Most modern cars have front wheel drive for a very good reason: front wheel drive is safer and more controllable for the average driver. A front wheel drive vehicle has most of its weight on the front wheels, usually between 60% and 70%, so that it tends to go straight, just like an arrow where the weight is concentrated in the arrowhead. On slippery surfaces, if you give it too much gas in a turn, the front wheels will spin, causing the car to skid straight ahead. Even an inattentive driver will immediately realize there is a problem and let up on the gas, quickly regaining control: whereas a car with rear wheel drive in the same situation might spin the rear out causing the inattentive driver to lose control.
Front wheel drive is also great in the snow. Since most of the weight is on the drive wheels, you get better traction, and if you do get stuck with a spinning wheel in snow or mud, just turn the steering wheel a bit to allow the front tires to get a new bite.
If front wheel drive is so good, then why do any cars have rear wheel drive?
Actually, most luxury cars over $40,000.00 have rear wheel drive, as well as all race cars and most performance-oriented sports cars. Rear wheel drive cars have their weight distributed closer to 50/50 between the front and rear wheels, which is conducive to a smoother, more stable ride. Because of the weight distribution, the rear tires and springs can take on their fair share of the workload so the car can have higher cornering limits and greater maximum stopping power. Braking is also superior on a rear wheel drive car. With front wheel drive, under heavy braking such as in a panic stop, the weight of the car shifts forward so that the front tires may do as much as 85 or 90 % of the work to stop the car. The fact that front wheel drive cars stop well despite this handicap is a testament to the engineering that goes into today’s automobiles and tires.
If you need to pull a heavy trailer, you should also be aware that rear wheel drive allows for a greater towing capacity than front wheel drive.
What About All-Wheel Drive (4-Wheel Drive) Vehicles?
The best traction in adverse weather conditions can be had with all-wheel-drive vehicles. All-wheel-drive passenger cars and station wagons, in fact, handle as well as, if not better than many rear drive cars and are as safe and predictable during everyday driving situations as front wheel drive cars. The only disadvantages are initial cost and the fact that they tend to be expensive to repair. Some examples of all-wheel-drive passenger cars are the Audi Quattro, Subaru Outback & Impreza & Jaguar X-Type. Chrysler and Mazda, among others, also make all-wheel-drive minivans.
Stick Shift or Automatic?
Some people find that a car with a standard shift and clutch is fun to drive and gives them a greater sense of control. They also feel that the only way to get the best gas mileage is with a stick; however, most people would rather take the bus than be without their automatics.
As far as I’m concerned, the choice between stick and automatic is a matter of personal preference; however, there are a few things to consider:
A standard shift car will usually have a lower resale value. Great when you buy it, not so great when you sell it. It is also harder to find a buyer for them.
While most modern automatic transmissions are reliable, if they do break down they could be expensive to repair. On the other hand, clutch replacement on a front-wheel-drive car with a stick shift can also be costly. In addition; while a good automatic often lasts the life of the car, a clutch rarely does so, especially if driven in a city and subjected to stop and go driving.
All things being equal, a standard shift car driven correctly will get slightly better gas mileage than an automatic. But if you are a fast driver or are not methodical about shifting at the right time, then a 4-speed automatic will be more efficient.
Many people who switch to a stick shift car for the first time thinking they will like it, soon grow to regret that decision. So it might be a good idea to rent or borrow a stick shift car for a week or so and see if you can live with it.
Minivan, Full Size Van,Sport Utility, Station Wagon, or Pickup Truck?
Minivan or Station Wagon
Minivans make ideal family cars. They usually seat seven and have plenty of room left over for “stuff”. They are easy to drive and park and they will fit in an average garage. A station wagon might handle and ride better but not by much. Station wagons are more aerodynamic, also not by much. Try them both out for size. If you have never driven a minivan, rent one for a couple of days. Drive it on the highway, park it, pull it into a shopping center parking lot. Notice how easy it is to see over other cars to spot a parking place? When you’re finished shopping, you will find it faster because you can spot it over other cars.
Minivans come in front wheel drive, rear wheel drive and all-wheel-drive. Unless you plan to tow a heavy trailer, you should opt for a front wheel drive model as they have the best utilization of available space.
If you need room for more than seven people, then your only option is a full size van. They are available with seating for as many as fifteen people. Today’s vans ride and handle well and are fairly quiet and comfortable. They are only available in rear wheel drive and can be equipped with massive towing capability whereas a front wheel drive minivan is very limited in towing capacity. On the down side, since they are classified as trucks, they do not have to meet the more stringent passenger car safety standards.
Full size vans are generally equipped with large V8 engines that are quite thirsty.
Although sport-utility vehicles have many advantages, they also have a few glaring disadvantages. Let’s start with the disadvantages so you can skip the rest if I mention something you’re not willing to live with.
- They are heavier and have higher gearing; therefore, they burn more gas.
- They have a higher center of gravity so they do not handle as well and are more prone to rollover.
- They are usually noisier and harder riding than a car or a Minivan although they are getting more civilized.
- As a rule they have less interior space than a Minivan.
- They have higher ground clearance and are more difficult for some people to climb into.
- Some people I know regret their choice after living with the truck-like ride and increased road noise.
Still with me? Sport utility vehicles are the fastest growing segment of the automotive industry with manufacturers scrambling to open more factories to build them. The latest trend is for luxury sport-utes, with models available now or soon to be announced from Lexus, Infiniti, Acura, Mercedes Benz, BMW, Lincoln,Buick and Cadillac among others.
The obvious advantages of these vehicles would be with off-road use but 90% of them never leave the road and are used for the same purposes as a sedan or a minivan. If that’s you, then look for a vehicle that was designed from the ground up as a passenger vehicle and not based on a truck platform. Some examples are: Lexus RX300, Mercedes Benz M-class and the Toyota RAV-4.
