Why All-Wheel Drive (AWD)?
The majority of new cars available in today's market are FWD (front-wheel drive). That's because an FWD car's drivetrain, being more compact, saves weight and therefore improves fuel economy. Additionally, the lack of need for a transmission tunnel translates into more interior space. There are also manufacturing advantages to FWD.
However, for those drivers who need optimal traction in all weather conditions (snow, rain, ice) and on all surfaces (tarmac, gravel, dirt), AWD (all-wheel drive) is the way to go. All-wheel drive simply means that power is not delivered solely to the front or rear wheels, but distributed to all wheels—at least when wheel slippage occurs.
AWD or 4WD/4X4: What's the Difference?
When it comes to power distribution, AWD drivetrains are typically biased toward the front or rear. For example, the system may normally send 70% to 100% of the power to the front or rear wheels. However, when there's a loss of traction, the system will optimize the torque split to regain traction/control. This is more common in cars (coupes, sedans, and hatchbacks), which is what we're focusing on for this article.
4WD and 4x4 setups, on the other hand, typically denote a 50/50 torque split between the front and rear wheels. This is typically regarded as more beneficial for "harder-core" off-road conditions (deep snow, mud, etc.), and is therefore more common to trucks and SUVs.
The Best Affordable AWD Cars
In this article, we're focusing on the best AWD sedans, coupes, and hatchbacks that can be had for cheap. Of course, "cheap" is a relative term. For some people, it might be less than $20,000, for others less than $5000 or even $3500. In this case, we're aiming for the low end of the price range. Hey, it's the post-recession era, right? Spending less is the new cool, so let's look at the best used AWD cars that won't break the bank!
The 1990–1998 Eagle Talon and Mitsubishi Eclipse, which were basically the same car, were both available with AWD. These were the top option levels. For the Eagle, it was the Talon TSi AWD. For the Mitsubishi, it was the Eclipse GS-X. All of the all-wheel-drive models came with a turbocharged 4-cylinder engine, the 4G63, that offered 200+ horsepower. For the performance-minded buyer, this could be a big plus. These coupes can be had for really cheap these days. You can find a '92 model in very good condition for about $2500.
Mitsubishi Galant VR-4
This is a car that few of you have probably heard of, but it's one very cool little AWD sedan. Specifically, I'm talking about the sixth-gen version, built from 1988 to 1992. This car is actually the predecessor to the better-known Mitsubishi Lancer, which was a bit too expensive to make this list, and it was originally built for the Group A class of the World Rally Championship (WRC). So, just like the Subaru Impreza, it has real rally-car pedigree.
It came with a version of the same 4G63 turbocharged engine available in the Talon/Eclipse. With a 0–60 time of sub-7.5 seconds, this car had some solid pep. These cars go for about $1500 these days. Of course, at this age/mileage you may have maintenance issues to deal with. Still, it's hard to get an AWD rally-bred machine for this cheap.
Did you know that ALL Subarus are all-wheel drive (with the exception of the new RWD BRZ)? That's right. Pretty much any used Subaru that fits your budget is a good buy. The Impreza is the best-known Subaru, and it's been offered as a coupe, sedan, or wagon.
The WRX is a performance-oriented edition with a turbocharged engine and rallying heritage, first available in the US in 2002. You can get an '02 WRX for $6000 to 7000 these days. Non-turbo versions of the Impreza are significantly cheaper: $3500 to $5000, depending on model year and condition. If you want the sporty look of the WRX but don't have the budget, take a look at the naturally-aspirated 2.5RS.
BMW E30 325iX
It's hard to beat the E30 BMW model line for class, performance, and affordability. Few people realize that there was an AWD model available, the 325iX. It had a slightly elevated ride height and cool fender flares, and came with the 168-horsepower M20 inline-six.
The only problem is that these cars, built from '86 to '91, are getting quite old. Many have 200K miles or more, which could require some serious maintenance. Still, if you aren't afraid of working on your own car, you can get one of these fun, lightweight, torque-happy Beemers for less than $2000.
If the other cars on this list are a bit older than you'd like, the SX4 might be worth considering. First introduced in 2007, the SX4 isn't as performance-oriented as some of the other cars on this list. However, many people simply need a fuel-efficient, cost-effective vehicle that performs well in inclement weather.
Enter the SX4. It gets 30+ mpg on the highway, and you can get a 2007 model in good condition for around $7000. However, if you think this entry-level compact can't pack a punch, you'd be wrong: Suzuki's WRC team campaigned an SX4 in the 2007 and 2008 seasons.
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.