With self-explaining names such as front-wheel-drive (FWD) and rear-wheel-drive (RWD) it’s not too difficult to understand how they operate and their main difference. But when it comes to all-wheel-drive (AWD) and four-wheel-drive (4WD) they sound pretty much the same, unless you are driving a vehicle with more than four tires that is. AWD and 4WD, although similar, have some distinct differences that make each useful for multiple scenarios.
An example of what an AWD badge looks like on a car. This particular example is on the 2015 F-TYPE, Jaguar’s all-aluminum sports car
AWD vs 4WD – There’s a Difference?
Without diving too deep into the specifics of each just yet, it is important to fully understand the main difference between the two. At their most basic premise, AWD and 4WD mean that all four tires will be powered. AWD is typically always engaged, while 4WD is a setting you have to manually put your vehicle into. An AWD vehicle can be driven for daily use while 4WD can only be used at slow speeds and for specific scenarios.
But why is that? Both AWD and 4WD vehicles rely on all four of the tires being powered, so wouldn’t they be the same? Thankfully they are not. Sparing you the history lesson, at one point a very smart mechanical engineer realized that if a vehicle with four wheels is turning, the wheels on the outside of the turn will have to cover more ground. Imagine running on track. If you are in the outside lanes you will have to run farther than the person running the inside lane, the same goes for tires on your car.
In a track event like this the runner on the outermost lane will start ahead of their competitors in order to compensate for the extra distance of taking the outside turn.
With that in mind, the mechanical device known as a differential was created. The differential allows the wheels on the left and right side of a vehicle to turn at different speeds in order to maximize traction and even the wear on the tires. Learn more about how differentials work with this timeless video from 1937.
An AWD vehicle will have multiple differentials that allow the tires to rotate accordingly. The multiple differentials allow for both the front and rear axles to work in correspondence to the AWD system powering the specific tire that may need it the most. 4WD vehicles also have differentials, but here is the distinguishing factor that makes it unique from AWD. When put into the 4WD mode the vehicle will actually lock the axles and differentials, giving each tire equal power and torque.
4×4 is a common way to signify that a vehicle is sending power to all four wheels in the same manner as 4WD. However, 4×4 specifically indicates that the vehicle has 4 wheels. 4WD only indicates that four wheels are being powered, but doesn’t actually specify the amount of wheels the vehicle has.
What is AWD and What Can it Do for You?
Now that we know that AWD and 4WD are indeed different from each other, let’s look into what exactly AWD is and some of the benefits. As previously mentioned, the AWD is a system that powers both the front wheels and the rear wheels in order to give the vehicle more traction and overall control. The AWD system is typically always engaged, but is able to send power to specific tires as needed in order to best traverse slippery or rough terrain. The computing system calculates how much power to give each axle if the car feels a loss of traction and can help to avoid the tires from unnecessarily spinning.
This is most helpful in slippery conditions when there is snow, sleet, or even heavy rain. If you have driven a RWD or FWD drive car you may have suffered in the snow more than a couple times. AWD vehicles, although they are not snowmobiles, have a distinct advantage over two-wheel-drive cars in these types of conditions.
Here is a 2016 Golf R. The Golf uses an AWD system but prioritizes power to the front axle the majority of the time but can instantly send power to the rear axle when needed. This is a feature that helps with gas mileage and gives the Golf R better MPGs than some of its competitors.
There is no standard AWD system across the board, however. Depending on the vehicle and the purpose of it, either the front or rear axles can be favored. It’s common for AWD sedans to have around 70% of the power going to the front axles and about 30% to the rear axle. Conversely, a muscle car could favor the rear axle with a similar percent split. With such a variety of AWD systems it will really depend on your specific needs/wants when it comes to picking which to purchase. Subaru has a unique version of AWD you can learn more about here.
What is 4WD and What Can it Do for You?
4WD is a setting you manually put your vehicle into in order to lock the differentials and give each tire equal power and torque. In low traction or off-roading scenarios 4WD is superior to AWD allowing it to climb rocks and terrain AWD would have no chance of handling. With that being said, it is worth mentioning the majority of vehicles with 4WD are trucks, SUVs, and other off-roading vehicles. These types of vehicles do have other features that make them realistic for the purpose of off-roading, such as being lifted higher off the ground to give the vehicle more clearance on rocks or humps.
