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Is 4-wheel drive worth the money in SoCal?

January 26, 2010 12:00:00 AM PST
Is having all-wheel drive in your car important to you, even though we live in one of the mildest climates in the country? For many the answer is "yes," even if experts say it might not be money well spent."Is it great technology? Is it smart? Does it make a lot of sense? Absolutely, but in our environment I think it's probably something that people could save the money and get the two-wheel drive version and be just as happy," said James Bell, executive market analyst for Kelley Blue Book.

Yet all-wheel drive, also known as four-wheel drive, has become available on lots of different vehicles. It might be a case of today's drivers wanting to be prepared for anything at any time.

"There's kind of that 'just in case' attitude which is so common in the American car-buying process," said Bell.

All-wheel drive is advantageous in two situations: for improved traction in snow and mud, and for better grip during high-performance driving.

Porsche equips the company's high-powered turbo model with all-wheel drive to get its tremendous power to the pavement. And Subaru has been successful at only selling all-wheel drive cars, including the company's sport sedans like the new Legacy and models geared toward adventure, like the Outback wagon.

Four-wheel drive does have its advantages in certain conditions, but there are downsides.

To go from two-wheel drive to four-wheel drive, there's an extra shaft coming from the transmission, an extra differential with two shafts coming off it to run the extra wheels and all the attaching hardware. All of which ends up adding a few hundred extra pounds to the vehicle, meaning a fuel-economy penalty.

Plus, if you keep your car a long time you might have extra maintenance down the road. You'll also spend more for all-wheel-drive up front, from a few hundred to a thousand dollars or more, though on some models you don't have a choice.

On the monetary plus-side, it can have an advantage at trade-in time, but not necessarily around Southern California.

"Something I often suggest to people is if you've got an all-wheel drive in Southern California and you're thinking about selling it, maybe put it on Craigslist in Denver and you might get a better deal for it," said Bell.

So even though all wheel-drive has limited practical value if you're just trekking the freeways every day, it is still OK to have it just because you want it, even if you don't actually need it.