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AWD vs 4WD - What's the Difference?

By Autolist Staff | October 17, 2018

One important option when choosing a new vehicle you'll be driving in bad weather revolves around how much traction it has. 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 your car travels on dirt or gravel roads.

Vehicles come in various configuration including front-wheel drive, rear-wheel drive, four-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD), each one a different way to apply traction to the ground. For the most traction control, you'll want either AWD or 4WD, but those terms are often confused. We'll help shed light on what each one means and why it's an important decision factor for your next purchase.

AWD vs. 4WD: Similarities

Traction control systems, required on all model cars 2012 or newer, gauge how much power each wheel gets when you're driving. This automatic, computer-controlled system works by adjusting how the wheels turn based on changing road conditions. The idea is to prevent tires from slipping during acceleration and deceleration. Traction control systems help your car stay on the road.

All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive are similar in many respects when it comes to traction control. Vehicles equipped with either option send power all four wheels when you hit the gas. In a two-wheel 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. This 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.

When all four tires receive power, you have better towing ability on your truck or SUV. One situation that works well with this system is if you have a boat you put in at a boat ramp. Your truck or SUV has a much easier time accelerating out of the boat ramp, at an incline, when all four wheels get power at the same time. Consider purchasing an all-wheel or four-wheel drive vehicle when you tow a fifth-wheel camper down dirt or gravel roads in the wilderness or along back roads. Otherwise, you may find it hard to get out of your prime camping spot.

You'll also want to consider buying a vehicle with all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive if you regularly drive on dirt or gravel roads. When rain turns that dirt to mud, having power to all four wheels helps prevent you from getting stuck in the mud. Having power to all four wheels can help keep you from getting stuck in snow on rural roads that don't get plowed.

It's clear that having a car that delivers power to all four wheels is a great feature for getting out of tight spots. How vehicles utilize all-wheel drive vs. 4-wheel drive represents the main difference between the two systems.

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. Driving fast in a 4WD low setting can break certain components on your axles. Full-time 4WD engages power to all four wheels all of the time. A part-time system engages four-wheel drive in extreme conditions.

Vehicles with 4WD may say "four-by-four" or "4x4" in their sales materials. When shopping for 4WD vehicles, think of a Jeep Wrangler or Toyota Land Cruiser. You're ready to tackle Yosemite National Park's back roads or some serious off-roading with a four-wheel drive vehicle as you climb over boulders, ford a remote stream or traverse a mountain pass.

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. Called brake vectoring, many modern cars have this system to improve handling in all types of weather conditions.

Under normal driving conditions, most 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 try 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 it first starts raining or if you have light snow on the road.

You typically find AWD options on road-going sedans, wagons, SUVs and crossovers. Anything from a Dodge Charger and Subaru WRX to a Mazda CX-3 and Toyota RAV-4 all have AWD systems. These vehicles adapt to road conditions as they change and make your transit to and from home safer.

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. Traction control does not help your car steer better, brake more efficiently or take corners better. Even with top-of-the-line traction control systems, drivers must still remain completely alert during bad weather conditions. You should still drive carefully at all times. Please don't have a false sense of security when it comes to robust traction control on your vehicle.

Things to Consider

When deciding on AWD vs. 4WD in your vehicle, take into account some factors before making a purchase. Because components of four-wheel and all-wheel drive systems add weight to a car, fuel economy dips by about 1 to 2 miles per gallon, which comes to around 5 or 10 percent. 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 $1,300 on a Honda CR-V or $3,500 on a Ford F-150 pickup equipped with 4WD or AWD. 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 at regular intervals, repairing the differentials cost 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 when it comes to AWD vs. 4WD before buying a car.

Overall, you must weigh the safety 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 vs. AWD, automakers keep improving these systems with each new model year. These options are just one of many factors to think about when buying your next car, so take your time and choose a vehicle that fits your lifestyle.