Setting the 2017 Jeep Wrangler into 4WD allows it to handle rocky slopes. Wranglers are a common example of a 4WD vehicle that are often taken off-roading to test their mettle.
Whether you need to get up that steep driveway to your snowy, winter cottage or you are an off-roading enthusiast, 4WD can offer you that extra torque to get you to your not so easily driven destination. However, just because your vehicle has 4WD doesn’t mean you should be going out of your way to drive in ice or snow. There is no ultimate solution for driving on an icy road so it is still important to be cautious and aware of road conditions. 4WD does not improve your braking or turning capabilities so try to avoid overly slippery conditions.
What’s the Cost?
With seemingly no downsides to AWD or the inclusion of the 4WD setting, why doesn’t every vehicle have them? One reason is because of the price. Because of the additional technology being used there is generally a higher price for vehicles with AWD or 4WD. Looking at the 2020 Dodge Challengers you can see models such as the SXT and GT come in either AWD or RWD.
- RWD 2020 Challenger SXT – $28,095
- AWD 2020 Challenger SXT – $31,095
- RWD 2020 Challenger GT – $31,095
- AWD 2020 Challenger GT – $34,095
For an extra $3,000 you are able to get the addition of those two extra wheels powered.
Besides the initial cost to consider, there is also the cost of the increased gas usage. It is always important to look at the exact MPG for each vehicle, but generally speaking AWD and 4WD systems use more MPG than FWD or RWD. This is because of the increased weight of the vehicle and the power being sent to the all of tires. Saving money is always a major factor when deciding on a purchase so it is important to research the different models available and the MPG for each. If you are looking to save some money on your next road-trip read here for some tips on how to live frugally on the road.
What’s Right for You?
Now knowing the main differences between all-wheel-drive and four-wheel-drive we can best determine what is best for you. If you are looking for a normal everyday driver and live in the northern hemisphere, AWD is a great way to help combat those snowy conditions on your daily commute. I’d recommend a work from home day, but if you’re forced into the office, the AWD system will help keep all four tires spinning with traction.If you are an outdoorsman and need a vehicle to get you to that secret camping spot halfway up the mountain, purchasing a vehicle with 4WD setting is your best bet. Looking for ways to save money on your camping trips, here are 11 ways you can.
Rocky roads, mud pits and deep gravel don’t have to be an obstacle, but instead a fun challenge for somebody with a 4WD truck. 4WD enthusiasts know of popular places where they can test the full capabilities of their vehicles in off-road situations.
Since it is not always possible to test drive a car in specific situations, such as snow or sleet, you can also look to the internet to see other’s experiences. Check out some videos to see how certain cars may handle in snow or dirt. Here is a great Youtube video showing the difference between two Volkswagen Golfs.
The two Volkswagens being tested are very similar, however, one is FWD (Golf GTI) while the other is AWD (Golf R). This is a great example to check out just how much of a difference the AWD system can make.
When considering which type of vehicle to purchase don’t be afraid to go to a dealership and test drive some cars or trucks. If speaking to a competent sales person, they can explain the type of drive system the vehicle uses. If looking at 4WD vehicles, ask the salesperson to set the car into the setting so you can test drive it around in a parking lot or any off-road conditions they may have to offer.
With so many options and different reasons why you would want to purchase an AWD or 4WD vehicle, take your time in making a decision. Sometimes we just want vehicles to be fast or fun, but if it’s going to be your everyday driver you want to make sure you are making the right choice for your specific needs. Determine what your driving conditions will be and the budget you have set. Deciding the type of vehicle you want to drive can also help to narrow your decisions. Whether it be a truck, SUV, sedan, hatchback, sports car, muscle car, coupé, or even a minivan, chances are they come available with AWD or 4WD. So what are you looking to drive?
Jill Miller is the founder of Your RV Lifestyle. Trading corporate America for the open road, Jill, along with her partner Jose, began their RV journey, making an unconventional start by wintering in New Jersey. A natural adventurer, she was motivated by a desire to explore the USA and beyond, embracing the varied landscapes, communities, and cultures across the country.
For Jill, the allure of RV living was not about material accumulation, but rather the pursuit of an adventurous, fulfilling lifestyle. A lover of golf, bicycling, hiking, and line dancing, she has carried her passions across the country, engaging with them in diverse settings. Jill’s commitment to the RV lifestyle came after years of careful research, numerous consultations with RV owners, and personal trials, including living in a rental RV.