Ask Jack: All (Wheel Drive) or Nothing at All?

Jack Baruth
by Jack Baruth

Politics, the man once said, is downstream from culture. It applies to cars as well. Maybe cars are in fact downstream from both politics and culture. You never know.

Everybody who was alive in the 1950s tells me it was kind of a dicey time. Children kneeling beneath a combined 1.25 inches of plywood that was supposed to have some sort of palliative effect on a locally detonated hydrogen bomb with a thousand times the power of Little Boy. The Iron Curtain clamping down across Europe, hundreds of millions of people disappearing into a regime where twisted social science operated a political machine lubricated liberally by the blood of kulaks and a generation of Soviet O’Briens insisting they could float off the ground if they just wished it so. Meanwhile, the United States was grinding through the task of reintegrating a few million young men who had often gone directly from their shoeless rural existence to the meat grinders of Iwo Jima and Normandy Beach.

Yet I defy you to look at a ’57 Chevrolet and not tell me somebody was feeling optimistic. The roads were covered in pastels and chrome and the good times were surely just around the corner. It was as if the styling chiefs of the Big Four (or however many there were) looked at the world around them and said, “Oh, the hell with this, let’s PUT FINS ON CARS!”

Sixty years later we’ve got all the Netflix and chill we can handle but most people look at the future as something that will impoverish, assail, endanger, or boil them. The climate and the economy seem to have more malevolence than the old Soviet shoe-bangers could ever muster but, instead of responding with Bel Airs, we’ve all decided to lock ourselves into tall, tippy metal boxes that promise to isolate us from every possible contaminant or concern. Each box must be sufficient for all imagined tasks, whether it’s clearing the Rubicon or circling the Nurburgring.

Most of these things scale half a ton more than a ’76 Cutlass Supreme Brougham with the 403. They are chock full of features we neither need nor want, and the hunchback king of those assembled unnecessaries is called All. Wheel. Drive.

Jed writes,

Why are car companies building cars with AWD? In some models, AWD isn’t an option, it’s the way all trim levels are built. Most of these cars aren’t ever gonna see anything rougher than a gravel road. Supposedly winter tires provide more traction for sedans.

Ah, what an excellent question. After thinking it over for some time, I’ve concluded that AWD exists because front-wheel-drive has a marketing problem. My long-time readers know that I am a fan of front-wheel drive. It’s the perfect choice for 95 percent of automotive tasks. Only when applied to a dedicated off-roader, a devoted trackday toy, or a really massive luxury car does FWD fall short. Since you could take every serious track rat, every real-deal Moab fanatic, and every credit-qualified customer for a new S-Class-sized car in the whole country and probably still not match the number of people who are playing “Candy Crush” at this precise moment, it seems obvious that the auto industry shouldn’t waste too much of its time developing anything that is not front-wheel drive.

The problem is that FWD has a bad rap because it is associated in the public mind with cheap, crappy little economy cars. If you ask the celebrated man in the street to name a front-wheel drive car, he’s not gonna say “Obviously, the European Audi A8 3.2 — no, wait, the Citroen SM — cancel that, I’m gonna go with the RAM ProMaster.” Instead, he will tell you that the Toyota Corolla is FWD. This is mildly ironic because the Corolla was, like, totally the last small car to adopt a transverse FWD platform.

There was a time when FWD was considered very exciting and modern and, as a result, Audi managed to eat everybody’s luxury lunch with the super-sleek aero second-generation “5000”. Almost immediately afterwards there came a time when FWD was seen as poisonous. Audi’s response was to heavily market their quattro AWD system as being superior to the RWD offerings from Benz and BMW. In truth, quattro is really only useful when you have one of the really powerful engines and you’re trying to haul ass on a wet road or something — but every other manufacturer that was saddled with suddenly un-marketable FWD platforms realized that they could fix the problem with an extra tailshaft and some badges.

Much of the marketing done to promote AWD cars was absolutely shameless — and it was also hideously effective. That’s why all the transportation boxes out there, all the C-ROGUE-V-4-QUINOX things that your female neighbors drive, have AWD. Because without AWD you might die. Someday there will be a horrible winter day that can only be adequately faced with a dinky-ass extra drivetrain hanging off the back of a transverse gearbox, turning wheels through an open differential and clamping the life out of them with a hyperactive traction-control system.

The AWD hysteria has gotten so bad, apparently the majority of S-Class sedans are now sold as 4Matics, as are the majority of 7 Series sedans. The irony here is that adding FWD probably improves the real-world foul-weather dynamics of those cars — but as I’ve said before, part of the FWD magic comes from the fact that all of the weight is up front. So, the vehicle naturally goes straight when you stop yanking at the wheel like you’re having a seizure, and the big-body Germans are usually weight-balanced in a manner more befitting a C Street Prepared autocross car.

AWD, as it is sold in most vehicles, has no use whatsoever besides serving as a security blanket. If you want to be safe and secure in bad weather, get a FWD sedan with winter tires. This is not the perfect solution for everybody. If you want to go off-roading, buy an old Wrangler and leave it behind your house until the long-awaited day of off-roading day comes. If you spend all winter skiing, get an old Cherokee. If you want to plow driveways for a living, buy a plow truck. But most people just want a car that is reasonably trustworthy if there’s a bit of snow on the ground. For that, the low center of gravity and outstanding weight balance of a conventional transverse-packaged FWD car is absolutely the best and safest bet. Period. Point blank.

When traction conditions are low, you want the back wheels doing nothing, not pushing you faster towards certain doom. Trust me on this one, okay?

Jack Baruth
Jack Baruth

More by Jack Baruth

Join the conversation
2 of 185 comments
  • White Shadow White Shadow on Aug 03, 2017

    I own a quattro Audi (real quattro, not a that BS Haldex crap) and a Jeep with full-time 4WD. Love them both for the incredible traction in any conditions or situation. The ability to lay down the power at any time, dry or wet, is what I love about AWD

  • 05lgt 05lgt on Aug 04, 2017

    Hey Bark! Your brother says you bought a security blanket for your Focus. I think his Accord needs a lesson in physics.

  • JOHN One is for sale on an ebay car donation site.
  • Scott So they are losing hundreds of millions of dollars and they are promising us a “Cheaper EV”? I wonder how that will look and feel? They killed the Fiesta because they claimed that they couldn’t make a profit on them and when I bought the first one in late 2010 they couldn’t deliver the accessories I wanted for it! Then I bought a 2016 Fiesta ST and again couldn’t get the accessories for it I wanted. They claimed that the components were going to be available, eventually. So they lost on that one as well! I don’t care about what they say anymore. I’ve moved on to another brand.
  • Michael S6 CX 70 or 90 will not be on my buying list. Drove a rental base CX 90 and it was noisy and the engine noise was not pleasant. Ride was rough for a family SUV. Mazda has to understand that what is good for Miata isn't what we expect in semi luxury SUV. My wife's 2012 Buick Enclave has much better Ride and noise level albeit at worse gas millage. Had difficulty pairing my phone with Apple CarPlay
  • Michael S6 What is the metric conversion between one million barrels and the number of votes he expects to buy.
  • NJRide This could give Infiniti dealers an extra product maybe make it a sub brand