer case (on older models). Additionally, some vehicles even have driving modes to more specifically decide how the power is distributed. Staying in four-wheel-drive all the time isn’t recommended during clear driving conditions. Doing so can damage to the driveline. Being in four-wheel-drive also requires a larger turning radius, which can be a disadvantage if the added traction isn’t needed at the time.

Which Drivetrain You Should Choose

Like most of life’s difficult questions, this one doesn’t have a clear cut answer. If you live in an area with frequent snowfall, and don’t have the type of job that lets you stay home in bad weather, you should probably do everything possible to keep yourself safe. In this case, that includes getting an all-wheel-drive vehicle. If you are able to stay home at the first sign of snow, or you simply don’t get much winter weather where you live, front-wheel-drive shouldn’t be seen as a lesser option. After all, it could save you money and meet your driving needs.

All-wheel-drive is a nice upgrade that improves resale value and safety. For most drivers throughout the United States, all-wheel-drive is more than sufficient for day to day driving in even the most northern climates. Four-wheel-drive takes traction a step further. Not typically necessary for paved roadways, four-wheel-drive is an off-roading adventurer’s best friend. If you plan on off-roading just once or twice a year, consider renting a four-wheel-drive vehicle rather than choosing it as your primary mode of transportation. With four-wheel and all-wheel drive, what you gain in traction, you may lose in fuel economy. Keep in mind that most large SUVs and pickup trucks have four-wheel-drive as an option instead of all-wheel-drive. If you plan to use your truck in snowy or icy weather, definitely opt for the upgraded drivetrain. But, it’s up to you to determine the right balance based on your situation and where you live.

Don’t Forget The Snow Tires

If your tires are old and worn down, even the best drivetrains and highest technology features won’t keep you completely safe in slippery conditions. Over time, tires become smooth and lose the depth of the grooves, which help them adhere firmly to the road surface. To avoid losing traction, stay on a strict schedule with rotating your tires and keeping them at the proper tire pressure levels. Changing out your regular tires for snow tires will add an extra element of protection for unpredictable winter weather, especially if you don’t have all-wheel-drive. If you live in an area with steep hills and tough winter weather, consider studded tires for the winter months for ultimate traction.

To test the true impact of snow tires, Michelin conducted an experiment on this very topic a few years back. They put snow tires on a front-wheel-drive vehicle and compared its performance with an all-wheel-drive vehicle that had all-season tires on it. The snow tires made a significant difference in braking distance and proved to be very beneficial. All-wheel-drive took longer to come to a halt when the cars weren’t equipped with snow tires. Although all-wheel plus snow tires is certainly the ideal combination, this experiment goes to show you that tires can really make a difference.

It’s important never to let your vehicle give you a false sense of security. If you live in areas with snowy winters, give yourself the best chance at safety by choosing an all-wheel-drive vehicle and adding on a great pair of snow tires. No matter how well prepared you think you are, there are some weather conditions that no one should be driving in. Despite how safe you may feel in your vehicle, it’s always better to avoid driving in the snow when possible to avoid costly and dangerous accidents. If you are getting ready to prep your car for the cold months ahead, or are interested in purchasing a vehicle better equipped for New York winters, give us a call or come visit us today!