If you’re in search of an SUV or CUV, then a decision has to be made - Do you need two-wheel drive or all-wheel drive?

The short answer to this question is as simple as it gets - if you have the luxury to think about 2WD and AWD, realistically, you do not need an AWD system. At all. AWD is one of those things that when you need it, you just know you need it, and you know why you need it. You would not be thinking of 2WD in the first place. Nevertheless, manufacturers seem to throw a lot of money into promoting AWD systems for their SUVs. This has become a feature that translated from something one may consider a driving aid to a mere entry on an options list you could mark. I submit to you five things to think about before opting for AWD.

Do You Need AWD?

2018 Jeep Wrangler
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Note: 2018 Jeep Wrangler pictured here.

It all comes down to a simple question of need. If you live in a mostly dry area with no or very soft winters and do not actually use your car for off-roading, honestly, an AWD system would be close to throwing money down the drain. It is that simple.

Let me put it in even more digestible words, consider this - if you used a 2WD car previously without any major problems with traction, and you do not intend to change your driving style, then a 2WD SUV will do the job exactly as your old 2WD car did.

But why am I saying this? Isn’t an all-wheel-drive system a preferable solution over a 2WD system regardless of your needs? It is not.

1 - AWD is More Expensive than 2WD

2019 Suzuki Jimny
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Note: 2019 Suzuki Jimny pictured here.

AWD systems employed by manufacturers for use on SUVs, CUVs, cars, or MPVs, aren’t the same as the 4WD systems used by proper off-road vehicles

Have you ever zoomed through the new car for sale or used car for sale listings? If you did, you might have noticed that cars with AWD are usually more expensive compared with 2WD machines. According to Edmunds and some other credible sources, the difference between 2WD and AWD versions of the same car ranges from $1,500 to $4,000. When talking about unibody SUVs or CUVs, which are all the rage today, that difference is usually between $1500 and $2500. Nevertheless, you will have to pay more for something you may never use.

See, AWD systems employed by manufacturers for use on SUVs, CUVs, cars, or MPVs, aren’t the same as the 4WD systems used by proper off-road vehicles such as the Jeep Wrangler, Toyota 4Runner, and the like. Most of the time they are part-time systems with torque being sent to the normally-neutral axle only when a loss of traction is felt. Most systems are also front-wheel biased, leaving you with a FWD vehicle most of the time.

2 - AWD Does Not have to Work at all Times

2019 BMW X5
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Note: 2019 BMW X5 pictured here

Think about it this way - if you cover 10,000 miles, the AWD system which powers all four wheels will be engaged for ten miles.

Usually, what you get for a couple of thousand dollars more is the so-called, on-demand AWD system which actually serves as a two-wheel-drive system 99.9 percent of the time. I did not write 99.9 percent of the time only by chance. According to some Australian and European researchers, 0.1 percent of the time is exactly how long AWD capability will be engaged. Think about it this way - if you cover 10,000 miles, the AWD system which powers all four wheels will be engaged for ten miles.

And, this is not because the on-demand AWD systems aren’t good, but because you actually do not have any use for them. Follow my analogy with your hypothetical previous 2WD car, and you can see that an additional AWD system may be just an unnecessary added cost for you. You drove that 2WD car everywhere, didn’t you?

Now, it is true that AWD systems do provide better traction in slippery conditions. Usually, they work something like this - when a computer senses slipping of the wheels that usually power the car, the AWD drive kicks in (via viscous coupling, transfer case, added differential, or some other means) and sends some torque to the other pair of wheels in hopes that they have more traction. If they do, they push the car out, and the AWD disengages. That can last for a second, or for prolonged periods of time. After that, it is back to your usual 2WD business. This all sounds perfectly rational, but considering that a majority of cars on the roads are actually 2WD units, and they go about their business without any problems, I think that an AWD option may not be as necessary as some would like to believe.

3 - AWD Does not Improve Braking

Project Cortex: Land Rover's Bet on Fully Autonomous Off-Roading
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Right off the bat, AWD systems are created to use all potentially available traction when slippage of the wheels under power is detected

Right off the bat, AWD systems are created to use all potentially available traction when slippage of the wheels under power is detected. Thus, they transfer some (or all) of the power to the other set of wheels via the driveline components. Newer systems, with smarter electronic control units and Torque distribution hardware, can, in fact, affect handling in certain conditions. They do it by sending power to the wheels with more traction, but usually, with AWD systems available for unibody SUVs, these options are limited.

The most common question seems to be about braking. Under false assumptions, some consider AWD vehicles to be more in control under heavy braking. This is simply not the case, as the AWD system does not have anything to do with braking or slowing down. As stated before, in normal conditions, cars with AWD systems are actually just 2WD vehicles that have the capability to engage the drive on the other axle if needed. Heavy braking, or any braking for that matter, does not have anything to do with it.

So while AWD may increase safety for cars traveling on slippery roads (mud, snow, ice, etc.), it is basically a completely unnecessary addition if you rarely traverse slippery conditions.

4 - Higher Fuel Consumption

2019 Audi Q8 Exterior
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Note: 2019 Audi Q8 pictured here.

Adding an AWD system to the vehicle unequivocally increases its weight. Depending on the system, the car has to gain a transfer case, axles for the second pair of wheels, a new differential, and a plenty of supporting gear. All of this adds weight (160+lbs on average,) which is a killer for fuel consumption. According to a research Edmunds made on cars they had tested, the fuel penalty for owning an AWD car instead of a 2WD car is between 1 and 2 mpg (and that is for on-demand electronically controlled AWD systems.) It’s not a lot, is it? Well, with one 15 gallon tank of fuel, you’d cover 30 miles less. Scratching your head now? According to The Huffington Post, the average American driver spends up to $2,000 per year on fuel alone. Thus, covering 1 or 2 miles per gallon more can make up for a big difference in the long run.

5 - Higher Maintenance Costs

2018 GMC Terrain High Resolution Exterior
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Note: 2018 GMC Terrain pictured here.

Adding an AWD system adds yet another complexity to a car. A complexity that one has to maintain. Although modern systems do not need constant maintenance, any damage done to the AWD system is met with the most expensive repair bill. Furthermore, AWD cars, due to their weight, and consequently more load on the brakes, do tend to wear the tires down a bit faster than 2WD cars. Yet, it must be said that with the newest AWD systems (like 4Motion from Volkswagen, or Active Drive systems by Jeep) aren’t as hard on the components as some older systems.

How can you make the most out of a 2WD SUV?

Three Years In, Mazda Trumps the Subcompact Segment with Small Improvements to the CX-3 Exterior
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Note: 2019 Mazda CX-3 pictured here.

Instead of spending extra cash on an AWD system, you can do a thing or two to improve the 2WD system of an SUV

So, instead of spending extra cash on an AWD system, you can do a thing or two to improve the 2WD system of an SUV. Installing high-end tires definitely is the most important step when it comes to improving 2WD SUV traction.

Michelin actually tested a 2WD car on winter tires and an AWD car on summer tires traveling over slippery conditions, and it was obvious that the 2WD car with winter tires achieved dramatically better results. This only proves that 2WD will be more than enough in most cases. Apart from that, the traction control systems on newer vehicles are optimized to use as much traction the two wheels can provide. Braking one wheel thus transferring the power to the other has become a sort of a norm. Couple this with good tires and you probably won’t need AWD anywhere that has relatively mild weather.

As always, choose your car according to your needs. Buying an AWD SUV in areas with light snow, occasional rain, and mostly straight roads does not have any justification. On the opposite scale, AWD is preferable.

Further reading

2018 BMW X2 - Updated
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Read more SUV news.

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