Dumb Drivers

03.12.13

Note to Drivers: All Wheel Drive Does Not Give You Superpowers, Just a Dangerous Overconfidence

All wheel drive provides better traction. But they don't give you magical stopping powers if you go too fast in poor weather.

Mac Demere at Popular Mechanics on the overhyped abilities of All Wheel Drive:

I'm not anti-AWD. Rather, I'm just incensed by those who fudge its ability beyond all recognition. AWD is great at aiding accelerating on slick surfaces and keeping a vehicle moving on snowy roads. Rally racers like AWD because it helps their over-powered cars accelerate on gravel and dirt paths. I co-drove an AWD car to victory in a 24-hour race, and in the rain I enjoyed how the car accelerated off the corners.

However, my experience—hard-earned from wrecking more than one AWD vehicle during snow-handling tests for a tire company—is that AWD is counter-productive when the roads are slick. At the same time AWD doesn't improve your handling, it does offer an overly optimistic sense of available traction, and it provides the potential to be going so much faster when you need to stop. (Note to those from warm climes: Snowbanks are not puffy and cushiony.) The laws of physics mean a vehicle's cornering power is the job of the tires and suspension.

During Washington's Snowpocalypse, the back-to-back blizzards that dumped almost four feet of snow on our fair city a few years back, many drivers learned this to their dismay.  There you'd be in your little Acura, sitting patiently in the one badly-plowed lane where the pavement was at least partially visible through the snow.  Just as you started to turn left, some jerk in an AWD vehicle would come roaring past you on the left, nearly smashing into you as he demo'd his AWESOME powers of traction.  I watched more than one of these morons skid through the intersection and into a row of parked cars, as they realized that all-wheel drive does not also confer AWESOME powers of braking.  That would be the job of the brakes, which cannot actually stop hard-packed snow from being, y'know, slippery.

I suppose it's largely futile to try to rectify these sorts of not-quite-false advertising claims.  But how about funding a few PSAs on the laws of physics?