TOP 10 ALL-WHEEL DRIVE SYSTEMS FOR WINTER AND BEYOND

Whether you’re looking for a vehicle to get you through the winter, or you just want the extra grip and security of all-wheel drive (AWD), there are many different AWD systems to choose from — and they’re not all created equally. 

I’ll cover ten of the best AWD systems on the market, based on the research and testing I’ve done working for different manufacturers over the past two decades. These AWD systems provide excellent grip in the worst weather conditions, have light to moderate off-roading capability, and a few can even dramatically improve dry-weather handling as well.

A few caveats: 

  • I’m only covering systems that are widely available in the U.S. — no one-offs that you can only find on an exotic supercar that few people can afford.
  • This isn’t a deep-dive analysis of each system (I’ll cover that in separate articles).
  • AWD systems are constantly changing, so this article may be updated at a later time. 
  • I’m only discussing AWD systems here, not four-wheel drive (4WD) systems. (Generally speaking, true 4WD systems tend to be heavier-duty systems designed for serious off-roading.)

Same brand, different system

First things first, you should know that an AWD brand is simply that — a brand. It’s no secret that a brand’s AWD system will differ significantly between different cars in its lineup. While there are numerous reasons for this, tailoring the AWD system to each car helps ensure it’s best suited for that vehicle’s specific needs.

This makes sense. You wouldn’t want the same AWD system on an exotic sports car and an SUV, right? An exotic sports car needs a high-performance AWD system for street or track use, while an SUV may be tuned for more off-road capability (yes, I know most SUVs never see more than a potholed shopping mall parking lot, but still).

To put it simply, the performance of an AWD system will vary depending on the vehicle it’s on, even if it’s under the same brand.

It’s all about hardware and software

A good AWD system has hardware that can deal with different conditions and the software to recognize those conditions, adapting how the hardware operates.

By hardware, I mean what makes up the AWD system: the differentials, transfer case, driveshaft, as well as the engine and transmission, as these components all work together to determine how power is distributed. 

By software, we’re talking about the computers/electronics controlling how these things all work together. The software acts similarly to how a conductor leads a symphony. 

An AWD system’s software can tone down the engine if it’s causing too much wheelspin, while also braking individual wheels to redirect power to the wheels that have more traction. It orchestrates how everything works together, making sure everything works in harmony.

Having weakness in either (or both) of the AWD system’s hardware or software deteriorates performance — or worse, gets you stuck. All of the systems on this list have a good combination of hardware and software, with the manufacturers tuning their systems to what they think works best for that vehicle and its intended operation.

TIPS IF YOU’RE STUCK: AWD systems will begin braking your vehicle’s wheels and reducing engine power if the system determines there’s too much wheel slippage. This can get you stuck if you’re in deep sand, snow or mud. 

In most vehicles, you can disable the stability control system in these situations. This gives your vehicle the extra power to get moving by preventing your engine and brakes from fighting one another.

TOP 10 ALL-WHEEL DRIVE SYSTEMS (alphabetically listed)

Acura SH-AWD

If there could be a valedictorian of AWD systems, this would likely be it. Acura’s SH-AWD system is an overachiever. 

SH-AWD stands for Super Handling All-Wheel Drive. Yes, it’s a tad hyperbolic, but it’s a groundbreaking system that lives up to its name. 

According to Acura, it was the first AWD system to use its rear differential to control power distribution not only front to rear, but also side to side at the rear wheels. SH-AWD can send up to 70% of the engine’s power to the rear wheels, and 100% of that rear-driven torque to just one rear wheel if needed. 

It can then further accelerate the vehicle’s outside rear wheel in turns, generating additional turning force — essentially using the rear wheels to steer the vehicle.  

SH-AWD accomplishes this with a trick torque-vectoring rear differential that contains two multi-plate clutches that can distribute torque individually to the left and right rear wheels. 

Instead of waiting for a wheel to slip, SH-AWD monitors the driver’s steering and throttle inputs, wheel speed, and cornering forces (lateral g and yaw) to proactively begin redistributing power to enhance cornering performance.

How effective is this system? Well, it enabled the second-generation MDX to have roadholding grip that was about the same as Acura’s own NSX exotic sports car — and better than some other so-called sports cars.

This extrasensory perception that improves dry-weather handling also dramatically enhances wet-weather handling as well. SH-AWD also has clutches with a very high torque capacity to effectively transfer power front to rear in more difficult situations, making it very capable for light off-road excursions.

You can find SH-AWD on models like the TLX, RDX, MDX and NSX

 

Audi quattro

If Acura’s SH-AWD is the valedictorian of AWD systems, then Audi’s quattro would be like a respected, tenured professor — it has years of history and experience, isn’t going anywhere anytime soon and is a legend wherever it goes. 

