These days, automakers are offering more sophisticated all-wheel-drive systems than ever. The advancements in this area are in many ways good news for car buyers looking for cold-weather and off-road vehicle capabilities. But there can also be a lot confusion, especially with the growing number of technologies across dozens of manufacturers. The bottom line is, every AWD system is different. Here's a rundown of four of the most well-engineered systems on the market today.

Subaru Symmetrical All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive has always been synonymous with Subaru. Unlike many setups that are adapted from 2-wheel drive, Subaru's symmetrical system starts out and remains in this format, intended to provide power continuously to each wheel in all conditions. True to its name, symmetrical AWD is exactly that: symmetrical. This unique hardware balance gives Subaru vehicles greater on- and off-road stability due to the setup's even weight distribution. The main advantages of this system are balance, control and traction, making it a favorite in cold-weather climates.

Audi quattro

Audi quattro is the most noteworthy of all-wheel-drive systems among upscale carmakers. Its goal, like other setups, is to provide increased traction and grip. But because it derives from a performance application, quattro is very much a delivery system for an overall sportier driving experience. This highly sophisticated system responds almost instantly to variances in individual wheel speed and then sends more power to the wheels that have the most traction. The result is exceptional cornering and optimized acceleration. In addition to its performance attributes, quattro is very capable in wintry conditions. It uses a number of advanced electronic control systems that together create an advantage over other all-wheel-drive technologies. But expect to pay more than others, as well.

Acura Super Handling All-Wheel Drive (SH-AWD)

Although Acura's SH-AWD is very capable in snowy or wet conditions, the system is best known for its torque vectoring formula, which elevates cornering prowess. By channeling as much as 70 percent of power to either the front or rear axle -- and then also to the individual rear wheels -- SH-AWD greatly reduces the chances of losing traction through corners. An acceleration bias is given to the outside rear wheel over the front wheels, which essentially mimics 4-wheel steering and keeps the car pointed in the right direction. The end result is you stay on the pavement instead of sliding off of it.

Ford's Intelligent All-Wheel Drive

Sending up to 100 percent of power to the front or rear wheels helps make Ford's Intelligent All-Wheel Drive a real asset in snowy or wet weather. This transfer of power results in better traction all the way around. And to optimize road grip and handling even more, this tech-savvy setup can assess road conditions 20 times faster than the blink of an eye and adjust to any changes in the road surface almost instantly. This system also compensates for oversteer and understeer to make the vehicle more stable and predictable through cornering maneuvers. 

Whether you're looking for more all-weather capability or better overall handling and performance, a competent AWD system is the answer to a more sure-footed drive -- especially in colder climates. For winter driving, all four of the systems we outlined are outstanding. But if you're looking for a real performance edge and don't mind paying the premium, Audi's quattro is hard to beat.

author photo

Jessica Shea Choksey is an automotive journalist and former writer/reporter for the PBS/Discovery Channel television series "MotorWeek." She began her career in journalism as an editor for numerous magazines and publications mainly outside of the automotive field. Jessica currently resides with her family, in Southern California.

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