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Years ago, there were only certain types of vehicles that had all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD), but today there are so many options on the market, how can you tell the difference? Which system is better and which should you choose?

For the answers read below, or for other questions check out our article on how to compare multiple possible car specs and options.

What is the difference between AWD and 4WD?

The difference between AWD and 4WD is becoming more blurred as manufacturers use these terms somewhat interchangeably.

In general, AWD systems power both front and back wheels all the time without the input of the driver.

They can:

  • Automatically vary the amount of power put down to each individual tire
  • Can be controlled either through a variety of systems including:
    • Torque vectoring (using brakes to control the spin of specific wheels)
    • Viscous couplings
    • Multi-plate clutches
    • Differentials and transfer cases that do the work automatically.

Four-wheel drive systems generally power front and back wheels through a system of differentials, transfer cases, and couplings, that the driver can choose to engage or not, in different situations. Four-wheel drive or 4WD systems often work to put down equal power to all four tires to get the most traction. These systems use differentials, transfer cases, locking hubs, and in some cases advanced electronics to put down power.

Generally, 4WD is found on vehicles that are regularly used off-road like pick-up trucks and robust SUVs, while AWD systems are found on everything from cars to SUVs.

Four-wheel drive systems or 4X4 systems tend to require more maintenance than AWD systems.

In addition to these two types of systems, there are also electrified AWD systems. These put electric motors at each wheel. The wheels are not mechanically connected to each other and each motor has its own system that determines how much the wheel is slipping or gripping.

These systems improve performance and make more space for passengers since there is no need for a transmission tunnel under the car. Vehicles that use this system include the Jaguar I-Pace and Audi e-tron. Some hybrids use a combination of traditional AWD and electrified AWD systems, like the Volvo XC90 T8.

How big is the 4WD and AWD market, and why does it matter?

The 4WD and AWD market is huge, and it’s growing.

According to an Edmunds analysis of IIHS Market data, nearly 45% of vehicles sold in the U.S. have either four-wheel drive (4WD) or all-wheel drive (AWD) systems. More than 61% of buyers choose to add AWD or FWD to their new cars if the vehicle comes with the option, and in areas with lots of ice and snow, people choose to add the option at a rate of 90% or more.

Toyota Rav 4 Parked in the desert

In addition, the SUV and crossover market is booming. More than 70% of new cars hitting showrooms in the next four years will be SUVs and crossovers, according to analysts. By 2023, more than 149 crossovers are expected to be on the market, which is 25% more than either trucks or cars.

That all means that there will be more vehicles that offer AWD and FWD options on the market in the coming years and it’s even more important to understand the difference between the two and decide which one is right for you.

What is Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)?

Four-wheel drive or 4WD is a system that gives vehicles more traction in slippery conditions. Other names for 4WD include 4X4.  Four-wheel drive systems can be either part-time or full-time.

These systems allow drivers to engage all four wheels when needed. In general, these systems can handle more rugged terrain than AWD systems and offer high and low ranges for particularly slippery or treacherous situations. Low range generally gives more traction than high range.

A 4WD system generally delivers power through front, rear and center differentials and transfer cases, which helps give them more traction.

There are pros and cons to a 4WD system. The advantages include:

  • Increased control in off-road settings
  • Most capable vehicles that you can buy today
  • Generally, most 4WD vehicles have serious towing power

The cons of a 4WD system include:

  • Generally, these vehicles offer a rougher ride
  • Less fuel efficient than AWD systems
  • Tend to require more regular maintenance
  • Add cost and weight to a vehicle

What is part-time 4WD?

In general, part-time systems are engaged when the driver chooses to use them, part-time. Four-wheel drive is generally only meant to be used in situations where there is low traction— in snow, ice, or off-road.

Part-time four-wheel drive is generally found in trucks and off-road vehicles. Drivers can manually switch between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive. When the vehicle is in two-wheel drive, it is most often driven by the rear wheels.

When the driver decides to engage the 4WD system, they usually do so by pushing a button or shifting a lever. In some cases, the driver can also lock the differentials to further engage the system. A differential sits between each axle to compensate for when the wheels spin at different rates. When a differential is locked, it makes the wheels spin at the same rate.

Vehicles with part-time 4WD systems should not be driven in 4WD on dry, non-slippery conditions. Doing so can destroy the 4WD system.  Most modern 4WD systems automatically disengage past a certain speed to prevent the system from breaking.

Most 4WD systems are heavy and add weight to vehicles, often resulting in slightly less fuel efficiency. They also tend to be more expensive than AWD systems in general.

What vehicles offer part-time 4WD?

There are a number of 4WD vehicles on the market today. These include a mix of SUVs and pick-up trucks.

Chevy Colorado Bison off road

Vehicles with part-time 4×4 systems include:

Be sure to check with the manufacturer or dealer to ensure that you are outfitting your vehicle with the right package to get the part-time 4×4 system you want. In most cases, there is an added cost to get the right set up.

What is full-time 4WD?