Audi’s quattro system was tested and proven in rally car racing in the 80s with an eye-opening number of wins, and is credited with helping popularize AWD systems on cars. 

So it’s no surprise that Audi is second to none when it comes to the sheer breadth of AWD systems it offers. As of the writing of this article, there are no less than six different types of quattro systems that have been produced in the past decade. Each system is specifically tailored to the vehicle that it’s found on, and all of them are extremely capable (as you would expect from Audi).

Here’s Audi’s quattro system being lovingly abused

That being said, my favorite systems are on the A4 – A8 sedans and coupes, the Q7 and Q8 SUVs, and any of the S or RS models, which are also available with Audi’s impressive sport differential (another torque-vectoring differential with dual clutches in the rear differential). 

Most of these models use an Audi-designed Torsen system, which is a permanent AWD system  — meaning all four wheels receive power all the time — providing outstanding grip compared to many other systems that operate only in two-wheel drive mode until a wheel slips.

Most importantly, Audi went to great lengths to ensure this quattro system can handle high power output and extreme levels of abuse, making it one of the most durable AWD systems on the market — it’s even suitable for some moderate off-roading.

If I needed a bug-out vehicle in an apocalypse, a car with quattro would be high on my list — it can literally run all day. 

BMW xDrive

BMW’s xDrive system is another one of my favorites because, like many of the other systems mentioned here, it combines excellent hardware with excellent software. 

The xDrive system reacts very quickly to wheel slippage and its multi-plate clutch system is tenacious with a very high clutch torque capacity, enabling the system to effectively transfer power between the axles, even in more challenging situations.

In addition, xDrive is proactive, constantly monitoring driver inputs to vary torque distribution to improve handling and stability, and can revert to rear-wheel drive on many models to enhance cornering performance.

My favorite xDrive systems are the more performance-oriented systems found on the 3 Series – 8 Series and X3 – X7 models, and of course any of the M models. BMW also offers the torque-vectoring M Sport Differential on M models for enhanced cornering performance over the standard xDrive system. 

Honda iVTM-4

Honda’s tried and true VTM-4 system has been around since the early 2000s. This was one of the first AWD systems to use two multi-plate clutches in the rear differential that could apply power independently to each rear wheel (and was the progenitor to SH-AWD).

This system also surprised some journalists with how capable it was off-road, with earlier versions featuring a lock mode that allowed VTM-4 to climb over obstacles typically reserved for more serious 4WD systems. 

Here’s a Pilot being put to the test on rollers where only one wheel has traction. It’s impressive that it can also do this on an incline.

The latest generation, iVTM-4, essentially operates like SH-AWD with the ability to vector torque front to rear and side to side at the rear wheels. Like SH-AWD, it can also overdrive the outside rear wheel to help steer the vehicle using the rear wheels. 

iVTM-4 also adds an Intelligent Traction Management system that optimizes the AWD system for different conditions such as sand, mud or snow.

Like SH-AWD, iVTM-4 has a very high clutch torque capacity and can send up to 70% of the engine’s power to the rear wheels. This makes iVTM-4 one of the best systems for on-road and moderate off-road use.

You can find iVTM-4 on the Honda Pilot, Ridgeline and Passport.

Land Rover All-Wheel Drive

If you need to conquer the Rubicon, or maybe pick up a Chanel bag on Rodeo Drive, Land Rover’s AWD system has got you covered.

Virtually everyone knows Land Rovers are incredibly competent vehicles offroad, which makes sense considering Land Rover has been making 4WD vehicles for over 70 years. So when Land Rover decided to make an AWD system, it seems it made one that thinks and acts like it’s a 4WD system.

Here’s what a walk in the park looks like for a Land Rover.

A good friend of mine worked for Land Rover and we took his LR3 to an off-road park in Hollister, CA. I came away with a newfound respect for these vehicles. It’s one thing to see the vehicles in action, it’s another to experience it for yourself. 

My friend let me drive his LR3 — I was able to climb up rutted hills so steep that the only thing I could see was the sky, and it felt like the LR3 might want to do a backflip. 

The Terrain Response system is also fantastic, enabling Land Rovers to walk over obstacles like a gold medal gymnast playing hopscotch — Land Rovers make incredibly difficult challenges look easy.  

My favorite systems on Land Rovers include the Range Rover, Range Rover Sport, Range Rover Velar, Discovery and of course the Defender.

Mercedes Benz 4MATIC

The 4MATIC system from Mercedes is another fantastic brand and also one of my favorites. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering Mercedes has a long history of making 4WD and AWD vehicles, from the military-grade Geländewagens to the systems found on its vehicles today, Mercedes makes some of the most durable and capable systems out there.

Mercedes features different 4MATIC systems specifically tailored to the vehicle that it’s found on. Mercedes SUVs in particular have very capable 4MATIC AWD systems. You can find videos on YouTube of Mercedes SUVs climbing 100% grades (that’s a 45-degree angle). 

