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AWD vs. 4WD

The difference between an all-wheel drive and a four-wheel-drive vehicle can make or break your ability to shred backcountry roads or drive safely in harsh winter conditions. Understanding the benefits and challenges of each is essential when looking to purchase your next ride.

The newer AWD is the most popular option, but for those hoping to conquer trails, 4WD is vital. However, the drawbacks of 4WD can be daunting if you do not fully understand what owning a car with this capability entails.

Four-wheel drive (4WD)

Let’s start with four-wheel drive. Displayed often as 4WD, and sometimes referred to as four-by-four or 4×4, this system’s main distinction is that it’s typically used on vehicles designed and built to handle the unpaved wilderness. This includes rugged trucks and SUVs such as the Jeep Wrangler, Mercedes-Benz G-Class, and the Toyota Land Cruiser.

Andrew Hard/Digital Trends Andrew Hard/Digital Trends

In a nutshell, it’s a system that sends power to all four wheels equally and without vectoring (controlling the division of power delivery between the wheels or axles), meaning each wheel will spin at the same constant rate as all the others. Power flows from the engine, through the transmission, and normally into a device known as a transfer case that divides it between the front and rear axles.

The equal split of power is great for maneuvering through tough and low-traction situations, but it isn’t very friendly on the pavement. Driving a four-wheel-drive car on solid ground can make simple actions like turning around in a tight street very difficult because the wheels are no longer in sync.

Most modern 4WD systems are “part-time” and at the flick of a switch four-wheel drive can be engaged

Imagine yourself doing a u-turn. In a four-wheel-drive car, the inside wheel has to turn more slowly than the outside wheel, which is covering more ground. You might hear a rubbing noise or feel the car hopping when you approach full lock. This is why most 4WD systems are part-time systems that can be disabled. The car operates in two-wheel drive in normal conditions to improve on-road drivability, but still offers four-wheel traction when you need it.

What about part-time vs. full-time?

Most modern four-wheel-drive vehicles are equipped with a part-time system, meaning they operate in two-wheel drive mode in normal driving conditions. The driver can engage the four-wheel-drive system by flicking a switch, pressing a button, or yanking on a center console-mounted lever in low-traction situations.

Mercedes-Benz G-Class
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Some 4x4s feature a transfer case with multiple settings, like 4-Low or 4-High. 4-High limits and vectors available power to the wheels so you can move quickly over slippery surfaces (up to about 60 miles per hour). To get the most available power, however, you’ll want 4-Low, which means 4WD with low-range. This low-range gearbox is for low-speed maneuverability, such as rock crawling or getting unstuck, and is only for such conditions.

You really don’t want to go too fast in 4WD-Low because things will start breaking, and your trip will start getting expensive.

To avoid complexity, a word of advice: You really don’t want to go too fast in 4WD-Low because things will start breaking, and your trip will start getting expensive. Most newer vehicles with part-time systems have an automatic deactivation when the vehicle goes beyond a certain speed to avoid this damage, but older trucks typically do not.

Part-time four-wheel-drive systems generally feature locking and unlocking differentials. Between each axle sits a differential that compensates for wheels spinning at different rates. By locking a differential at a front or rear axle, you are inhibiting any slip from occurring at the axle, forcing each wheel at said axle to turn at the same rate.

4WD pros 4WD cons
Best traction in off-road conditions Adds weight and complexity to cars
Can sometimes be turned off to improve fuel economy Can’t be used in all conditions
Proven, rugged technology More expensive than two-wheel drive models

Full-time four-wheel-drive systems typically don’t come with a two-wheel drive (2WD, or 4×2) mode, so the system is active all the time. It sends power to the four wheels at the same time with limited-slip capabilities. This system is becoming increasingly obsolete because a part-time system makes more sense for most consumers. Most drivers don’t need four-wheel drive all the time.

2016 Toyota Land Cruiser
Image used with permission by copyright holder

Older trucks, such as 1990s Toyota Land Cruisers, have full-time systems. They come with an additional center differential to enable limited slip for better drivability on the road, and the system handles power distribution on its own.

All-wheel drive (AWD)

All-wheel drive is a much more recent innovation, and it’s a little bit more complicated, but also considerably more user-friendly. It crops up on everything from supercars like the Audi R8 to grocery-getters like the Buick Encore. While a four-wheel-drive system tries to send as much power to the four wheels as equally as possible for maximum traction, all-wheel drive is all about varying the amount of power sent to each wheel, either mechanically or electronically.

Think of all-wheel drive as similar to the part-time four-wheel-drive system, except for cars and some crossovers.