Full-time four-wheel drive operates all the time and pushes power to all four wheels continuously. It is similar to an all-wheel-drive system. In some cases, the driver might have the option to control how power is put down.

While there are some full-time 4WD vehicles on the market, this is an older system that is slowly becoming obsolete. No one really needs full-time 4WD on today’s vehicles.  In general, full-time 4WD vehicles do not have a center-locking differential.

What vehicles offer full-time 4WD?

Most older trucks and SUVs have full-time 4WD though there are some vehicles on the market today that still have full-time 4WD.

Jeep Cherokee Trailhawk in Moab

These include vehicles like:

While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it does give you a good idea of some of the full-time 4×4 vehicles on the market. Be sure that you are outfitting any of these vehicles with the right package to get the set-up you want. In most cases, there will be an added cost.

What is all-wheel drive (AWD)?

All-wheel drive or AWD is a system that powers both front and back wheels and automatically adjusts power between different wheels to ensure that traction isn’t lost. The driver generally does not have to do anything to engage an AWD system.

There are two types of AWD systems; part-time and full-time. Both full-time and part-time AWD systems use advanced technology to detect when a wheel is slipping. The technology then makes the correct adjustments to ensure that the wheel that was slipping begins to grip again.

There are pros and cons to AWD. The advantages include:

  • Driver doesn’t have to manage the AWD system—it is done by the computer
  • Many choices of vehicles with AWD
  • Less maintenance than 4WD systems (in general)
  • Most AWD systems help make vehicles more fuel efficient

The cons of an AWD system include:

  • Not nearly as capable as 4WD vehicles
  • AWD generally adds cost to a vehicle you buy
  • AWD generally reduces a vehicle’s fuel economy when compared to two-wheel drive vehicles

What is part-time AWD?

Part-time AWD systems are also known as automatic AWD. These systems work in two-wheel drive most of the time, and only send power to all four wheels when the system detects a need for more traction.

Part-time AWD systems are not always on. In general, this gives part-time AWD vehicles better gas mileage than those with always-on AWD systems.

What is full-time all-wheel drive (AWD)?

Full-time AWD systems drive all axles all the time. These kinds of systems help vehicles feel more connected on dry pavement and help put down more power. It also helps prevent slipping in less ideal conditions like snow, ice, or rain.

Full-time AWD systems are always on.

What vehicles offer AWD?

There are many, many vehicles on the market today that offer AWD.  In some cases, you must option the vehicle to include it, while others come standard with AWD systems. Vehicles with AWD can be sports cars, sedans, and wagons, or SUVs and crossovers.  In general, pick-up trucks have 4WD systems.

Here is a short list of a few of the vehicles that offer AWD systems. This is by no means a complete list of the current vehicles on the market that offer these features.

Audi A8 parked on racetrack

AWD vehicles include:

Various trim levels and packages provide part-time or full-time AWD systems. It always makes sense to check with the dealer before ordering to ensure you are getting precisely what you want out of any vehicle you choose.

Which is better? 4WD or AWD?

The short answer to which is better, four-wheel drive or all-wheel drive is that it depends on what you need and where you live.

If you live in a place that gets lots of snow and ice, AWD should suffice since these systems are generally much better at handling slippery conditions. AWD is generally better in snow.

If you are driving in a blizzard or extremely icy conditions and chains are required, it is generally recommended to put chains on your vehicle whether you have 4WD or an AWD vehicle. To determine the chain set up you should use, you need to check your individual vehicle’s user manual.

If you want to do a lot of off-roading and get off the beaten path or towing, a 4WD vehicle might be the right choice for you. All-wheel drive is more widely available than 4WD and can come on all kinds of vehicles. Four-wheel drive is generally limited to just SUVs and trucks.

Do I need AWD or 4WD?

In general, unless you live in a place that gets snowy or icy (or has really extreme weather), it can be beneficial to own an AWD or 4WD vehicle. It really depends on where you live and what you want to do with your vehicle.

While figuring out the difference between a four-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle can seem like a daunting task, if you do your homework and narrow down what you want, you’ll be sure to find the right vehicle for you.

Summary
AWD vs. 4WD: Traction vs. Even Better Traction
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AWD vs. 4WD: Traction vs. Even Better Traction
Description
AWD vs. 4WD is the ultimate traction comparison, but there are other factors. We cover how each option affects mpg, maintenance, road performance, and more.
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AutoGravity
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Abigail Bassett is an Emmy-winning journalist, video content producer, and manager who has covered a wide range of world-impacting events including everything from the invasion of Iraq to Katrina and the financial and housing collapse. She has covered premiere automotive and lifestyle launches and unveilings all over the world over the last 15 years. Abigail has also extensively covered personal finance for a variety of outlets and start-ups. She spent more than ten years as a Senior Producer at CNN in New York and was most recently the Senior Director of Photo, Video and Social Media at Edmunds. She currently lives and works as a freelance writer and content manager in Los Angeles. Her clips have appeared in top-tier publications including Autoweek Magazine, Forbes, Arstechnica, Motor Trend, TheDrive, and Fortune. She is also a U.S. juror for the World Car Awards.

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