For comparison, most AWD systems will have difficulty (or will completely fail) climbing a 60% grade. And if that hill is covered in ice or anything slippery, many won’t even make it up a 30% grade. 

Here’s a GLC doing some serious off-roading in case you get tired of taking it to the grocery store.

So if you want a vehicle with an AWD system that can practically scale a wall and look classy doing it, the Mercedes 4MATIC system is a good choice. 

My favorite 4MATIC systems are the permanent AWD systems found on the C-Class, E-Class, S-Class sedans as well as the GLC, GLE and GLS SUVs.  

Mitsubishi S-AWC

Mitsubishi and Acura both have a penchant for acronyms, and S-AWC is no different. S-AWC stands for Super All-Wheel Control. 

Mitsubishi’s original AWC system debuted in the mid-90s, with S-AWC being the latest generation. While it’s sometimes compared to SH-AWD, S-AWC is structurally different than SH-AWD, and the S-AWC systems sold in the U.S. also differ vs. other countries (we’re focusing on U.S. models only). 

According to Mitsubishi, the 2008 Lancer was its first model to use the Active Yaw Control (AYC) differential to be sold in the U.S. This is a torque-vectoring differential similar to what’s found in SH-AWD.

S-AWC is an excellent system that monitors the driver’s inputs and the cornering forces acting on the car, and uses two clutches in its rear differential to send power to the left and right rear wheels, proactively redistributing power to enhance handling before the wheels begin to slip.

Due to the proactive nature of S-AWC, it’s great for both dry and wet weather handling. 

Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive

It’s hard not to get that warm, fuzzy feeling inside when you talk about Subarus. But Subaru is serious about the performance of its Symmetrical AWD system, another pioneer in all-wheel-drive systems. 

As a car company, Subaru has always been a favorite of mine. Marching to the beat of its own drum, Subaru installs a flat boxer engine and positions the entire drivetrain in the middle of the car, enabling the system to have a symmetrical construction (hence its name), and can distribute power evenly to all four wheels when needed.

Subaru’s Symmetrical AWD system varies significantly depending on the car, and is tailored to that car’s specific intended purpose. Unsurprisingly, Subaru’s performance-oriented DCCT system found on the WRX STi is my favorite, with a rearward bias and tenacious grip.

I also really like the systems found on the Outback, Legacy, Forester and Ascent due to their construction and versatility. But you can’t go wrong with any Subaru system as they are all extremely well engineered. 

That’s because Subaru’s systems, like the other systems here, have very good hardware and software. Subaru’s available X Mode system is one of the most well-designed traction management systems out there, optimizing the operation of the AWD system depending on the situation, and gives Subarus with this feature impressive off-road capability.

Tesla Dual Motor AWD

In normal Tesla fashion, the Dual Motor AWD system on Tesla operates completely differently than other mechanical systems.

As you’ve probably guessed, two electric motors make up the AWD system on Tesla vehicles — one for the front and one for the rear.

Because there’s no mechanical linkage between the front and rear motors, the system can operate the two motors independently and can react much quicker than many mechanical based systems.

Add to the fact that electric motors provide an instantaneous response, and you have a very quick and capable system.

Also, since there’s no center differential to split power front to rear, so there’s no wear or overheating concerns that you might have with an AWD system that uses clutches or viscous fluid. That’s not to say a motor won’t overheat, but it’s just more parts that are taken out of the equation.

Tesla also features an Off-Road Assist and Slip Start mode to help get the vehicle out of more difficult situations, such as deep sand, snow or mud.

Volvo Instant Traction AWD

Most people know Volvo makes safe cars. Here’s something that most people don’t know:  Volvo’s latest generation of Instant Traction AWD system also makes Volvo very capable ones. 

Volvo’s Instant Traction AWD system is a front-wheel drive-based system that sends power rearward on demand. Front-drive based AWD systems provide excellent stability and are easier to handle in slippery situations for many people.  

Volvo uses a Haldex-based system. Haldex is another one of my favorite systems because it’s very effective at transferring power front to rear, and the latest generation Haldex systems work proactively to maximize grip.

Also, Haldex has one of the highest clutch torque capacities I’ve seen, making the Volvo’s Instant Traction system very capable — even under some very difficult situations.

You can find the Instant Traction AWD system on virtually all models Volvo currently makes.

Summary

So there you have it. Ten of the best AWD systems on the market that should perform well in the winter and the rest of the year too. Each system has different strengths, so hopefully this list can help you narrow down which one will best suit your needs and keep you from getting stuck. You might even find one that makes driving more fun. 🚘

P.S. Make sure you have the appropriate tires for the season. It won’t make a difference what kind of AWD system you have if you have summer tires on your vehicle in the middle of a winter storm — it will still perform poorly.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: