If you have been put off by the idea that all-wheel drive is expensive and causes a huge fuel-economy penalty, know that things have changed. The systems continue to get lighter and less expensive while operating more seamlessly, and in some cases the difference in fuel economy can be next to nothing. But there are some key factors to consider before deciding whether or not you want all-wheel drive.

Is it Worth the Money?

Most people that live in the "smile states," places like Florida, Texas, Georgia, Alabama and much of the Southwest (they take the shape of a smile on the map) aren't going to need all-wheel drive nearly as often as elsewhere in the country. This can mean a potential money savings. However, there is plenty of inclement weather in all of these states, so you have to consider what the weather is like in your region before deciding whether to invest in all-wheel drive. It comes in handy during winter months, where it adds safety and confidence when driving through snow and on ice, but you do pay a fuel-economy penalty. But even the fuel-economy penalty isn't cut-and-dried, as you will see below.

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In sunnier weather, AWD adds more traction on dry surfaces, improving handling and performance on twisty roads. If you're someone who enjoys a spirited weekend drive where the tires may squeal, all-wheel drive can add a lot to the experience.

What AWD Feels Like

Chrysler, Dodge, Ram and Jeep gave us the opportunity to try out their all- and four-wheel-drive models at a recent event near Montreal, Canada (22 of their 45 models are offered with all- or four-wheel drive). At the closed course where we tested out the cars, the weather was appropriately cold and blustery: it was -2 degrees Fahrenheit with an occasional breeze. The entire course had a few inches of snow covering a thick sheet of ice,  the perfect testing ground for winter driving.

I don't drive in snow very often, but I felt more comfortable driving on ice in the AWD vehicles. The best part about it is that you can't tell when the newer systems are working. I drove slower than on dry, clear roads, of course, but in vehicles like the Chrysler 200, sensors allow the all-wheel-drive system to kick in before the tires slip. The car felt as if it was on a normal surface, and it took driving one of the available two-wheel-drive cars to appreciate the amount of grip an all-wheel-drive system provides. It's very easy to take this technology for granted. There were also cars there with older systems, which need the tires to slip a little before all-wheel drive kicks in. These didn't feel as seamless as the newer systems, but still work very well in snow and ice.

In addition to seamless performance, the newer systems add another benefit by disconnecting the rear drive portion when not needed. This means that the difference in fuel economy around town can be as little as 1 mpg. With the capability of newer systems to work before the driver can feel the tires slip, their compact size and the fuel economy gains, it's no surprise that AWD is increasing in popularity.

AWD Versus 4WD

In most cases, all-wheel drive will give you all the traction you need. But when it comes to more serious off-road adventure or really nasty weather, 4WD may be what you're looking for. The difference is that the latter are often a combination of mechanical components with electronic aids, but it depends on the vehicle and the particular system. If you are going to drive in deep snow or mud, through loose sand, traverse rough roads or trails or even launching a boat off a ramp, you may need the added capability 4-wheel drive offers. These systems usually have a mode that not only locks in the drive to all four corners, but also may offer a low range for rock crawling or traversing muddy or sandy surfaces.

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Another portion of our closed course was a more off-road-biased area, with hill climbs and deep ruts, and off-camber turns. We tried out varying levels of 4-wheel drive, from systems that were closer to AWD in the way they functioned, up to the granddaddy of them all, the Jeep Wrangler. All of the 4WD systems excelled on the off-road course, but the Wrangler stood out with its effortlessness. Its short wheelbase, high ground clearance and seemingly unstoppable suspension and 4-wheel drive made off-roading a walk in the park. It's no wonder the classic Jeep is still so popular today.

Should You or Shouldn't You?

This isn't a question with a simple answer. You have to consider the weather where you live, how bad the road conditions are and whether the added cost of an all- or 4-wheel-drive system is in your budget, both at the dealership and at the gas station. Fortunately, as these systems continue to improve, the cost difference between cars with all-wheel drive and those without has narrowed significantly.

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