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AWD vs 4WD Differences Explained

By Zac Estrada | August 20, 2021

Vehicles come in various configurations, including front-wheel-drive (FWD), rear-wheel-drive (RWD), four-wheel-drive (4WD), and all-wheel-drive (AWD), each a different way to apply traction the ground.

Here's a rundown of each system and an explanation of their differences that could help determine what to look for in a new car.


AWD vs. 4WD: Similarities:

All-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive are similar in many respects when it comes to traction control. Vehicles equipped with either option can send power to the front and rear axles to provide power to all four wheels, usually determined by sensors that establish which set of wheels have the most traction.

In a two-whee-drive vehicle, either the front or back wheels turn when you put your foot on the accelerator, but not all four. AWD and 4WD cars generally accelerate better in slippery conditions compared to two-wheel-drive cars. It comes in handy when it rains and snows. Think about getting an all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicle in hilly areas where your vehicle may have a tough time going up a hill in inclement weather.

Towing is sometimes more manageable with an AWD or 4WD vehicle, too, especially on slick boat ramps or when navigating dirt or gravel roads, such as to a campsite.

While front-wheel-drive vehicles typically don't have much trouble on dirt or gravel roads, throwing in rain or snow can make even a basic all-wheel-drive system an asset. When rain turns that dirt into mud, having power going to all four wheels helps prevent you from getting stuck in the mud. In addition, the ability to manage where power goes can help keep you from getting stuck in snow on rural roads that don't get plowed.

But even with AWD or 4WD, tires can make a difference. Performance or summer tires will offer limited traction on slippery surfaces no matter where power is being sent.

4WD vs. AWD: Differences:

4WD

Four-wheel-drive equally distributes accelerating power to all four wheels at the same time. Drivers have direct control over four-wheel-drive, usually by pushing a button or flipping a switch on the dashboard or gear shift. Once activated, a light appears on your dashboard showing that this system is active.

Some vehicles have part-time 4WD or full-time 4WD, and some systems allow the driver to set low and high ranges for this feature. A Low setting often works for dirt roads on dry conditions driving slowly, while a high setting optimizes traction during wet and slippery conditions on a paved road at higher speeds. Moving quickly in the 4WD Low setting can break certain components. Full-time 4WD engages power to all four wheels all of the time. A part-time system engages four-wheel-drive in extreme conditions.

Even among 4WD or 4x4 vehicles, there are differences in abilities. Tires and ground clearance, wheel articulation, and approach and departure angles are also important if off-roading is a priority. In addition, among models like the Ford Bronco, Jeep Wrangler, and Toyota Land Cruiser, there can be some changes between trim levels that can affect off-road performance, such as with tires and shock absorbers. Some cars like the Mercedes-Benz G-Class offer physical settings for the front, rear, and center differentials for extra traction in the most arduous situations.

However, full-size and large SUVs like the Cadillac Escalade and Lexus LX 570 also have low-range settings, but their suspension systems and wheel and tire packages often preclude serious venturing off the pavement.

AWD

All-wheel-drive vehicles automatically adjust to driving conditions and slippery traction instead of constantly applying power as in four-wheel-drive. Cars do this physically, with transfer cases and differentials on each axle, or electronically by applying the brakes on one or more wheels. Sensors on each wheel monitor traction and wheel speed hundreds of times per second and transmit information to the car's computer. Some vehicles have a torque or brake vectoring system to improve handling in all types of weather conditions and provide more responsive handling on twisty roads.

Under normal driving conditions, even most full-time AWD systems send power to just two wheels, either the front or back. When the car detects slippage in a wheel, it sends power to that wheel to find better traction. AWD vehicles don't need the driver's input to activate, unlike manual 4WD options. If there's ever a problem with your all-wheel-drive system, a warning light may show up on the dashboard, alerting you to a potential problem. AWD systems are ideal when you have rapidly changing conditions, such as when rain or snow starts to appear on the road surface.

AWD is a common option on crossover SUVs such as the Honda CR-V and Toyota RAV4 and luxury cars. Audi and Subaru have historically done the best job promoting these systems, and all-wheel-drive is available across their model lines.

What AWD and 4WD Do Not Do:

AWD and 4WD vehicles improve traction on road surfaces. They prevent your car from slipping on roads and getting stuck in mud and snow. No traction control or stability control helps a car steer better, brake more efficiently, or take corners better. Even with top-of-the-line traction control systems, drivers must remain completely alert during bad weather conditions. You should still drive carefully at all times. Please don't have a false sense of security regarding robust traction control on your vehicle.

Things to Consider:

When deciding between AWD or 4WD versus two-wheel-drive, consider that components of four-wheel and all-wheel-drive systems add weight to a car, fuel economy dips some, as much as 3 mpg or 10%. Over the lifetime of a vehicle, those fuel costs add up.

Up-front costs of vehicles with all-wheel traction control systems go up. Expect to pay an extra $1,000 on some mainstream SUVs or cars or $3,500 on a Chevrolet Silverado pickup truck equipped with 4WD. Maintenance costs also increase because the differentials on each axle require oil changes that can run anywhere from $40 to $150. If you don't change the oil regularly, repairing the differentials costs more than the oil changes. Repairs may be more complicated with all-wheel-drive systems because they have more electronic components versus four-wheel-drive cars. If finances are a concern for you, do the math and see if the systems are worth the added cost to a monthly payment.

Weigh the security and convenience benefits of AWD and 4WD systems versus the costs before purchasing a vehicle. Improved traction can help keep your car from sliding off of a road and getting into an accident. Living in a place with snowy winters and hilly terrain means investing in a 4WD vehicle, while additional safety during morning commutes, family vacations, and shopping trips means buying an AWD car.

When it comes to 4WD versus AWD, automakers keep improving these systems with each new model year. However, these options are just one of many factors to think about when buying your next car, so take your time and choose the best car for your lifestyle.

History:

Traction is critical because it determines how well your tires stay on the road. When all four tires spin normally while you're driving, your car moves the way it should without any surprises. Good traction comes in handy during inclement weather, less-than-ideal road conditions, and when the vehicle travels on dirt or gravel roads. That's why many buyers turn to some kind of four-wheel-drive system.

Four-wheel-drive was popularized mainly by World War II-era Jeep vehicles and then adapted by Willys-Jeep and its future iterations on civilian vehicles, including station wagons. Yet, it wasn't until the 1980s that the systems started showing up on more mainstream passenger cars from Audi, Subaru, Toyota, Ford, and other brands. Today, it's increasingly common on sedans and hatchbacks, minivans, luxury cars, and, of course, SUVs and trucks.