Getting a Grip

How much traction does your vehicle need?

As anyone who’s ever been stuck in mud or snow knows, automotive power without grip is pointless. You can have the best engine in the world, but if you don’t have traction, your car is out of action. With choices from two-wheel to all-wheel drive, picking the right traction system can be difficult. The most advanced systems don’t come cheap, so you’ll have to weigh your safety concerns and driving habits against your budget. Here’s what you need to know:

A few decades ago, most vehicles sold in North America had the engine in the front and driving wheels in the back. The rear wheels propelled the car, while the front wheels handled steering duties. Rear-wheel drive is still commonly used in pickup trucks (where the load is over the driving wheels) and sports cars (for superior handling in dry conditions). In the 1980s, automakers started a shift toward front-wheel drive, with the front wheels handling both the propulsion and the steering. Since the weight of the engine was now over the driving wheels, it improved traction in the wet and snow. Most cars and minivans are front-wheel drive. Because a car has four wheels, it’s only natural that automakers would figure out a way to double the number of wheels delivering propulsion. That came about in two ways: four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive. It sounds confusing but the difference is simple – really. Four-wheel drive means the driver can switch between two-wheel and four-wheel mode. One set of wheels (usually the rear) is always used to propel the vehicle. When added traction is needed, the driver can click into four-wheel-drive mode. If you drive a sport utility vehicle, you’ve probably got this system. With all-wheel drive, on the other hand, the driver has no choice. In most systems, power is transmitted to all four wheels all of the time. In other all-wheel-drive systems, the vehicle makes the choice for you, operating in two-wheel drive most of the time but adding the other two wheels when more traction is needed.

To further maximize grip, some vehicles also have traction control. Using computers and anti-lock brakes, traction-control systems can sense wheel slippage and apply the brakes. In a vehicle with traction control, you can stomp on the accelerator and pull away from a standstill on an ice rink without spinning the wheels. So, how much of this high-tech wizardry do you need? It depends on your budget, the size of your family, where you live and the weather and road conditions in your region. Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles are more expensive and less fuel-efficient than two-wheel-drive vehicles. For example, a 2001 Safari SLX lists for $26,440 in two-wheel drive and $29,370 in all-wheel drive. Four-wheel-drive and all-wheel-drive vehicles can also be an expensive headache for out-of-warranty repairs. As well, they may instil a dangerous sense of invincibility in some drivers. However, they can be a lifeline for emergency workers and people who live in snowy areas where roads are rough. For anyone who wants an extra margin of safety and doesn’t mind paying for a feature they won’t always use, four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive can’t be beat in extreme wet and snow. For people with limited budgets who live in urban areas where roads are cleared quickly and there’s easy access to public transit, front-wheel drive may be fine. “A front-drive car with four good winter tires should do the trick for most people,” says George Iny, president of the Automobile Protection Association. “It’s a good balance bet-ween cost, availability, convenience and safety.”

Maryanna Lewyckyj is consumer advocate for the Toronto Sun. She conducts car care seminars for women through her company, Autophobics Anonymous.

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