What’s the Difference Between 4WD and AWD? 

If you’re after a vehicle that has All-Wheel Drive (AWD) or Four-Wheel Drive (4WD), your choices are becoming increasingly available as over 50% of new vehicles sold in the U.S. have either of these choices. These systems are improving all the time and the difference is becoming less, but on the used car market there are still differences for different purposes. Whether it’s for off-road adventures, towing trailers or working on the ranch, you need to know the difference between AWD and 4WD and which is suited to your needs. So let’s take a look at the advantages and disadvantages of each.

All-Wheel Drive (AWD)


There are two types of drive-trains at work here. The first actually does as the name suggests – drive all four wheels continuously which some refer to as ‘Full-Time AWD’. The second drive-train is often referred to as the ‘Part-Time AWD’ or ‘Automatic AWD’ which operates in either front-wheel or rear wheel drive mode (depending on the vehicles drive system set-up). This means that power is delivered to all four wheels only when traction control is needed. They often operate without any input from the driver, although some vehicles offer selectable modes which allow a certain degree of control over how much power goes where. AWD works well in a variety of wet-weather conditions from rain, snow and mud, as well as speed and handling in rally racing for example. What people don’t realize when buying an AWD vehicle is that the AWD only improves traction to help the vehicle accelerate, it has no effect on the braking or handling of the car in slippery conditions. The brakes and handling are no different than if you were driving a two-wheel drive. AWD is available on a range of vehicles from an Audi TT to the Subaru Impreza, Volvo S60, Toyota Prius, Hyundai Kona, and Ford Escape to name a few.

Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)


The first image that comes to mind of a 4WD is of a utility truck with high ground clearance, a shielded underbody and huge tires. While that’s true, it can also now be found on more luxurious vehicles and a wider range of models as it becomes more sophisticated. Designed to maximize traction for both front and rear wheels, 4WD is more robust and can generally handle much rougher terrain. Traditional systems you may come across when purchasing a used vehicle have a two-speed transfer case containing high and low range modes which are offered by either a mechanical lever or electronic switch. The low-range setting provides maximum traction in low-speed, off-road environments while the high-range setting is useful for less challenging off-road situations as well as slippery road conditions or loose gravel or sand. Often, these vehicles offer a much more rigid ride and cost more to fill at the gas station. Anything from the Chevrolet Silverado and Ford F-150 to the Mercedes Benz ML 350 4matic, Land Rover Range Rover Sport HSE, or even the Honda Crosstour could be options for your next 4WD vehicle.

So it boils down to this: If you want to go off-roading for adventure, work in extreme weather conditions or on harsh rugged terrain, go for a 4WD every time. If you prefer a vehicle that provides traction when needed in average weather conditions, light off-road adventures, want to experience a little rally track driving, or the ability to choose a smaller car with the option and advantage of choosing to power all four wheels when it’s required, then the AWD is perfect for you.

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