All-wheel drive is often associated with road-going vehicles, such as sedans, wagons, crossovers, and even some larger SUVs. Crossovers like the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, and the  Mazda CX-3 tend to fall under the “car” category while SUVs like the Chevrolet Tahoe and the Toyota 4Runner fall under the “truck” category. If you’re confused, we’ve got a guide on how to better understand the differences between crossovers and SUVs.

All-wheel drive is similar to the part-time four-wheel-drive system we just described, except it’s used on cars and crossovers. It’s also completely automated. The system is constantly active, and it needs no activation or input from the driver to work. Most newer all-wheel-drive systems send power to a primarily axle, either the front or the rear, and transfer power away from the slipping wheels when they detect a loss of traction. This helps improve fuel economy. To quote Subaru’s ad campaign, all-wheel drive “transfers power from the wheels that slip to the wheels that grip.”

Image used with permission by copyright holder

All-wheel drive is becoming increasingly common in performance applications, too. The Mercedes-AMG E63 is a perfect example. It is now sold only in AWD in the United States because its 600-plus-horsepower output can overwhelm the rear wheels if they try transferring it to the pavement on their own. Even when we aren’t talking about tire-scorching performance cars, splitting power evenly means added stability in all types of weather.

All-wheel drive does have some clear advantages over 4WD.

AWD isn’t quite as robust as 4WD, and it can’t match the acute power delivery necessary for low-speed off-roading like rock crawling. The maintenance and complexity of these systems can also get extraordinarily expensive, but ensuring they function as intended is crucial to your safety.

All-wheel drive does have some clear advantages over 4WD, though. These days, computers are involved in most AWD systems. Sensors on each wheel monitor traction, wheel speed, and several other data points hundreds of times per second. An engine control unit (ECU) analyzes traction conditions and decides which wheel receives power. This type of system, usually called torque vectoring, appears on everything from the Subaru WRX to the Dodge Charger. Torque vectoring has allowed massive improvements in handling and all-weather capability.

Electrified all-wheel drive

Many electric vehicles (like the Jaguar I-Pace and the Audi e-tron) use what’s called a through-the-road all-wheel-drive system.

2019 Jaguar I-Pace First Drive
Ronan Glon

Each axle gets its own electric motor so the four wheels are always powered but there’s no mechanical connection between the front and the back of the car. This improves traction and performance while helping clear up passenger space in the cabin because there’s no need for a transmission tunnel.

Some plug-in hybrid vehicles use a blend of technologies to achieve all-wheel drive. Take Volvo’s XC90 T8, for example. The 2.0-liter, four-cylinder engine spins the front wheels while an electric motor mounted over the rear axle spins the rear wheels. It’s front-wheel drive when the four-cylinder works on its own, rear-wheel drive in electric-only mode, and all-wheel drive with both power sources up and running.

AWD pros AWD cons
Provides increased grip and control under all road conditions Reduces fuel economy
Gives sportier handling and traction to a broader range of cars Increases the weight and complexity of vehicles
Works all the time Not as good in extreme off-road conditions

Automakers are getting serious about electrified cars, so these through-the-road all-wheel-drive systems will become more common in the coming years.

So, which one do I want?

Ultimately, there’s no perfect answer for everyone because we all have different needs. Depending on where you live, 4WD may be the best choice for you, but it may be unnecessary for someone who lives in a different environment. It’s a good idea to consider how you plan to use your vehicle.

Nothing beats a four-wheel drive in off-road applications. These vehicles can tackle difficult terrain, and there is no substitute for their high ground clearance. In addition, trucks and SUVs often feature low-range gearing and advanced traction control to provide extra grip on the trail.

Their robust construction and larger engines make four-wheel-drive vehicles a popular choice when you need increased cargo area or towing capability. For those looking to pull a travel trailer or haul their recreational gear, a four-wheel-drive truck or SUV is the right tool for the job.

A modern all-wheel-drive system is the safest option in most winter driving conditions because of its instantaneous and automatic responsiveness. Since AWD vehicles have even weight distribution, you’ll swerve and skid less and be able to experience near-normal driving conditions even on snowy and icy roads.

Rainy and winter conditions aren’t the only conditions that all-wheel-drive excel in. They also outperform their four-wheel-drive counterparts in dry conditions with superior cornering and a shorter turning radius. Since AWD vehicles are smaller and lighter than 4WD, you’ll be able to drive them easier on city streets and get more efficient gas mileage.

While all-wheel-drive vehicles aren’t as heavy and rugged as a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can upgrade to winter tires for safer driving on icy roads and even add some traction to your off-road adventures. In the meantime, you’ll enjoy better fuel economy and on-road handling thanks to the efficiency of all-wheel-drive.

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Ronan Glon
Ronan Glon is an American automotive and tech journalist based in southern France. As a long-time contributor to Digital…
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