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All-Wheel Drive: Do You Really Need It?

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author photo by Doug DeMuro June 2013

Many drivers would never choose a vehicle without all-wheel drive. But with today's traction controls and electronic systems, is AWD really necessary? We examined the benefits and disadvantages of AWD for shoppers who may choose the system -- or disregard it -- without thinking twice.

Pro: Extra Traction

There's no question that AWD improves traction. The reason is it allows all four wheels to spin, which can be helpful if two of them are on a slick or slippery surface. It can also be helpful if two wheels are stuck. That's a reality that many drivers in snowy, northern climates have to face. For that reason, we strongly recommend AWD if you live where you often face this type of weather.

Con: Modern Technology?

Can modern technology help a 2-wheel-drive car replace an AWD one? Not quite -- but it's getting there. Many modern cars offer traction control and stability control, which help keep you on the road even in difficult conditions. Most can completely cut power to one wheel, if necessary, or control a vehicle's skid to eliminate the possibility of it going out of control. Also, an ABS helps us stop better than ever -- and it is certainly not limited to AWD cars. This means if you live in an area with more mild weather, it's easier to get by with two-wheel drive.

Pro: Resale Value

Most AWD vehicles offer better resale value than their two-wheel-drive counterparts. There's a reason: AWD costs more up-front, and it makes a vehicle more capable. No, you won't see every penny back if you decide to tick the AWD option box. But your car will be easier to sell when that time comes. Also, choosing AWD means you'll never have to worry about resale if you move to a northern climate.

Con: Cost

While AWD offers improved resale value over 2-wheel drive, it also includes higher cost. For one, it's more expensive to buy initially. Many automakers charge a premium between $1,500 and $3,000 for it. But AWD can also be more expensive to maintain, since it's more complex than 2-wheel drive. That's especially important for shoppers considering a used car that may be out of warranty.

Pro: Peace of Mind

Regardless of where you live, it's likely you get at least occasional bad weather. Whether it's snow, rain or anything in between, you'll certainly sleep better knowing you have AWD when the going gets really tough. For some drivers, that alone is enough to justify ticking the AWD box on a car's options list.

Con: Weight and Gas Mileage

In addition to the extra cost of buying and owning a car with AWD, these vehicles also return worse fuel economy than 2-wheel-drive models. AWD systems must use more energy delivering power to all four wheels, and they are also heavier, which hampers fuel economy further. While numbers aren't set in stone, the Environmental Protection Agency usually estimates AWD cars lose one to two miles per gallon over 2-wheel-drive counterparts.

Summing It Up

Is all-wheel drive for you? If you live in an area frequently hit by harsh winter storms and paralyzed by slick streets, the answer is probably yes. But for those who don't have to deal with such difficult climates, you might not need it as much as you think -- especially since it costs more to buy and lowers your gas mileage.

This image is a stock photo and is not an exact representation of any vehicle offered for sale. Advertised vehicles of this model may have styling, trim levels, colors and optional equipment that differ from the stock photo.
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All-Wheel Drive: Do You Really Need It? - Autotrader