Big car battles: SUV vs 4WD vs AWD vs station wagon

5 February 2016
Should you buy a 4WD, an SUV, or a station wagon? Which type of large car is right for your passengers? Here’s what you need to think about before driving away.

The ABS (2016) and the FCAI (2014) report Aussies have been buying and selling over 1.15 million motor vehicles per year throughout the 2010s. While small cars are still our top sellers, larger cars may soon take over.

SUV sales continue to boom, increasing by 15% in 2015 and constituting 35% of the car market, compared to 44% market share for small passenger vehicles such as hatchbacks and sedans. The Holden Commodore wagon and the Toyota Hilux ute also remain in Australia’s five highest selling vehicles.

From the 4WD to the station wagon and everything in between, these cars provide good hauling and towing power, good leg room for passengers, and a safe ride. So what are your options when choosing a large passenger car, and what are the pros and cons of each?


What is an SUV?

An SUV (sport utility vehicle) is a wagon body (long roof, big cargo area) with a more elevated ride height. SUVs are usually manufactured as 4WD or AWD vehicles.

Pros of SUV

  • Usually seats 5-9 passengers, so it’s a good car for families.
  • High road clearance.
  • Usually better fuel economy than a 4WD/AWD.
  • Looks – the SUV generally has much sleeker lines than the typical station wagon, and is prettier than most 4WD/AWDs.
  • SUVs come off better than most other cars in a collision, thanks to their rigid body.
  • Multiple safety features ensure a safe and smooth ride in bad weather and while off-roading.
  • Rear safety cameras make parking a breeze.

Cons of SUV

  • High road clearance means you often have to jump to get from the ground up into your seat. This makes it difficult for ladies to get in and out gracefully in a dress.
  • The rigid body of the SUV means that if you’re in a collision, the chances of you causing serious injuries or death to the people in the other car is astronomically higher.


What are 4WDs and AWDs?

There are three basic systems available:

  • Full-time 4WD: 4WD mode is always on and the driver selects high or low modes.
  • Part-time 4WD: 4WD mode is turned on and off by the driver as needed.
  • All-wheel drive (AWD): Torque is sent to all four wheels continually, but extra 4WD power is usually only activated by slipping wheels.

Many 4WDs and AWDs end up doing triple-duty as people movers, work vehicles, and weekend warriors.

Pros of 4WD or AWD

  • Lots of leg room for back seat passengers.
  • Often comes with auto-braking features to prevent you from ploughing into the car in front.
  • Usually runs on diesel, which is a cheaper fuel source.

Cons of 4WD or AWD

  • Typically known as fuel guzzlers with poor fuel economy.
  • Many new 4WDs feature specific tyre rims because of their larger brake packages, so you can’t just fit any old 4WD tyre rim to them.
  • With 4WD, you have to remember to switch it to the correct mode when driving around the city. Otherwise the drive axles suffer from “wind-up” stress from unnecessarily sending different levels of torque to all four wheels at once.

The station wagon

What is a station wagon?

Also known as an estate wagon, sportswagon, squareback, or even a “depot hack”, the station wagon is a large passenger car with a large, open boot area that is covered by the roof. You can usually put the back seats down in a station wagon to make space for even more cargo.

The cargo area usually has side windows for enough visibility to cover the long back of the car. (If the car has no rear side windows, it becomes classed as a van or a minibus.)

Pros of wagons

  • Cheaper than the SUV, 4WD or AWD.
  • Lower ground clearance than an SUV or 4WD/AWD makes it easier to get in and out of the car.
  • Less risk of rolling over on bumpy roads or after a collision.

Cons of wagons

  • Most station wagons are not as beautiful as SUVs. But this is largely a matter of personal preference.
  • May not have as many different seating options as the SUV or 4WD/AWD.

One last important decision

So there you have it. When you need a small car, a hatchback or a sedan both have pros and cons. The choice is up to you. There’s just one more important decision that you need to make.

If you need finance, you need to choose a car loan that will keep you moving instead of acting like a speed bump in your budget. Canstar takes the hard work out of looking for a good value car loan for you by researching and rating products on the market in Australia. Just compare your options on our website and make a shortlist of providers that might suit you.

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