“I’ll be happy to come pick you up and drive you around when it snows,” my new friend gallantly offered.

“What do you mean?”, I said, perplexed.

“That little car of yours won’t be able to get anywhere here in Colorado in the winter,” he explained confidently.

He meant that my fuel-efficient subcompact is too small and lacks AWD. Having just arrived from my hometown in the Great Lakes snowbelt, I raised an eyebrow and said, “I doubt that.”

Colorado gets its share of snow storms and there is no doubt that AWD is a helpful feature, but is it worth paying extra and giving up fuel efficiency? Was my friend right? Do you need it?

What is AWD?

Actually, I had never even heard of AWD until I started selling cars. I had seen vehicles with Four-Wheel Drive (4WD), like snowplows. As this very thorough article from Edmunds.com explains, AWD and 4WD have many things in common, but aren’t quite the same.

AWD sends power to all four wheels, but the computer makes all the decisions, leaving the driver with little to do but steer. The vehicle may send power to all four wheels all the time or it may only run two of them until it encounters something hard to navigate, depending on the engineering of the vehicle. AWD is usually found in commuter vehicles rather than work or sports vehicles.

Like AWD, 4WD sends power to all four wheels, but the driver has more control over when it operates. 4WD can be more powerful than AWD but makes the ride less smooth. You’ll most often see 4WD on vehicles with high clearance that are meant for working or playing in rugged conditions.

Benefits of AWD

The job of AWD is to increase traction and keep the car from sliding in wet or snowy conditions. It will help you accelerate, climb hills and turn slippery corners.

This works better in some vehicles than others. Watch this Consumer Reports video where they compare a 2015 Honda CRV, Subaru Forester and Toyota Rav 4 to see what I mean.

Disadvantages of AWD

AWD costs more. Some vehicles include it on the standard model and others offer it as an option, but either way you’re going to pay for it.

AWD also uses more energy than front or wheel rear drive and will decrease your gas mileage. Unlike 4WD, you can’t simply choose not to use it. The car makes that decision for you.

Finally, people often don’t realize that AWD does not help you stop. It’s easy to forget that since the car is handling well in the snow otherwise. AWD will start your car rolling at an icy intersection, but the laws of physics take over when you hit the brakes. The AWD and anti-lock brakes may keep the car from skidding, but you must remember that you’ll need more stopping distance or you may find yourself careening into the vehicle ahead of you.

My Favorite Alternative

Despite growing up in a place where snow landed on the ground in November and didn’t melt until May, I never drove a vehicle with AWD or 4WD. Even now, I get around just fine most of the time in my fuel-efficient subcompact.

How do I do that? I have two words for you.

Snow tires.

I can buy four top-quality snow tires for my little car for about $1000 and get anywhere I want to go. I first discovered these in Cleveland and tested them on an unplowed side street that was a virtual lasagna of ice and snow layers. My usual all-season tires handled these conditions by driving as if it were on ice skates, gracefully gliding from side to side. I wanted to see how the snow tires would change that.

I bravely accelerated to about 25 mph on the empty street and hit the brakes.

The car stopped casually, as if nothing momentous had happened and a lifelong fan of snow tires was born.

Snow Tires

If you really want to get the most out of your AWD, add snow tires in the winter. Most people never think of this, but they will make your commute significantly safer in a snowstorm. Unlike AWD, snow tires stick to the road and help you stop.

I didn’t come up with that on my own. Consumer Reports data shows that vehicles with and without AWD perform better with winter tires.

If you don’t want to spend the extra money to get AWD, consider putting some snow tires on in November and taking them off in April or May. You’ll save money over time and spend less time at the fuel pump.

If you’re not sure what kind of vehicle is the best for your needs, come in and see us at AutoSearch. We can help you sort through leasing or buying options and decide what you really want. Whatever you do, don’t let anybody tell you there is no choice but to buy an AWD car in Colorado. Especially if they’ve never lived near the Great Lakes.