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All-Wheel Drive and Four Wheel Drive – What’s The Difference

All-Wheel Drive and Four Wheel Drive

Shopping for a new truck or SUV? Then you’ve probably noticed that the terms four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive are used quite frequently. Both terms seem to imply the same function so you might be wondering what are the similarities and differences between all-wheel and four-wheel-drive systems. While both of these drive systems are a means to an end, all-wheel drive is ideal for everyday use while four-wheel drive should be reserved for special occasions. 

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Understanding the features offered on modern cars can be overwhelming. Check out our breakdown of these two systems. 

What Is All-Wheel Drive and How Does It Work?


All-wheel drive is designed for on-road driving. AWD is optimized to send power to both the front and rear axles at the same time, unlike passenger cars which are centered around the front axles. Drivers that live in regions that are susceptible to inclement weather such as snow and rain will benefit most from a vehicle with an all-wheel drivetrain since it provides better traction on wet or slippery roads. 


While the system may vary depending on the auto manufacturer, most AWD drivetrains are regulated by the vehicle’s computer. The AWD drive system can be activated by the driver through the push of a button. Vehicles like the Honda Passport are designed with AWD systems that have different pre-programmed modes for driving in snow, rain, mud, and sand. However, on basic vehicles, AWD is activated automatically when it detects a change in road conditions. When all-wheel drive isn’t required the vehicle operates as it normally would. 


All-wheel-drive systems can provide increased traction by shuffling torque between the rear and front wheels as it’s needed. High-performance vehicles that are equipped with all-wheel drive are able to transfer engine torque all the way to the ground and rely on the AWD to keep the vehicle planted firmly.


Full-Time All-Wheel Drive

In some vehicles, all-wheel drive is in operation at all times. With full-time AWD, both the front and rear axles are moving while driving. This kind of AWD system improves overall handling by ensuring that all the tires are receiving sufficient power while on the road. Full-time AWD provides consistent traction while driving. 

Disadvantages and Advantages of All-Wheel Drive Systems

Perhaps the main advantage of the all-wheel-drive system is its obvious ability to provide traction in a wide range of driving conditions which includes; snow, rain, mud, and sand. Also, AWD is capable of handling light off-roading. The great thing about this system is that most of the time the driver doesn’t have to decide when to engage the system since AWD can sense a loss of traction and power. Full-time AWD systems are constantly operating and providing torque power to the wheels. The system’s ability to distribute engine torque to the front and rear tires help improve fuel efficiency. 


For drivers who enjoy venturing out onto rough off-road terrains, the all-wheel-drive won’t be sufficient. The main drawback to this system is that it comes with a high price tag when compared to vehicles with 2WD. 


What Is 4-Wheel Drive And How Does It Work?

Four-wheel drive has been around a lot longer than AWD. This drive system is also designed to improve traction. Yet, the 4-wheel drive is centered upon the off-road driving experience and is used in extreme situations where there is a complete loss of traction. Four-wheel drive sends equal amounts of torque power to both the front and rear wheels at the same time. 


The four-wheel-drive shouldn’t be used while driving on the pavement. Most 4-wheel drive systems require the driver to activate it or shut it off through a mechanism. In older vehicles, this process is manual. However, modern cars that are equipped with 4WD use a lever, button, or knob to control the system. Some vehicles are even designed with AWD systems that have high and low range settings


When 4WD is engaged, the engine transmits power to the transmission which then distributes that power amongst all the wheels providing increased traction and power on the wheel. Whereas a 2WD vehicle wheels will spin when stuck or driving in extreme road conditions, a 4WD drive vehicle outputs more power to the ground to gain stability. Four-wheel drive is typically reserved for off-road vehicles like the Jeep Wrangler, Ford F-150 Raptor, and even the Nissan Pathfinder. 


Full-Time Four-Wheel Drive Systems

Some vehicles are also equipped with full-time 4WD systems that operate in a similar manner to full-time AWD. Depending on the vehicle, the driver may be able to control how torque power is distributed amongst the axles through the different modes. 

 Disadvantages and Advantages of 4WD Systems

Four-wheel drive systems are highly efficient at handling adverse driving conditions both on the road and off the road which is one of its main advantages. Four-wheel drive systems have been around for decades however in recent years this system has undergone major refinements. Yes, 4WD offers maximum pulling power. 

Unfortunately, a drawback is that 4WD is typically only included in luxury and expensive SUVs and trucks which is why 4WD has a reputation for being expensive. Another noteworthy disadvantage is that four-wheel drive is paired with a heavy-duty suspension that can make for stiff riding quality. As a result, 4WD decreases fuel economy.


AWD VS 4WD – What’s The Difference Between The Two?

Some might describe the difference between the AWD and 4WD like the difference between tequila and vodka. It's important to note that there aren’t any major mechanical differences between the two drive systems. 


Perhaps the biggest difference between AWD and 4WD is that all-wheel-drive systems utilize one set of wheels at a time and only engage the other wheels when a lack of traction is detected. Put simply, the primary difference between the two systems is where the engines transfer torque power. On the other hand, 4WD is constantly using both the front and rear axles. 


All-wheel drive is a term that’s used to describe a vehicle that employs the use of all four wheels to improve road traction. Auto manufacturers refer to AWD as a safety feature. On the contrary, four-wheel drive is used to describe actual off-roading capabilities. 


