US: AWD popular with safety concerned clients image

All-wheel drive is gaining traction among car buyers looking for safer handling, and as well for those shopping for crossovers and luxury vehicles.

Almost a third of all new vehicles sold through September of this year in the US had four-wheel drive. That’s up 5 percentage points for the same period just five years ago, according to Southfield-based Polk, an automotive market research firm.

The growth in all-wheel-drive sales is due in part to the increasing popularity of crossovers, said Tom Libby, lead analyst for North American forecasting with Polk.

The non-luxury compact crossover segment, which includes the likes of the Ford Escape and Toyota RAV4, had grown to 13.6 % of the industry through September of this year, compared to 9.3 % in the same months in 2008. The luxury compact crossover segment — the Acura RDX and BMW X3, for example — grew to 1.2 % through September, compared to 0.3 % in the same period in 2008, Polk said.

Libby expects the popularity of crossovers and all-wheel-drive vehicles will increase, especially as automakers offer crossovers that are smaller even than compact SUVs.

Honda next year is slated to begin selling a crossover similar to its Honda Urban SUV concept, which is smaller than the Honda CR-V. Chrysler Group’s Jeep plans to bring a subcompact crossover to the U.S. late next year or in early 2015, and Libby said Toyota and Ford are considering offerings.

Some luxury automakers, including Jaguar and Audi, have had double-digit retail sales gains of all-wheel-drive vehicles in the past five years, according to Edmunds.com.

All Land Rovers sold in the U.S. are four-wheel drive. To meet customer demand, Jaguar started offering all-wheel drive in the U.S. on 2013 XF and XJ sedans, said Wayne Kung, national product communications manager for Jaguar Land Rover. Jaguar’s U.S. sales were up 40.6 % year-to-date through November.

“The availability of all-wheel drive and newer, smaller, more efficient engines has allowed us to increase our sales,” Kung said.

Audi, whose Quattro all-wheel-drive technology is more than 30 years old, says 88 % of its U.S. sales last year were all-wheel drive. Audi’s U.S. all-wheel-drive rate has been higher in the past, but the brand introduced a couple of base models without all-wheel drive last year for customers — many in Sun Belt states — who wanted front-wheel drive, said Brad Stertz, Audi corporate communications manager.

And brands such as Subaru, whose sales were up 28.3 % through November, are known for all-wheel-drive capability. All-wheel drive is standard on all Subarus except the BRZ sports car.