AWD vs. 4WD

Four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive vehicles are two similar drivetrain options available on modern automobiles. Both options are popular as they provide better traction than standard two-wheel drive vehicles, such as front-wheel drive and rear-wheel drive. When trying to compare AWD and 4WD options, it is important for buyers to understand the differences between the two systems in order to get the right vehicle to meet his or her specific needs.


Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive vehicles, also known as 4WD, provide power to all four wheels. In general, four-wheel drive systems can be locked into or out of four-wheel drive. In the unlocked position, the front and rear axles operate independently of each other. However, when locked the system provides the same amount of force to all four wheels at the same time. Full-time 4WD cars provide power to all four wheels, but the vehicle’s differential allows some variance between wheel speeds to allow the vehicle to be driven safely in good traction. 4WD systems should only be locked in very poor traction conditions, such as when driving off-road or over snow covered pavement.


All-Wheel Drive

All-wheel drive vehicles, also known as AWD, also provide power to all four wheels of a vehicle. Unlike 4WD systems, AWD cars, trucks and SUVs only operate in all-wheel drive. All drive systems provide power to the wheel offering the least resistance to balance the drive across all four wheels. The system monitors the wheels and adjusts torque between wheels as necessary allowing the car to have better traction than a two-wheel drive vehicle. AWD is useful on hard roads in changing conditions, such as falling rain and snow.


Practical Differences

The essential difference between four-wheel drive and all-wheel drive is that when locked, a four-wheel drive vehicle will turn all four wheels with the same force while the all-wheel drive system changes the force between wheels based on each wheel’s level of traction. As a general rule, four-wheel drive is for the worst driving conditions, but all-wheel drive is a better all-around choice. With all-wheel drive, the vehicle is constantly monitoring traction levels and works to compensate for any changes. With four-wheel drive, the driver needs to consciously lock the system into place when needed.

While there is no dispute that four-wheel drive vehicles are the best in the worst driving conditions, most people will never drive their vehicle off of the pavement. For general daily driving, the all-wheel drive system is the most advantageous for the average driver. However, if the vehicle will be driven off-road or in areas with severe winters, four-wheel drive should be considered.