All-wheel-drive is all the rage in cars these days. And it isn't just built-for-the-snow Subarus and upscale brands like Audi. Luxury customers are demanding it, and increasingly, so are mass-market buyers. But there are some problems. You might think you gotta have AWD. But you really don't:
It costs more. Carmakers sell AWD with the promise that it will improve handling and safety, but that comes with a price: The Detroit Free Press, in a rundown of the all-wheel-drive trend, estimates AWD adds $1,000 to the price of a new car. In the luxury context, you can see the motivation. If like Acura your vehicles lack a rear-wheel-drive option -- something that's de rigueur in the luxe realm -- AWD can convince skeptical buyers. AWD will also cost you at the pump. Subaru has long struggled with the fact that its versatile vehicles, all of which feature AWD, can't match the competition for MPGs. (This is a struggle that Subie has generally overcome, FYI.)
It's not really necessary. Indeed, AWD drive can improve a vehicle's ability to deal with certain challenges. I remember watching a Subaru Forester ascend a steep hillside strewn with loose rocks. But how often do you really encounter such threats, in typical daily driving? For most drivers, front-wheel-drive can deal with pretty much anything, outside of 100-year blizzards and monsoon-induced mudslides. If you tend to drive you car like a rally racer, you might appreciate AWD's sure-footed sportiness -- Audi's Quattro system has traded on this for decades -- but the predictable American commute bears no resemblance to a rally course. Most of the time, at least.
It's not true luxury. Converting FWD to AWD is easier than switching over to a RWD platform, engineering-wise. So luxury brands stuck with FWD that want to compete with the big boys -- Mercedes, BMW, Lexus -- can use AWD as a way of avoiding the FWD curse. Unfortunately, the driving dynamics of AWD are very different from RWD. The complete opposite, in many respects. RWD cars, when driven hard, will oversteer, as the back wheels take charge. If the car's stability control is turned off, this can contribute to a performance-driving experience that most people have witnessed as power-slides on TV shows such a "Top Gear." AWD, on the other had, keeps the cars stuck to the road. Ironically, this isn't considered consistent with luxury motoring.
Modern stability control systems have made FWD and RWD cars much safer than the once were. So while its true that AWD can make a difference when the going get truly tough, the vast majority of drivers will have no use for it.