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How to Get the Most Out of All-Wheel Drive

autoTRADER.ca logo autoTRADER.ca 2018-03-09 Justin Pritchard
2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 EcoDiesel© Greg Wilson 2014 Jeep Grand Cherokee Summit 4x4 EcoDiesel

If you’re like thousands of Canadian motorists, you drive an all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle for the added traction, grip, confidence, and peace of mind available in challenging conditions. And, like most AWD motorists, most of the time, you probably give the system little second thought.

Video: Driving the Bentley Bentayga in winter (provided by Autoblog)

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And that’s exactly the point. Many AWD systems are designed to work without any form of driver input whatsoever. Various AWD systems on offer from automakers like Audi, Subaru, Nissan, Volkswagen, GM, Mazda, and others, simply work all the time, in the background, under the direction of a sophisticated computer that calls the shots. In systems like these, engineers have done all of the testing, development, and programming, and drivers need only sit back and enjoy the ride.

Other AWD systems have various driver-selectable modes, functionalities, and features designed to help enhance system performance in challenging conditions, or to help drivers save fuel.

Below, we’ll take a look at a few common motoring scenarios, and how to get the most out of your AWD system when you face them – no matter what you drive.

Everyday Driving

a car parked in a field© Provided by autoTRADER.ca

It’s warm. The sun is out. The roads are dry. There’s no snow or ice or rain in sight. Congratulations! It’s a gorgeous day for a drive, and the inner complexities of your AWD system are far from your mind. In this situation, you’ve got nothing to do. Just relax – your automatic AWD system is ready and waiting to pounce at the first sign of low traction, though this is unlikely.

One exception though: if your vehicle has an AWD system that can be turned off or disconnected, this is the time to do it. On days like this, you’re extremely unlikely to need extra traction, and turning the AWD system off, if possible, can reduce fuel use. Note that some AWD systems can’t be turned off, and that others turn themselves off automatically.

Still, some systems require driver input to disengage. If that’s the case for your ride, it’s typically achieved by simply pressing a button or turning a dial. Your owner’s manual has the scoop.

Winter Driving

a car covered in snow© Provided by autoTRADER.ca

If it’s all blizzardy outside and you’re out for a rip, you’ll likely be enjoying the smug satisfaction of sticking it to Mother Nature’s worst conditions from the comfort of your seat. Just remember: a quality set of winter tires can make a huge improvement to traction and confidence, even in an AWD vehicle. Winter tires are the only way to physically increase the friction between your vehicle and a slippery road, which gives the AWD system far greater grip to work with.

In challenging winter conditions, you’ll need 110 percent of your attention focused on the road – which is why your AWD system is built to work without your input on drives like this. Still, in vehicles where the AWD system can be turned off, you’ll want to confirm that it’s turned on before setting off. Further, if you’re in a Nissan, Infiniti, Ford, Cadillac, or any other AWD model with a dedicated Snow mode available from its drive-mode selector, be sure to engage that before setting off, too. This unique drive mode, if available, adds further confidence to winter driving. Your owner’s manual has the scoop on how to use Snow mode, if equipped.

Off-Roading

a car driving down a dirt road© Provided by autoTRADER.ca

In light to moderate off-road driving, a fully automatic AWD system typically works effectively to find whatever traction is needed to keep you moving – though deep ruts and deep mud are best avoided. If you must pass through these, try and keep as many of your vehicle’s tires on high ground as possible, where there’s more grip. Your AWD system will likely detect which wheels have more traction, and work to send more engine power to them – helping you to get where you need to go.

If your AWD system has no driver control possible, remember to keep some momentum going at all times where feasible, avoiding a full stop on a challenging surface to help prevent getting stuck or bogged-down. This may require confirming ground clearance levels against the currently opposing obstacle before you attempt to drive over it. In muddy situations that you’ll tackle at lower speeds, it’s typically best to turn the traction control off, which allows the AWD system to more freely spin mud from the treads of all four tires.

If your AWD system has a Lock mode, which boosts low-speed traction for extra-slippery surfaces, be prepared to activate it if you get stuck. This can be an extra tool to help keep you moving, but you’re typically best to save it until needed. Further, if your vehicle has an off-road drive mode, be sure to activate it when you enter the trail, as it optimizes various systems, including the AWD system, for improved traction.

If You’re Stuck

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Uh oh. You’ve gone and gotten stuck in some deep snow and mud, and it seems you’re going nowhere fast. Don’t panic though: your trip may not be over yet.

When you’re stuck in your AWD vehicle, and provided there’s weight on the tires and that it’s not hung up, your first step is to stop driving, place the vehicle in park, and activate any features that may be able to help you. If your AWD system has a Lock mode or an off-road mode, now’s the time to turn it on if it hasn’t been activated already. If the vehicle only has a Snow mode, this may be helpful too, since Snow mode often pre-distributes engine power more evenly between the axles for extra traction. With any supplemental help engaged, you have a better chance of escaping without calling for a tow.

Next, note that in modern AWD vehicles, whether or not equipped with supplemental features, drivers in this situation are best to start by leaving the traction control on, to point the steering as straight ahead as feasible, and to put their foot about halfway down on the throttle, leaving it there, and exercising patience.

Ease off the throttle a little if the wheels start to turn excessively, and turn the traction control off if they fail to spin at all. Stay the course in any case: steady throttle used to create slow to moderate wheelspin will often see the AWD system find some traction after a moment or two, which can be used to get you moving.

Many AWD systems can get a stuck vehicle free easily, provided that the driver doesn’t make the rookie mistake of removing their foot from the throttle too early.

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