Is all-wheel drive a necessity or a luxury? Certainly Subaru (the all all-wheel drive company) is going to argue that it's a necessity, and it's got the sales and off-road rally championships to back that up. We expect that Mercedes-Benz might tell you that all-wheel drive is a necessity masquerading as a luxury. On the snowy and ice-slicked roads near Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Mercedes invited us to prove their point by driving the 4th generation of 4MATIC, the full-time all-wheel drive system that M-B uses on its passenger cars.

Question: "Why is all-wheel drive better?" Answer: Full-time all-wheel drive means that your engine's power is being sent to all four of your car's wheels. When you've got all four wheels (and tires, of course) bidding to find traction on all road surfaces (from bone-dry asphalt to insane-slippery ice), life gets grippier and sooooo much safer. So it's always better to have four friends trying to keep you in control on the road, rather than just the two front or rear wheels that a non-all-wheel-drive car is stuck slipping with.

On public and private ice roads in the gorgeous frozen dead of Wyoming winter, we slipped and gripped the new 2012 Mercedes-Benz C350 4MATIC Coupe and E350 4MATIC Coupe (both coming in April and starting at $45,245 and $53,175, respectively), as well as an S350 BlueTEC 4MATIC and CLS550 4MATIC (both available now). All four cars carried the secret traction weapon that is the 4th generation of 4MATIC all-wheel drive.

Let's avoid the technical detail of 4th-gen 4MATIC engineering and cut straight through to the benefits. First and foremost, smarter packaging of the transmission and transfer case (the unit that distributes the power) helps cut down weight by about 100 pounds compared to the previous 4MATIC. There's also less friction in the latest system, which means the biggest bugaboo in all-wheel drive - the fuel-efficiency penalty - is virtually non-existent. The 4MATIC E and C coupes return the same fuel economy as their rear-drive counterparts (22 mpg), while the S and CLS 4MATICs only pay a 1-mpg price (18 and 19 mpg). If you gotta have more technical detail, that's why God invented Google.

So how did the 4MATICs impress? Well, logic dictates that the heavier the vehicle, the more help it'll have finding grip. And that did appear to hold true, with the S-Class and CLS digging in better. The E and C coupes also proved themselves, however, and proved 4MATIC to be a slick-surface traction enhancement worth getting to know. Think of it this way - if you live in a wet or icy world, 4MATIC is a necessity in your Mercedes. And if you live in Los Angeles, think of it as a luxury that carries only a little pain at purchase (a $2,000-$3,000 price bump), and a huge boost in confidence if you find yourself driving on a road that has lost its grip.

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