AWD vs. 4WD: The Differences Explained

AWD vs. 4WD: The Differences Explained

It's a question that's pretty much on par with your typical riddle with no answer:

Are all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive the same or different?

Given that 99 percent of vehicles on the roads of North America obviously have four wheels, one might easily think the answer would be a definite “yes, they're the same.” Right?

If you caught yourself nodding in agreement, you'll definitely want to keep reading.

In this article we explain the meaning of AWD (all-wheel-drive), 4WD (four-wheel-drive) and we discuss the differences between both and the pros and cons of each, too.

The weather as well as the quality and characteristics of the roads where you plan to operate the vehicle are the most critical factors in determining which drivetrain option – AWD or 4WD – is best for you.

So when deciding between a vehicle with AWD or 4WD, it's crucial to consider the following questions:

How much rainfall does your region typically receive? Is winter extreme enough where you live that snow and ice are commonly found on the roads ? Do you drive on gravel or other unpaved surfaces on a regular basis? How frequently do you drive up or down steep inclines or declines be it paved or unpaved?

What is AWD?

As you might have already guessed, the term “AWD” is an acronym that stands for “all-wheel-drive.” A vehicle equipped with an all-wheel drivetrain sends power from the engine to not just the front or rear wheels but rather to all four simultaneously, moving it either forward or backward.

This in turn allows for better traction and handling in general, especially when road conditions are less than optimal because of weather conditions like rain, snow or ice.

These days, AWD is a fairly common feature on many makes and models of cars, trucks and SUVs. Some automakers, such as Subaru and Audi, actually equip the majority of their vehicles with AWD as a standard feature, while other brands offer both FWD and AWD options of the same model of vehicle.

It wasn't until the last decade or so that AWD technology became more affordable for automakers to manufacture, and so only recently did vehicles that come with AWD as a drivetrain option become as commonplace and popular as they are today.

Because of this, AWD vehicles tend to keep a higher resale value when compared to other autos without AWD, too.

What is 4WD?

4WD stands for “four-wheel-drive” and refers to a car, truck or SUV that also has the ability to send power to all four wheels of the vehicle but only when the driver chooses to do so. The operator must specifically engage the vehicle's 4WD function for it to be activated, usually by way of manually moving a gearshift or lever within the vehicle's cabin.

AWD vehicles, on the other hand, automatically send power to all four wheels continuously as the vehicle's computer deems necessary, usually when it senses the need for increased traction.

The driver does not have to do anything to activate the AWD system, which is not the case with 4WD. This is the most significant difference between 4WD and AWD vehicles.

4WD technology predates AWD by several decades, so it's more common on earlier models of pickup trucks and SUVs.

Vehicles that feature a 4WD option are usually RWD or rear-wheel-drive vehicles by default. That's to say, when the 4WD is not activated, the vehicle sends its power to the rear two wheels only.

Is AWD the same as 4WD?

In short, no, AWD is not the same as 4WD.

While the two drivetrains function similarly, given that both make use of all four wheels to move the vehicle, it's important to note that AWD and 4WD are different drivetrains altogether. The two terms should not be used interchangeably.

AWD is constantly, automatically activated by the vehicle. The driver has no control over whether or not it is engaged, as the vehicle's sensors do this on their own.

4WD requires the operator to enable the system by manually shifting from rear-wheel-drive (“RWD”) or front-wheel-drive (“FWD”) – whichever the vehicle happens to be – into 4WD when needed or desired.

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All-wheel-drive vs 4-wheel-drive: which is better?

Simply put, there's no black-and-white answer to this question. It all depends on the type of driving situations which you most frequently plan to encounter and how you plan to use your vehicle.

In general, 4WD is preferred for serious, heavy-duty off-roading situations, whereas AWD is excellent for maximizing performance all around but not necessarily off-road. Because of this, 4WD is usually more commonly found in larger pickup trucks and SUVs, too.

Some more popular SUVs with 4WD include the Toyota 4Runner, the Jeep Wrangler, the Lexus GX, the Jeep Grand Cherokee, the Nissan Pathfinder, the Ford Explorer and the Mitsubishi Outlander.

As far as 4WD pickup trucks go, among the list of consumer favorites are the Ford F-150, the Toyota Tacoma, the Chevrolet Silverado, the Toyota Tundra and the GMC Canyon.

In most cases, all-wheel-drive vehicles perform better in wet situations. And while AWD vehicles are far superior to their 4WD counterparts in slippery or snowy driving conditions on pavement, they don't hold up as well when off-roading. Because of this, AWD is more typical in smaller SUVs and crossover vehicles as well as certain cars, too.

All-wheel-drive vehicles are particularly good at detecting even minor wheel slips and swiftly adapt. On slick pavement, AWD assists in keeping the car stable, and if and when the wheels start to spin, AWD immediately kicks in to assist.

Some solid options for vehicles that feature AWD include the Subaru Crosstrek, the Subaru Forester, the Audi A4, the Audi Q7, the Ford Fusion, the Dodge Challenger, the BMW X3, the Mazda CX-5, the Honda CR-V, the Toyota RAV4, the MINI Cooper Countryman, the Acura MDX and the Kia Sportage.

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How fast can you drive in a 4WD vehicle versus an AWD vehicle?

Some 4WD vehicles feature systems with various settings, such as 4-Low or 4-High. 4-Low is best for low-speed situations such as rock-crawling or freeing the vehicle should it happen to be stuck in the mud. 4-High is for high-speed scenarios that allows the vehicle to move swiftly over slick surfaces. Having said that, the fastest a vehicle can travel with its 4WD engaged is usually 60 mph.

A word of warning to minimize potential problems: it's best not to drive too fast in 4WD-Low, as this will cause detrimental wear and tear to the system that will ultimately result in costly repairs. To avoid this risk, most newer cars with part-time systems have an automatic deactivation when the vehicle exceeds a particular speed, but older vehicles do not.

In the end, there's unfortunately no clear-cut answer as to which drivetrain is better. That's because the needs of each and every driver vary immensely. So it's essential that you assess exactly how you'll be using your vehicle – in what sort of climatic situations, specifically – before opting for a car, truck, van or SUV with AWD or 4WD.

Whenever you do know which drivetrain option is best for your specific needs, you can buy any of Shift’s cars directly online from the comfort of your home, know it has no hidden issues – thanks to Shift's 150-point inspection – and get a fair, up-front price from the get-go.

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Author
Shift Editorial Team