AWD vs 4WD: What’s the Difference?

With all the online resources, car shopping has never been easier but there’s still some car industry jargon that’s easy to misinterpret. Two phrases that trip up experts and everyday car shoppers alike are All-Wheel-Drive and Four-Wheel-Drive but buyer beware, they’re not exactly the same. Let’s take a look at the differences between these two and explore what would be the better for your next vehicle.



Sometimes called 4×4 or four-by-four, this is the older of the two types of drive trains. It started as a way for off-road vehicles to apply deliberate torque to the wheels when driving over rough terrain. In addition, most vehicles give you the option to turn on 4WD only when you need it so you have the convenience of driving more efficiently on smooth terrain and to avoid overworking your car.

When 4WD is on, power from the transmission goes to the transfer case which forwards the power to the front and rear axles appropriately so that each wheel is receiving maximum torque. All of that power is great for climbing over boulders or cranking through mud bogs because it helps the tires keep pushing no matter what the ground is like beneath them.

This feature has been around for quite some time, and some trucks and SUVs are getting quite sophisticated about when and how to apply torque, but it can still create problems for the driver when the vehicle doesn’t need maximum power. For instance, when turning, the inside wheels need less torque than the ones on the outer edge of the turn and 4WD is getting better at accommodating this scenario with a process known as torque vectoring.

Typically, 4WD is only recommended when you’re on the roughest of terrain to keep your fuel costs down and prevent the vehicle from getting overworked. But as soon as you find yourself at the top of a trailhead and you’re ready to go off-roading, flip the switch to 4WD and have a great time!



While 4WD is best on trucks and SUVs and can be turned on with the flip of a switch, All-Wheel-Drive stays on all the time and is usually best on cars and other commuter vehicles. As the newer of the two systems, AWD is much more complex but thankfully it’s all handled by a computer system in the car for your convenience.

With AWD, the system sends power to each wheel individually to provide better control in tricky driving conditions. It works with three differentials to get power to the wheels with the most traction by splitting power between the front and rear axles on the center differential, and then splitting power again by way of the front and rear differentials to send it to each wheel. This is especially useful when the wheels are experiencing different amounts of grip from moment-to-moment because the roads are slick or wet. New technology has allowed sensors to be added to each wheel to monitor traction, and wheel speed, as well as collect more data hundreds of times a second to provide optimal traction as often as possible.

However, AWD isn’t nearly as robust as 4WD and can’t quite match the same levels of traction in extremely low-speed off-roading situations like the trusty old 4WD systems provide. But for day-to-day safety and security, AWD is a dream come true for commuters.


The Verdict

It comes down to what you plan to do with your car and what kind of conditions you expect to drive in. When you’re off-roading and need low-speed power to crawl over boulders, 4WD is essential. But if you’re commuting through all kinds of weather and need a little extra traction on the road, AWD is the option for you.

There’s a reason 4WD is normally on pickups, truck-platform SUVs and other rugged vehicles. It’s bulky and unreasonable for everyday driving but supremely helpful on the trails. On the other hand, having a drivetrain that responds almost instantly to adapt to uncertain road conditions, makes AWD a handy tool for drivers who spend more than your average amount of time on the road.

If you have more questions about what is best for you or how to choose between 4WD and AWD, one of our team members would be happy to help you make that decision. Stop by today to talk with us and see which vehicle options are right for you!



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Garber Automotive Group

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