Remember with AWD and 4WD, you need the same cushion of space as you would with two-wheel drive. In fact, because of their weight, heavy sport utility vehicles may take longer to stop on slippery surfaces than a lighter passenger car would at the same speed.
Manufacturers don’t offer many manual transmissions anymore, at least not in North America. Some people (like myself) find that a car with a clutch and standard shift is infinitely more fun to drive and offers better control in slippery situations. The downside to a manually-equipped model is their strikingly low resale value (usually 20% to 30% less than comparable automatics). However, a low resale value benefits you if you want to buy a used stick-shift.
I don’t recommend buying a stick if the bulk of your driving is stop-and-go urban travel. I love manual transmission, but reconsider its benefits every time I get stuck in a traffic jam. Backed-up interstate highways are the worst. If you’ve never owned one, I strongly suggest you borrow one for a few days before deciding to purchase one.
Most of today’s minivans and under-$35,000 cars have front-wheel drive. In a front-wheel drive system, power from the engine is transferred to the front tires of a vehicle. A front- wheel drive vehicle offers increased traction and safety for the average driver.
With 60 to 70% of the vehicle’s weight over the drive wheels, front-wheel drive vehicles provide better drivability in inclement weather and snow. But, since the front brakes and tires handle 75% of a vehicle’s braking, more frequent brake and tire inspections are recommended.
Most pickup trucks, sports cars, and luxury sports sedans have rear-wheel drive, in which power from the engine is transferred to the rear tires. The weight of the vehicle is more evenly distributed (50% front end – 50% back end), allowing the rear tires and suspension to work more efficiently, creating better cornering and stopping power and a smoother ride.
All-wheel drive offers the best of both worlds. In an all-wheel drive system, power is distributed to all four of the vehicle’s tires, all of the time. Subaru and Audi have built their reputations on all-wheel-drive sedans and wagons.
All-wheel drive passenger vehicles handle better than the most front- AND rear-wheel drive vehicles. Both 4WD and AWD improve traction for moving on ice and snow, but they don’t do anything for stopping ability. For that reason, they can build a false sense of security that leads drivers to follow too closely.
Many SUVs offer all-wheel drive as an option, with four-wheel drive as standard equipment. In a four-wheel drive system, power is delivered to all four wheels, only when the driver requests it. In normal use, four-wheel drive vehicles operate on the rear-wheel drive.
If additional traction is required, the driver flips a lever that switches the transaxle from two-wheel (rear) drive to four-wheel drive.
This system is useful for off-road vehicles, snow plows, and tow trucks. Both 4WD and AWD improve traction for moving on ice and snow, but they don’t do anything for stopping ability. For that reason, they can build a false sense of security that leads drivers to follow too closely.
Traction Control is a worthwhile option that improves traction and directional stability on slippery roads, using a combination of electronics, drivetrain control, and ABS. Some systems adjust engine power output while gently applying the brakes to particular wheels during acceleration and cornering.
BMW, Cadillac, and Mercedes-Benz offer new electronic stability-control systems on their higher-priced models. These systems help stabilize a vehicle’s handling when it’s pushed to the limits. Look for these systems to appear on less expensive models in the near future.