With more and more manufacturers putting power to all four wheels on their latest models, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that there’s a growing need for all-wheel drive vehicles in today’s market. But what are the downsides to owning an all-wheel drive car? Are they really more expensive to own? What are some common issues owners should watch out for?
To answer these and a few other AWD related questions, we turned to Cincinnati-based Subaru specialists Turn in Concepts. We recently sat down with the company’s co-founder Tony Barber to talk about the benefits of AWD cars, and came up with 10 buying tips he had for potential buyers who are considering making the switch to all-wheel drive.
1. Get a grip
The first thing Tony stressed is the importance of having the right rubber on the road. “You’re only as good as your tires,” Tony says. “All-wheel drive can be worse than a rear-wheel drive car in the snow with improper tires.” His recommendation for those who see considerable amounts of winter weather is to get an extra set of rims and buy “Winter tires for winter months … and a [set of] summer tire[s] in the summer months.” While buying an extra set of wheels and tires may sound expensive, there’s a solid reason for this extra expense: It’ll eliminate the need to take the summer tires off all four wheels, mount and balance the winter tires, then doing it again in reverse order come spring. With a winter set of tires pre-mounted all you need to do is toss the ice-ready rollers in the garage or basement during warmer months, and when the first sign of ice hits, swap the summer set-up out for the winter tires.
2. Keep it in proportion
In all-wheel drive cars, all four tires need to always have the same rolling circumference. While this is not an issue many of us run into in our daily driven commuter cars, performance-oriented vehicles with all-wheel drive systems sometimes come from the factory with larger rear wheels for increased traction and handling. While the aspect ratios of these tires are carefully considered by the manufacturer to negate the previously mentioned issue, it’s very important to follow the suggested tire size recommendations on a factory wheel. When asked what someone should look for if they think improperly sized tires have been installed on their car, Tony says that most cars have a recommended tire size listed in the owner’s manual, as well as in the driver side door jam. He continues with a word of caution, “If tires are the wrong circumference, wear will occur on the differential units causing premature failure. This can be felt usually by a clunking sound from the drivetrain or by strange driving dynamics.”
3. Different strokes
Tony also reminded us that it’s important to remember not all all-wheel drive systems are created equal. “Many are FWD biased, [which are] pretty much all Honda and Mazda systems.” Manufacturers like BMW prefer a rear-wheel drive bias to give a more performance feel, while automakers like Subaru and Porsche opt for a symmetrical system which “… is designed from the ground up to be AWD, while most other AWD systems are adapted from FWD or RWD drivetrain configurations. This [design] leads to fewer parts, simpler maintenance, and a more reliable system.”
4. Feeling flushed
The next area to consider is lubrication. “Fluid choice is critical,” Tony stresses, “Not all systems use the same fluid and often there can be three different fluids within one AWD system. Front differential, transmission, transfer case, [and] rear differential. The fluid used will vary greatly between makes and models, [so] the owner needs to follow factory recommended fluid use and change intervals. If the car is driven hard, tracked, raced, or [sees] lots of stop and go [driving], the fluid change interval should be halved.”
5. Gotta pay to play
Tony was realistic in laying out the higher cost of ownership for AWD cars. He warns potential buyers that an all-wheel-driven car is usually, “… more expensive to maintain due to [having] more moving parts… and [they have] worse gas mileage.” When I asked what car owners can do to combat these unavoidable issues, Tony tells me that regular maintenance, AWD fluid changes, and component inspections are crucial for the protection of the car’s drivetrain, and the prevention of premature axle and driveshaft joint wear. As for poor fuel economy, Tony suggests avoiding unnecessary braking, staying on top of oil and air filter changes, buying a better flowing air intake system, maintaining good tire pressure, and always driving conscientiously.
6. Can’t stop me now!
The guys at Turn in Concepts get hit with a lot of questions from AWD owners from around the world, and one of the common complaints they hear is usually along the lines of, “My Subaru is awesome when driving in the snow, but it totally sucks when I have to come to a halt.” Tony goes on to tell us, “What many people don’t understand is that these systems are designed to have great acceleration, …from a [complete] stop in snowy weather, but [they] will not help you turn or stop any better,” Tony chortles, “… most people relate AWD to automatically [being] great in the snow, while not much mention is made about wet or dry [handling],” which is where these systems see most of their driving time in the lower 48 states.
7. Check it out first
For all the newcomers to the AWD scene, Tony tells us that before buying a used car, a pre-purchase inspection by a reputable independent shop or a dealer is always recommended to determine the overall health of the car and its components. This is very solid advice when purchasing any vehicle, but coming from someone who inspects countless AWD vehicles every year, he sees far too many cars that are deemed unworthy and sent back to their respective owners with a poor inspection rating.
8. There’s something for everyone
What does TiC recommend when it is time to purchase an AWD vehicle? Subaru is at the top of their list, naturally, but Tony is honest despite his obvious penchant for the Subaru brand. He says the choice “will [ultimately] depend on the buyer’s use. If they are only going to cruise down the highway, it won’t really matter. If they want to do any off-roading, then a system that is not FWD based, and has limited slip differentials will be a must.”
9. The AWD revolution is nigh
So what about the future of all-wheel drive vehicles as a whole? Will the price for a car equipped with AWD start to go down as this “option” becomes more of a norm? When asked these questions Tony sagely nods his head in agreement. “AWD is becoming ever increasingly popular. I feel that it will continue to become more popular as OEMs (manufacturers) market the cars. AWD has become synonymous with safety, which is a key driving factor in auto sales currently.” As for the lowered cost on a vehicle equipped with AWD, only time will tell.
10. What would Tony do?
Our final question for Tony was carefully crafted for all the hardcore auto enthusiasts and engineers out there, and having the undivided attention of an all-wheel drive specialist seems like a fine time to throw this kind of question out there: If he were going to have a say in the designing of an AWD system, what would he do differently? Why?
His answer was surprising, as it had more to do with an interest in cabin design than anything else. “I would be very interested in designing an AWD system using independent electric motors located in the wheels at all corners. While unsprung weight would increase, [thus] drastically affecting handling of the vehicle, the space that would be opened up in the cabin would be incredible. There would be nothing more than a battery pack which would be integrated into the lower structure of the vehicle, leaving a completely open space for interior design.”