Do I need all-wheel drive for the winter?

All-wheel drive vehicle in snow


The recent winter storms that hit large parts of the country may have you considering all-wheel drive (AWD) for your next vehicle. You may also be wondering just how much of a difference these systems can make, and if the added cost is worth it. The following pros and cons list should help with answers to those questions, but, firstly, it’s important to know that all-wheel drive is different from four-wheel drive (4WD), and how it differs.

Without getting technical, AWD is a light-duty system typically found in cars and car-based SUVs, while four-wheel drive is a heavier-duty capability, generally used in trucks and truck-based SUVs. They have different ways of delivering power to all four wheels, and 4WD versions have low-range settings that enable drivers to go through rugged terrain.

So, if you’re not into serious off-roading but are interested in more traction, you’ll probably be looking at AWD rather than 4WD.


Pros of AWD

Improves traction and acceleration – Sending power to each wheel affords AWD vehicles better acceleration than their two-wheel drive counterparts, especially when moving off from a stop on slick surfaces.

Engages automatically – You don’t have to worry about flipping a switch – AWD systems are either continuously in operation or kick in automatically when the wheels slip.

Higher resale values – The additional feature may help your vehicle command a higher resale price in areas where there’s demand, such as those with harsh winters, says Edmunds.


Cons of AWD

Does not improve handling in slick conditions – While acceleration can improve in winter weather, steering and braking will not, Consumer Reports observed during test drives. In those areas, it found winter tires to be more significant. A front-wheel drive car fitted with winter tires performed better in braking tests than an AWD vehicle fitted with all-season tires, for example.

Costs more to run – Fewer miles by gallon, about 1-2 mpg according to Edmunds, will increase your annual fuel costs. Maintenance costs on AWD vehicles can be higher, too.

No heavy-duty towing ability – As AWD is for light duty, serious towing is not an option. You’ll need a 4WD truck or SUV for that.

Premium price tag – Buyers pay extra for a vehicle fitted with all-wheel drive technology, to the tune of a few thousand dollars.


An all-around decision

All-wheel drive has some strong advantages for winter driving but it’s worth considering the full picture when making a decision. That includes the value of winter tires, which have been shown to make more of a difference in terms of handling than AWD alone. They are also cheaper. However, if you live in an area that regularly gets bad winter weather, Consumer Reports and Edmunds agree that all-wheel drive can be a good option, and all-wheel drive with winter tires even better.


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