If you’re in the market for a new car and are concerned about safety, all-wheel drive (AWD) has certainly come up. But, what is AWD and why would you need it? We cover the benefits and drawbacks of all-wheel drive so you buy your next used sedan informed about this important feature.

What is AWD?

As its name implies, all-wheel drive is a car that has power going to all four of its wheels, all the time. Some cars will deliver more power to the forward wheels during acceleration, however most AWD cars deliver power primarily to one set of wheels at a time – either the front or rear wheels.

How is AWD different from 4WD?

Four-wheel drive (4WD) is typically more powerful than AWD and generally only needed for off-road driving. Most 4WD systems today are either full-time (system stays engaged all the time), automatic (the car automatically switches between 2WD and 4WD as needed), or part-time (the driver manually changes the setting from 2WD to 4WD). They also often have high and low-gear settings. High gear is used for traversing low-traction surfaces such as muddy, rocky or extremely wet paths, while low gear is useful for towing or climbing steep inclines on uneven terrain at very low speeds.

AWD is different from 4WD. It constantly feeds power to all four wheels. How much power depends on what the system senses that each axle needs. The most common ways AWD systems operate is by either directing all of the power to the front wheels until slippage is noticed, at which point it directs power to the rear wheels; or, by always directing some power to the rear wheels and increasing that amount as needed.

What are the benefits of AWD?

For normal road driving, even in inclement weather, an AWD system is sufficient. When a corner is more slippery than you thought, or when you need more traction, such as when having to suddenly speed up into merging traffic on the highway, an AWD system delivers it automatically, without having to worry about engaging 4WD or having your wheels lock up on you. For this reason, AWD is considered safer than 4WD.

What are the drawbacks of AWD?

If you want to off-road, you’ll find it hard to do in an AWD sedan. Additionally, it’s important to remember that AWD is not a fail safe. It won’t turn you into Superman. It also won’t help you turn or break, so you can’t throw caution to the wind when driving with it. If you drive often in wintry, snow-packed conditions, a good set of snow tires could be a good investment.

When does it make sense to buy an AWD sedan?

If you plan mostly to drive on normal surfaces with only occasional, light off-roading, AWD is likely the best choice for you. If you are an off-roading enthusiast, enjoy camping a lot, or have other reason to travel often on unpaved roads, 4WD may be the better choice.

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