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All-wheel-drive can be handy in Florida's thunderstorms

ORLANDO — Joseph Vasquez and his wife, Susan, moved to the Orlando area from New York about a year ago. Like other New Yorkers, they've had to give up things like Broadway plays and authentic New York pizza, but now they are wondering if there is something else they should give up: Their long-standing love affair with all-wheel-drive cars. The family's two primary vehicles are a 1998 Subaru Legacy wagon and a 2003 Subaru Outback. "For the last 15 years, we have been driving cars with all-wheel-drive," Joseph said. "I swore to myself when the need arose to replace these cars I was now not limited to Subaru's AWD since we have left the snow far behind us."

But then a funny thing happened: The Josephs say they felt safer in the AWD vehicles when driving in Florida's wet, rainy weather. "Are we crazy?" he said. "Have we brainwashed ourselves into thinking we now need AWD even in sunny Florida?"

Technically, no, you don't really need AWD in southern climes. Ten years ago, the answer might have been different. But now that almost every new vehicle sold has electronic stability control and antilock brakes, a front-wheel-drive car and most rear-wheel-drive cars will behave pretty much like an all-wheel-drive vehicle on wet roads.

When you lose traction to one or more wheels, the stability control cuts power to those wheels, using the brakes if needed, until all the tires are again pulling their weight. Even if you lose control and start to spin, the stability control, using that same technology, should check the spin and get you back under control.

But having power distributed to all four wheels does give you that little extra margin of safety and control.

On a recent weekend at the Sports Car Club of America's season championships at the tough four-mile Road America race in Wisconsin, a sudden downpour slickened the track. Near the back of the pack was a too-big, too-heavy Acura TL with all-wheel-drive, competing against smaller, faster, sportier cars. The Acura was the only AWD car on the track, and the driver promptly passed most of the field and ended up in a very unexpected third place.

This is not to say that AWD is only good when you are cornering at 120 mph in the rain — obviously, it is. But it stands to reason that it helps a little too when you are cornering at 40 or 50 mph.

The downside? Extra weight and complexity. Also, as Joseph Vasquez said, "I realize that Subaru AWD vehicles get pretty poor gas mileage compared to most front-wheel-drive vehicles in the same class, and they cost more."

Subarus definitely aren't cheap, due to the extra cost of powering both the front and rear wheels. But years ago, even when they were offered in front-wheel-drive, Subarus were never at the top in the mileage category, due in part to the design of the boxer-style engines. But judging from the mileage of the automaker's 2012 models, Subaru is catching up fast.

Indeed, with modern technology, all-wheel-drive vehicles can get mileage that is often pretty close to their non-AWD counterparts.

A 2012 Dodge Charger V-6 with rear-wheel-drive is EPA-rated at 19 mpg city driving, 31 mpg highway. With all-wheel-drive as an option, the same car is rated at 18 mpg city, 27 highway. But a 2012 Honda Pilot with front-wheel-drive is rated at 18/25 mpg, and with all-wheel-drive, 17/24, just one mpg less. One reason for the narrowing in the difference in fuel economy is that the Honda, for instance, rides along in front-wheel-drive, and the AWD doesn't really kick in until the onboard computer senses that it is needed.

So yes, you'll pay extra for all-wheel-drive, both at the dealer and probably at the gas pump. But is it worth it in Florida? On dry pavement, no. In the middle of one of our famous Florida gulleywashers, though, it may have an edge.

All-wheel-drive can be handy in Florida's thunderstorms 11/24/11 [Last modified: Thursday, November 24, 2011 3:30am]
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