What’s the difference between 4WD and AWD?

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A man appears to be lifting the rear end of a car into the air, when in actuality it has been driven halfway into a small roadside ditch. It is a great way to show off his Land Cruiser's 4WD underbelly.

So is that a 4WD or AWD? And are you Superman? (Photo: Flickr)

Whether you’re in the market for a car, SUV or pickup, you’ve likely come across this question at one point or another: What’s the difference between 4WD and AWD? Both distribute power to all four wheels of a standard vehicle, as opposed to the standard front- or rear-wheel drive of 2WD vehicles. If you live in an area of the country where you’ll be driving in mud and snow, the added power of either system is valuable. However, many consumers don’t know the difference between the two.

4WD or AWD could save you, even though they cost more

While a vehicle with either system is more expensive than a two-wheel drive vehicle, you’re much less likely to find yourself stranded on the road during less-than-optimal driving conditions, whether caused by weather or environment. The choice belongs to buyers: get larger auto loans for the added security of 4-Wheel-Drive or All-Wheel-Drive, or go for something less. With a little help from How Stuff Works, the following summary may help you decide between the 4WD or AWD option.

Part-time 4WD – throw the switch only when necessary

In attempting to answer what’s the difference between 4WD and AWD, start with part-time 4WD. This is the basic 4WD setup offered by many vehicles; it includes a switch that alternates between 2WD and full-power 4WD. As long as the 4WD setting is avoided on dry pavement, excessive mechanical wear can be avoided. Some vehicles in this class have a simple 2WD/4WD toggle, and some have added options like 4WD High and 4WD Low (the latter of which should only be used in extreme off-road scenarios). Newer part-time 4WD vehicles allow the driver to shift from 2WD to 4WD High while the car is moving but must be at a complete stop before moving from 2WD to 4WD Low. Older part-time 4WD vehicles must be stopped before any such shift can occur.

If you only need 4WD on occasion, then part-time 4WD is for you. Frequent changes in driving conditions that would necessitate a constant switch between 2WD and 4WD are both inconvenient for the driver and add wear and tear on the drive train.

Full-time 4WD – when you want to keep it running

This is a more advanced form of 4WD that can be left on without placing undue strain on the drive train. High and Low settings are available, as well as an automatic 4WD. Shifting from High to Low while in 4WD will require that the vehicle be at a complete stop (with most vehicles). Those drivers who drive under adverse situations more often can avoid the tedious 2WD/4WD switching and go with this full-time 4WD option.

AWD – 4WD without the switch

All-wheel drive sends power to all wheels of the vehicle in a similar fashion to four-wheel drive vehicles, but a 2WD switch is typically not present. On a slippery road, AWD locks the vehicle’s axles and automatically feeds power to all wheels. Most AWD vehicles are great for slippery roadway conditions, but are not intended for rugged off-road excursions. Certain AWD vehicles such as the Dodge Durango and Toyota 4Runner do offer a low-gear AWD setting that allows for tougher roads, however. In general, AWD doesn’t add much weight to a car and is great for all weather situations.

Which is safer: 4WD or AWD?

Both tend to maximize traction over a 2WD, but How Stuff Works advises: that doesn’t mean 4WD and AWD are automatically safer. Drivers should keep in mind that while 4WD and AWD help acceleration, they do not help with cornering and braking. On wet, snowy roads, it matters little whether you have a 4WD, AWD or 2WD vehicle when it comes to maneuvering and stopping. Using the right set of tires, having good brakes and a fine suspension are more important in that case.


(Photo Credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/torrelodones/ / CC BY-ND 2.0)

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  1. Hi! on

    Now I definitely get it! Thanks