All-wheel drive goes mainstream as drivers seek security

Detroit Free Press

Four-wheel-drive, once restricted to trucks and niche brands like Subaru and Audi, has gone mainstream. The feature is increasingly popular on mass-market models from brands like Buick, Chrysler and Ford.

“We’ve seen significant growth in all-wheel-drive sales, and we’re planning for more,” Ford Fusion marketing manager Wade Jackson said. Sales of AWD Fusions have doubled since the current model went on sale in 2012. They rose 26 percent in 2014, to 5 percent of total Fusion sales. In addition to the Fusion, the Taurus sedan and Ford’s wide range of SUVs and pickups all offer AWD.

I tested a variety of AWD systems recently on a snowy test course in Mirabel, Quebec, 40 miles northeast of Montreal. Fiat Chrysler brought cars, pickups and SUVs from its Dodge, Chrysler, Jeep and Ram brands together for a variety of on- and off-road challenges.

AWD accounts for a whopping 30 percent of sales of the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger, and 12 percent of the midsize Chrysler 200, Chrysler brand marketing manager Andy Love said. An amazing 85 percent of Ram pickup sales have four-wheel drive. As you’d expect from a brand that built its reputation on off-road capability, every Jeep is available with AWD, and some models offer two or three different systems with varying degrees of prowess.

“Our customers expect four-wheel-drive capability,” Jeep brand director Jim Morrison said. “We need to be true to our brand.”

There’s no real difference between AWD and 4WD, by the way. Automakers choose one term over the other largely for marketing purposes. They generally use 4WD for vehicles likely to go off-road and AWD for those nearly certain to stick to the blacktop and need extra traction for performance or to extra grip in bad weather. That’s not a hard and fast rule, though. If you want to be sure, check if a vehicle has a low range of gears, a sure sign it was engineered for off-road use.

Fiat Chrysler’s Chrysler, Dodge, Fiat and Jeep brands offer AWD/4WD 22 models ranging from the sporty Charger to heavy-duty pickups that can tow 30,000 pounds.

Buick jumped into AWD with both feet a year ago, adding AWD versions of the Regal and LaCrosse sedans. A full 39 percent of 2014 Buick sales had AWD according to AutoTrader.com. Four of Buick’s five models now offer AWD. The sporty Regal has raced to 17 percent, AWD, while the full-size LaCrosse is 8 percent. Among SUVs, 59 percent of Enclave and 38 percent of the Encore sales have AWD.

Sales rates are even higher for luxury brands. AutoTrader figures show 89 percent of Audis qualify, followed by BMW at 55 percent; Mercedes, 54 percent; Infiniti, 53 percent; Volvo, 51 percent; Infiniti; Acura 47 percent; Lincoln, 45 percent; Cadillac, 41 percent; Lexus 35 percent: and Jaguar, 23 percent.

All-wheel-drive raises a vehicle’s cost and reduces fuel economy, usually 1 mpg or less. It usually adds about $1,500 to a vehicle’s price.

“Consumers are happy to pay a little for extra security and capability,” AutoTrader senior analyst Michelle Krebs said. “They’re want their vehicles to be practical and versatile.”

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