The method at which 4WD and AWD provide increased traction also varies across systems. All-wheel-drive systems rely on a center differential or a clutch pack coupling to provide torque power amongst the front and back axles. Four-wheel drive systems lock both the front and rear driveshafts so that equal engine torque power is distributed to them both and they rotate at the same speeds. 


Which Drive System Is Better?

When you’re shopping for a new truck or SUV, it all comes down to what’s better, AWD or 4WD? The answer to that question largely depends on the consumer's individual needs. If you’re looking for a daily commuter and you reside in a geographical location where you’ll seasonally experience rain and snow an AWD vehicle may be sufficient. 


If you are an outdoor enthusiast in need of increased functionality and also everyday practicality a four-wheel-drive system will be able to accommodate daily driving and off-road scenarios. 


Midsize sport utility vehicles and trucks with AWD and 4WD are great for individuals who desire to tow and hauling capabilities. If you need to frequently tow really heavy loads then you should go with a vehicle that is equipped with 4WD. Crossovers like the Toyota RAV4, Nissan Murano, and the Honda CRV utilize AWD because they aren’t typically used for towing and hauling loads.


Best of Both Worlds

Some manufacturers have designed vehicles that are equipped with both an all-wheel and four-wheel-drive systems. These vehicles offer the best of both worlds. This feature is typically offered in big trucks as an optional feature. Drivers can switch between AWD and 4WD with the touch of a button. For instance, the 4 Auto Mode activates the all-wheel-drive while the four-wheel drive is turned on with the 4 High buttons. Trucks that have both AWD and 4WD are:


  •  Ford F-150
  • Honda Ridgeline
  • Chevy Colorado
  • Chevy Silverado
  • GMC Sierra
  • RAM 1500
  • Toyota Tacoma


Are 4WD and AWD Vehicles Safer Than 2WD Vehicles?

Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles can be safer than 2WD vehicles in dangerous driving conditions such as when it’s snowing or raining. Both AWD and 4WD are designed to adjust to changing road conditions and are able to provide better traction than 2WD vehicles in such conditions. In a 2WD vehicle, the engine transfers power to just two of the wheels which are typically the front wheels. The rear wheels spin which is why 2WD doesn’t perform well on slippery roads. 


AWD VS 4WD In Snow 

When it comes to snow and ice AWD AND 4WD vehicles aren’t completely immune to its effects. These systems are designed to only aid in accelerating on snow and ice covered roads. Therefore, you aren’t able to turn or stop better than a 2WD vehicle. It’s important to be mindful of this when driving in inclement weather. Even drivers with AWD and 4WD need to increase braking distance when driving on snowy and icy roads. 


If you’re navigating really deep snow and more extreme conditions, a 4WD will be better equipped. Big snowdrifts and icy hills can be difficult for an AWD vehicle to navigate. For light to moderate snow and ice AWD and 4WD vehicles are equally sufficient especially if the vehicle is equipped with quality winter tires. 

What About Fuel Efficiency?

Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles weigh considerably more than 2WD vehicles due to the increased load on the powertrain. AWD and 4WD vehicles consume more fuel than the average passenger car with 2WD. However, depending on the vehicle the addition of 4WD or AWD doesn’t result in a significant increase in fuel consumption. 


Take for example the Nissan Altima 2WD gets 3.1 gallons/100 miles while the Nissan Altima AWD gets 3.3 gallons/100 miles. The fuel consumption is larger vehicles like the Mazda CX-9 or the GMC Yukon. Four-wheel drive vehicles also consume more gas than AWD vehicles. 


Is AWD and 4WD Worth The High Price Tag?

It's no secret that AWD and 4WD vehicles cost considerably more money to own. Complex drivetrains with functionality come with a high price tag which is why manufacturers tend to offer AWD and 4WD as an optional upgrade. Upgrading to a trim level that includes AWD or 4WD can cost a few thousand dollars extra. Luxury automakers like Audi and BMW only design most of their vehicles with standard all-wheel drive. Subaru brand was formulated around only offering vehicles that utilize AWD. 


All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles are all-around great cars. They may be worth the high price tag if you live in a remote area or you reside on the East Coast where the weather can get really bad during the winter months. It’s always good to know that if you need the extra backup in traction that it’s right there waiting for you. A lot of seasoned drivers prefer AWD and 4WD vehicles. 


Common Questions

Q: Which is better: AWD or 4WD?

Both AWD and 4WD provide way better traction than a 2WD vehicle when driving in winter weather. AWD and 4WD can both handle snow and ice covered roads. However, for big snow rifts and icy hills, a 4WD vehicle is highly recommended and more capable. Although an AWD truck or SUV has towing and hauling capabilities a 4WD is more ideal for heavy loads.


Q: Are SUVs and trucks only designed with AWD or 4WD?

SUVs and trucks with AWD and 4WD are dominating the roads. Regardless, automakers are still building standard passenger cars with AWD. Trucks and large SUVs are typically manufactured with 4WD.


Q: Are AWD cars faster?

AWD improves a car’s ability to accelerate on slippery roads safely while decreasing your chances of spinning or skidding. 


Q: Can you drive in 4WD all the time?

4WD isn't designed to be used all the time. It’s only activated or triggered when driving on rugged terrain or when road conditions become slippery or muddy. 


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