AWD vs 4WD: What’s the Difference & Which to Choose?

4wd vs awd

Once upon a time, when you needed a vehicle where all four wheels drove, you could only choose from full-size SUVs and trucks with 4WD. Now, more vehicles are being sold with an all-wheel-drive system, allowing for more options. But, what’s the difference between AWD vs. 4WD and which option is right for you?

While the technology between the two can cause some confusion, it’s not hard to understand once you know what you are dealing with. We look closer at each system to see how it works and we evaluate which one might be best for your situation. 

What Is All-Wheel Drive?

The all-wheel-drive car sends power to both the front and rear wheels. However, how this is done can be different. For example, the part- or full-time all-wheel-drive system will push the four wheels continuously. The second type of system is known as part-time all-wheel-drive. This automatic system only turns on the AWD when it is needed, such as in low-traction situations. In all other times, the vehicle operates with two wheels to conserve gas. 

In most cases, no input is needed from the driver to operate either of these systems. There might be selectable models to change how much control is permitted, but the system itself functions automatically. 

In the full-time AWD system, both axles get driven at the same time continuously. When you are driving on dry roads, you will notice superior handling, but this setup really thrives in slippery conditions. When driving in mud, snow or ice, the extra traction is seen for even better handling.

On the other hand, the part-time AWD system delivers torque to the two drive wheels only. This can be in the rear or front of the vehicle, depending on what you are driving. The other two wheels only become engaged when traction is lost and more control is needed. 

AWD car

AWD Pros

1. Automatic

Whether you are driving a full-time or part-time AWD vehicle, you won’t have to make any choices. The system automatically adjusts however it needs to.

Power is sent to all four wheels or the two that are required. In slippery conditions, you can rely on the four wheels to help you gain more control. 

2. Provides Superior Traction

With full-time AWD, all four wheels are constantly providing the power you need to deal with an array of road conditions. This power ensures that you have the traction you need in any situation.

With part-time AWD, the four wheels might not be operating continuously. However, as soon as traction is lost, the other two will kick in to provide more stability. 

3. Lots of Vehicle Options

You can find AWD equipped on many types of vehicles. While four-wheel-drive is typically reserved for a few SUVs and trucks, that’s not the case with all-wheel drive.

In fact, you can find many of the most popular SUVs equipped with AWD today. On top of that, there are also cars of all sizes available with this advanced system.

AWD Cons

1. Not for Off-Roading

All-wheel drive is a boss when conditions become slippery. You can rely on it to get you through rain and snow, plus a little mild off-roading.

With that said, it’s not the go-to vehicle type that is used for serious off-roading treks. If you prefer getting out of town and driving down some trails, you are going to want four-wheel drive instead. 

2. Costs are High

The AWD system is sophisticated. Compared with a front- or rear-wheel-drive vehicle, you are going to spend more to get your car equipped with all-wheel drive. 

On top of that, when all-wheel-drive is engaged, you are going to see your fuel economy dip slightly, causing you to spend more money at the gas pump. Still, most all-wheel-drive systems will be slightly cheaper than a comparable 4WD vehicle. 

What Is Four-Wheel Drive?

The four-wheel-drive vehicle is the traditional way to propel all four wheels at the same time. It’s been a staple with large SUVs and pickup trucks. When you think of something heading off-road to take on water, mud and sand, you are thinking of a reliable 4WD model.

The four-wheel-drive setup includes a series of differentials in the front, rear or center of the vehicle paired with couplers and transfer cases to deliver torque to the wheels. With advanced systems, disconnection and reconnection of the system occur with simple knobs or buttons, but older systems are still controlled through a lever in the floor.

Many 4WD systems come with selectable low and high ranges. With the low setting, you gain more traction for off-road, while the high setting offers better control in slippery conditions. 

Full-time four-wheel drive operates just like the comparable AWD. The four wheels are continuously receiving power. With part-time four-wheel drive, two wheels are driven constantly. Typically, these would be the rear wheels. When 4WD is engaged, more traction is offered, designed for off-roading or slippery conditions. 

4WD car

4WD Pros

1. Meant for Off-Road

The four-wheel-drive system was designed with the off-roader in mind. While you will find it on luxury models these days, at the heart of the system is a rugged and capable design.

If you enjoy traveling through water or climbing over rocks in your vehicle, the four-wheel-drive system won’t disappoint. Plus, you can gain superior pulling power for heavy-duty tasks.

2. Refined Equipment

4WD is a traditional configuration that has been around for decades. It’s not new technology. Therefore, you can count on the equipment to be completely refined.

These days, four-wheel-drive vehicles can also pair with heavy-duty suspension systems and equipment. What you get is a robust system for any tough task.

4WD Cons

1. Stiff Ride

A sophisticated 4WD configuration is going to have an upgraded suspension. These added shocks, struts and other suspension parts are meant to handle the off-road terrain you travel on.

However, all of these updated suspension parts might make the ride stiffer than what you are used to. If you haven’t taken a drive in a 4WD truck, you are in for a slight handling difference. 

2. Extra Cost

For many of the same reasons as the AWD vehicle, you can expect to pay more for 4WD. The parts are more advanced and durable, increasing the upfront cost of your SUV or truck.

On top of that, 4WD notoriously gets some of the worst fuel economy. Expect to spend more time filling up with your four-wheel-drive vehicle. 

AWD or 4WD: Which One is Best?

To determine whether you need 4WD or AWD, take a closer look at the way you use your vehicle. With the available selection of models with AWD, this is often a more popular option. You can find many cars, SUVs and trucks with an all-wheel-drive system.

These vehicles are going to offer the traction you need to handle slippery road conditions. You can even use AWD for light off-roading applications. Plus, you have to give up less ride quality to accomplish your goals.

On the other hand, you want 4WD if you plan to spend time off-road. Yes, you will give up some fuel economy and ride quality, but if you live in a remote area, you want the reliability this system offers. You typically also receive higher ground clearance, which helps you get through thick snow or over big rocks with ease.

Written by:

Magnus is the owner and main author of MechanicBase. He has been working as a mechanic for over 10 years, and the majority of them specialized in advanced diagnostics and troubleshooting. He has also been a motorsport (drifting) driver for over 5 years.