If you're looking for a new car, you've probably run across a simple fact: Some cars are 2-wheel drive, while others are 4- or all-wheel drive. So what's the difference? Should you get 4WD just to be safe? Can you use 2-wheel drive in the snow? We've explained the basics of each system, and pointed out the optimal usage for each one. 

4-Wheel Drive and All-wheel Drive  

All-wheel drive and 4-wheel drive are easily confused. The easiest way to tell them apart is that all-wheel-drive systems are always on, and they use electronic sensors to determine which wheel should get a car's power. Four-wheel drive, meanwhile, is usually disengaged -- that is, until you flip a switch or pull a lever to engage it. Then all four wheels turn at the same time. 

So which is better? Well, like nearly everything, it depends. 

If you live in an area with occasional snow and rain, all-wheel drive is probably the right choice. Since you don't have to worry about driving through snow banks, leave the hard work to your car's computers. If they detect the car is sliding, they'll step in -- and you won't have to worry.

But if you live in an area with muddy roads or heavy snow, you'll probably want to go with 4-wheel drive. All-wheel-drive vehicles tend to get stuck in such situations, because sensors have trouble determining exactly where to send power. Four-wheel-drive vehicles don't have that problem. Just throw it in "low" and all wheels turn at the same low speed to power through nearly any obstacle. 

But what if you live in a warmer climate? Should you choose all- or 4-wheel drive anyway, just to be safe? Our answer is, generally, no. While all-wheel drive and 4WD may offer some benefit if the weather gets rough, the systems also add weight and complexity to your car. That means increased tire wear, decreased gas mileage and a greater chance of something breaking under the skin. Instead, we recommend... 

2-Wheel Drive  

Two-wheel drive cars use one of two setups: front- or rear-wheel drive. We recommend 2-wheel drive if you're in a mild climate with little rain or snow. That means places such as Texas, the Southeast or Southern California. Drivers in places with occasional snow, such as the Mid-Atlantic, should decide how comfortable they feel driving in the snow without the assistance of all- or 4-wheel drive. 

Can you drive in the snow without all- or 4-wheel drive? Of course. With modern traction control systems and good tires, experienced drivers should have no trouble steering most 2-wheel drive cars through snow. But we recommend skipping 2-wheel drive if you're a young driver or inexperienced with driving in harsh weather. 

As for the difference between front- and rear-wheel drive, many drivers probably wouldn't notice a thing. But the general rule is that rear-wheel-drive cars are better for performance and worse in bad weather, while front-wheel drive offers improved harsh-weather driving. Front-wheel drive is also typically used in family cars with better fuel economy and less performance.

Don't Forget

As you consider your next car, don't forget about the drivetrain. You don't want to end up stuck on the side of the road with a rear-wheel-drive performance car, or saddled with poor gas mileage in an all-wheel-drive vehicle where you don't need the traction.

author photo

Doug DeMuro has a wide range of automotive industry experience, from work at a Ferrari dealership to a manager for Porsche North America. A lifelong car enthusiast, Doug's eclectic vehicle purchases include a Porsche 911 Turbo, an E63 AMG wagon, an old Range Rover and a Mercedes Benz G-wagen.

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