So, if you still think a sports utility vehicle is for you and you’ve talked to people who own them, and you’ve read the list above, then go for it. They are sharp, aren’t they?
A basic pickup truck can cost less than most inexpensive cars, so it’s one way for a person to be able to own a new vehicle who otherwise would not have been able to afford one. However, a pickup truck does not make a good car. It is very light in the rear without a load and, therefore, will not handle or stop well especially in adverse weather conditions. It is also exempt from the federal safety requirements that passenger cars must meet.
Pickup trucks are considered commercial vehicles in some states such as New York and are not allowed on parkways without a cover over the bed.In fact, without a cover, the tailgate acts like a big air brake on the highway which sabotages gas mileage. This is why owners often replace the tailgate with a net. Tailgates are also easily stolen…
Large Car or Small Car?
Although all cars must meet federal standards for crash worthiness, large cars are usually safer than small cars in a crash,sometimes much safer. If a large car collides with a small car there is often no contest.
Large cars offer comfort and roominess while smaller cars tend to be easier to park and more nimble. Small cars are typically more fuel efficient, but with today’s computerized fuel-injected engines, a full-size sedan may be more efficient than you might expect. Check the manufacturer’s fuel mileage ratings.
What Options Should I Look For?
Anti-lock brakes (ABS)? Absolutely! With normal brakes, if you slam your foot down on the brake pedal, the wheels will lock causing you to skid. When the wheels are skidding, you have absolutely no steering control and the car will take longer to stop than it should. An extended panic stop can also produce a “flat spot” on your tires causing them to thump as you drive. Anti-lock brakes sense when a wheel is locked and immediately begin to “pump” the brakes at the rate of ten or more times a second, much faster than you can do it with your foot. This allows you to retain steering control while the vehicle stops in the shortest possible time. This is especially important on slippery road surfaces where standing on the brakes can cause loss of control and spinout.
Traction Control System (TCS)? This feature is more important on rear-wheel drive cars. Traction control uses the sensors that are part of the Anti-lock brake system to detect when one of the drive wheels loses traction. When this happens, the brakes are pulsed to stop the wheel from spinning. In some more sophisticated systems, engine power is also reduced. On a rear-wheel drive car, if you step on the gas too hard on a slippery surface, you could easily lose control and spin out. On a front-wheel drive car, if you step on the gas too hard and spin the tires while going around a curve, you will tend to go straight instead of where your wheels are pointing. While this is not as bad as spinning out, it is still an undesirable condition which is to be avoided. If at all possible, find a car with traction control. The first time you find yourself losing traction, you will be glad you did.
Electronic Stability Control (ESC)? This is a feature that is gaining in popularity and finding its way on less expensive cars each year. Stability control also uses the anti-lock brake sensors plus an inertia sensor to help keep you from losing control, especially on slippery surfaces. It works by monitoring your speed, the position of the steering wheel and the G-forces that the car is generating to determine whether you are sliding, or following your intended course. If the computer determines that you are going too fast around a corner and have begun to lose control, it will immediately intervene by applying one or more brakes and reducing engine power until you are back on your intended course. For instance, if your rear end begins to spin out, the outside front brake will apply to coax you back on your intended course and cancel the spin. It does this so quickly, that you may never realize that you began to skid out. This system is especially important on SUVs which are often not as stable as cars. On some SUVs, there is an added sensor to detect impending roll-overs and step in to help prevent that condition. Stability control is known by several trade names such as StabiliTrak (GM), AdvanceTrac (Ford), Vehicle Stability Control (Toyota & Lexus), Electronic Stability Program (Mercedes Benz) and Vehicle Dynamic Control (Nissan & Infiniti)
Air bags? We hope that we will never need them and they’re no substitute for seat belts but they do save lives. They are standard equipment on all new cars now. Some new cars even have the new side airbags. If you have a rear facing child seat, NEVER place it on a seat with an airbag. In fact, wherever possible, child seats should always be placed in the rear seat.
Security system? A vehicle is stolen every 20 seconds in the US, so these systems are a necessary fact of life today. Alarm systems can save you money on your insurance premiums. Try to get one with an ignition cut-off so if the alarm is triggered, the vehicle will not be able to start. See if your dealer has Lojack available. This system sends out a silent signal alerting police who monitor for them. When you realize your car is stolen, you call the police to report the theft. They will then send a signal to your car activating Lojack. The police can then triangulate on the signal your car is emitting to find it, and possibly the thief, soon after it was stolen.
Remote controlled outside mirrors? Low priced cars often include only manually adjustable outside mirrors with remote controlled mirrors available only in deluxe option packs. Why are they important? The first time that you go through a car wash and watch the attendant wipe the mirrors dry thereby knocking them out of adjustment (especially the right side) you will understand. You sit behind the wheel and notice that it is out of adjustment. So you get out, walk around to the other side and guess at the best position, get back in the car and find that it is not right. Get out and adjust it again, get back in and say to yourself “good enough”. The right side mirror is an important safety device and should always be kept properly adjusted. Remote mirrors are an inexpensive and important convenience you should not be without
Power accessories? Power windows, power seats and power door locks add a convenience and safety to a car and, once you have a car with them, you wouldn’t want to do without them. They also increase the resale value of a car.
Any information provided on this Website is for informational purposes only and is not intended to replace consultation with a professional mechanic. The accuracy and timeliness of the information may change from the time of publication.
Join our list!
Get access to our exclusive blog content and regular articles + a special 10% coupon awaits on your next parts purchase at CarParts.com
Thank you for signing up. Your coupon is on its way to your inbox.