Do I Need All-Wheel Drive?

By Zac Estrada
Last Updated 06/26/2015

All-wheel drive is rapidly becoming a must-have feature for those who have to deal with inclement weather at any part of the year.

Not every all-wheel drive system is created equally, though. And even if your vehicle is an SUV or truck, having AWD logos stuck on the side of it does not necessarily mean it will be invincible against snow, mud or gravel. Here are some things to consider when shopping for an all-wheel-drive-equipped vehicle.

What Kind of System?

Most cars and crossovers have systems labeled "AWD," which is pretty much a setup that is computer controlled and offers little or no driver input. Sensors shift power between the axles and apply brakes to wheels that are losing grip.

Four-wheel drive systems are typically on vehicles with off-road intentions, such as SUVs and trucks. With either a mechanical lever or push buttons, many of these are part-time four-wheel drive systems, which allow you to select between two-wheel drive, as well as high- and low-range four-wheel drive modes.

If your vehicle is equipped with a part-time four-wheel drive and low-range gearing, that means you have to remember to shift out of low range above a certain speed. The system will not automatically disengage and you could damage your drivetrain if left in a crawl mode. Full-time systems typically have an automatic mode that removes the car from low range above certain speeds or when the system realizes you're not on a surface where you're suddenly going to lose grip.

More elaborate all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive setups have pre-set configurations for various terrain, such as snow, sand, mud and rocks. Selecting one of these modes adjusts vehicle settings to determine how to deliver power to the wheels, which will maximize traction and keep you from applying too much power.

How Much Ground Clearance?

If you're looking to tackle rocks, you're not going to do it in a sedan equipped with all-wheel drive. Just because your car can send power to four wheels does not make it an off-roader.

Some SUVs and trucks with four-wheel drive offer air suspensions and adjustable ride heights to balance between ease of entry and tackling steep inclines and big boulders. Even models on conventional springs can offer better ground clearance than models made specifically for on-road use.

Check the vehicle you're considering to see if it fits in with what you need an all-wheel drive system for. If it's just for on-road traction in bad weather conditions, you're unlikely to need skid plates and an air suspension.

Tires Affect Traction

All-wheel drive doesn't automatically mean grip in all conditions, either. Cars and SUVs with sporty pretensions often come with high-performance or summer tires, which are meant for the road and designed for the best possible grip on dry surfaces. But when climates and road conditions change cars with summer tires may not be equipped to handle the elements, even if they are equipped with an all-wheel drive system. In these instances, you'll want all-season or winter tires to cope with wet or snowy surfaces. Traction and braking will be significantly aided.

How Badly do You Need All-Wheel Drive?

If you live in the snow belt, all-wheel drive may sound like a good alternative if you just want to get through your daily commute without hassle. In many situations, that's what the system is best at – especially in cars and crossovers.

For those who want to take their SUV or truck off-road, a four-wheel drive system with locking differentials and a vehicle with good ground clearance is the only way to go.

All-wheel drive definitely has its advantages in predictable and secure handling, so consider if it's a must-have option. However, if you live in a place that rarely sees even heavy rain, you should think twice about adding a system that will be a costly option, especially since it likely means more money spent on fuel and additional long-term maintenance costs.