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I'm contemplating a new vehicle purchase (either a station wagon or small compact SUV), and I've noticed a lot of manufacturers offer AWD as either standard or optional equipment. As I live in Winnipeg with its obvious lack of hills, is this something I should consider? Is AWD worth the extra cost in terms of safety, fuel economy, etc? - Dorothy in Winnipeg

The advent of modern electronic traction control devices such as differential locks and stability systems, combined with vast improvements in tire technology, gives us unprecedented levels of traction in two-wheel-drive vehicles. No amount of technology, however, can provide the traction ability that comes with all-wheel-drive.

The first question is do you need AWD, and second, can you afford it?

AWD won't help with braking, but it should get you moving on slippery surfaces. Just as modern antilock brakes distribute the braking force to the wheels with the most traction when braking, AWD systems distribute power to the wheels with the most traction as you accelerate.

"AWD is typically a choice based on the kind of road conditions you usually encounter. If you're in snowy areas it makes sense, but it's not strictly a safety feature. AWD mainly helps you gain traction in snow. The most important feature, from a safety standpoint, is electronic stability control, which is now standard on all 2012 models," says Russ Rader of the U.S. Insurance Institute for Highway Safety.

Since you're looking for a new vehicle, you'll enjoy the benefit of all the latest automotive safety advancements. Features such as stability control and anti-slip do not render AWD redundant; they all work in conjunction.

There are certainly situations where AWD could enhance your safety in traffic. Imagine pulling out of your driveway after the first summer rain when the roads are slick with oil, and you've misjudged the speed of an approaching vehicle, or you're traveling through a snow-covered intersection and discover another motorist doing the slow-speed-slide of doom towards the side of your car. This feature gives you the ability to accelerate your way out of trouble.

As for your concerns regarding fuel economy, Transport Canada has stated that four-wheel or AWD vehicles consume 5 to 10 per cent more fuel than front- or rear-wheel drives. Logic dictates that there will be a penalty with AWD due to the extra weight and parts that need to be turned. Having said that, according to Subaru, their compact sedan or hatchback 2012 Impreza, for example, is equipped with full-time AWD and provides 5.5 to 5.9 litres/100 km on the highway. That fuel rating is certainly competitive when compared with a regular 2WD.

Before making a purchase decision, you'll want to investigate the vehicle fuel ratings and the functionality of each AWD system you're considering. Some, such as Audi and Subaru, continually supply power to all four wheels, while others only engage when slippage is detected.

A vehicle with regular 2WD will always have a lower sticker price than a comparable vehicle with AWD, but again, it comes down to what you can afford, and a cost-benefit analysis. The Honda CR-V is offered standard with 2WD, and AWD is available bundled in a higher trim package. The difference in list price for these options is around $2,000. However, according to Honda's ratings, the variance in fuel economy is negligible.

If you're driving year-round in Winnipeg, and there's a few extra dollars in your budget, for peace of mind go with the AWD.

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