So, you want to buy a crossover. You love the idea of sedan-like fuel economy, a car-like ride, great visibility, easy to enter and exit body design, and the huge cargo area. However, your friend Jethro has a Wrangler with a lift kit and is warning you that "all-wheel drive won't get 'er done." What now?
All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive - Paved Roads
On paved roads, all-wheel drive (AWD) is always the way to go. Four-wheel drive (4X4) is inferior in many ways. Particularly at higher speeds and when turning. There is simply no real argument for a 4X4 on pavement, so we won't waste the keystrokes deabting it.
All-Wheel Drive vs. Four-Wheel Drive - Un-Paved Roads
On dirt roads and roads that are private long driveways the two are similar in their abilities as long the road is actually "a road." New Hampshire has thousands of miles of dirt roads, and we test vehicles on them non-stop in all four seasons. All-wheel drive works brilliantly on dirt roads. There is no real basis for any argument that a 4X4 is needed. AWD in a crossover like a Buick Encore GX is the way to go whether the road is snow covered, muddy, dry, whatever.
Once you leave the dirt roads, the forest begins. Here, ground clearance helps a lot. Vehicles like the RAV4 Adventure, Subaru Forester, Outbadk, Crosstrek, and Jeep Cherokee crossovers all have around eight-inches of minimum clearance. If you take your time, scout out the trail, and have some experience, you can overcome obstacles with a much higher peak than that minimum. You can also ford small brooks and streams with no trouble.
This is the point at which a 4X4 like a Jeep Wrangler, Ford Bronco, or a pickup begins to make some sense. However, once the trees are too close together, you are limited by the width of the vehicle and in some cases, the length. Compact vehicles like a little Jeep Renagade may be able to go deeper than a Ford Super Duty. Know your needs.
In snow so deep that normal cars are staying home, all-wheel drive is brilliant. We have driven in over a foot of unplowed snow many times in crossovers with AWD. Again, ground clearance matters, but tires are a key here. Swap out your three-season rubber for a set of winter tires and your abilities are significantly amplified.
Visit the Cape Cod National Seashore someday and watch the Subarus in sand. They are amazing. Deflate the tires to about 20 psi and have at it. A 4X4 works equally-well. Tie
Rock Hopping and Mud Whomping
If you plan to remove the paint along all the sides of your vehicle, dent up all the panels not protected by rock rails, and actually want to get stuck and use a winch, go for the 4X4. Or, if you want to have the look of a vehicle that lives that lifestyle you need the 4X4. But just for grins and giggles, when you see the lifted Jeeps and trucks at the nail parlor, note how many are scratch and dent-free. These are posers. The kind of people that wear camofladge but don't actually hunt. Although we think that 4X4s are the smarter choice here, note that many of the things folks do to make a 4X4 off-rad capable can be done to a vehicle like a Forester.
Take it from the folks who test vehicles day in and day out. We've driven all-wheel drive crossovers on Land-Rover 4X4 trails and the capabilities of these compromise cars is mind-blowing. Unless you are in the fraction of a percent of folks who actually use vehicles on rocks and in mudholes you need a 4X4 like a fish needs bicycle.
John Goreham is a life-long car nut and recovering engineer. John's focus areas are technology, safety, and green vehicles. In the 1990s, he was part of a team that built a solar-electric vehicle from scratch. His was the role of battery thermal control designer. For 20 years he applied his engineering and sales talents in the high tech world and published numerous articles in technical journals such as Chemical Processing Magazine. In 2008 he retired from that career to chase his dream of being an auto writer. In addition to Torque News, John's work has appeared in print in dozens of American newspapers and he provides reviews to many vehicle shopping sites. You can follow John on the Torque News Facebook Page, and view his credentials at Linkedin
Crossover images by John Goreham. Re-use with permission only. Subaru Forester with lift kit courtesy of Patroit Subaru. Jeep Wrangler image courtesy of FCA America Media Support.