AWD vs 4WD: Difference & Which is Better

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A question often asked by new and experienced vehicle owners is, “Is AWD the same as 4WD?” And it makes perfect sense for them to do so. With the development of AWD and 4WD technology in recent decades, it has become more difficult to tell these two drive systems apart.

Over the years, the 4WD system has grown more sophisticated, no longer confined to pickup trucks and off-road 4x4s. Similarly, the AWD system has become more robust, rivaling the capabilities of 4WD vehicles.

What is the difference? The main dissimilarities between these drive systems lie in their working principle and power transmission to the front and rear wheels. All other parameters that differentiate the two are purely preferential.

For most of us, telling these drive systems apart is easier said than done. It also does not help that some OEMs use these terms according to their discretion rather than for what they actually mean.

But don’t worry. This article aims to clarify these terminologies and their key differences.

Black Jeep Wrangler Off-Road Terrain

Revisiting the Different Drive Systems

Before we answer the question, “Is AWD better than 4WD?” let us briefly go over the relevant drive systems and how they compare.

All-Wheel Drive System or AWD

AWD, or All-Wheel Drive, is a powertrain layout first introduced by Daimler-Motoren-Gesellschaft (DMG) in the 1907 Dernburg-Wagen. It’s come a long way from its initial design draft, finished and implemented in Mercedes-Benz vehicles as early as 1903. As its name suggests, this drive system powers a vehicle’s front and rear wheels.

There are two kinds of AWD systems used today — part-time and full-time. The former (a.k.a. automatic AWD system) only uses all-wheel drive when necessary or once preset conditions by the OEM are met. When riding conditions do not require traction, these part-time systems are mostly in 2WD mode.

On the other hand, the latter (a.k.a.all-time AWD system) is a layout that drives all four wheels continuously without input from the driver. A series of differentials, multi-plate clutches, and viscous couplings make it possible for all four wheels to receive torque.

Because all wheels are engaged all the time, recent vehicle models have been equipped with selectable modes allowing some control over how much power goes where.

Four-Wheel Drive System or 4WD

4WD or Four-Wheel Drive is a powertrain layout that shares an equally rich history with the AWD system. Launched a year before the AWD, the first 4WD vehicle came in the form of a race car called Spyker 60HP. It was invented by the Spijker brothers and featured four-wheel braking and a 6-cylinder power mill.

Like AWD, 4WD systems used today are either full-time or on-demand (a.k.a. part-time). A series of front, center, and rear differentials, couplings, and transfer cases (view on Amazon) direct torque to all four wheels.

More sophisticated versions of both systems utilize buttons, knobs, and electronic switches to connect or disconnect 4WD. However, traditional vehicles using a floor-mounted lever (like a second gear shifter) to manage the 4WD system are still used today.

What Is the Difference Between AWD and 4WD? 

We have partly answered this question by defining each drive system. But to thoroughly highlight the differences between AWD and 4WD, let us go over some parameters and their respective advantages and disadvantages:

AWD vs 4WD Comparison:

ParameterAll-Wheel Drive (AWD)Four-Wheel Drive (4WD)
Working PrinciplePower goes to the front and rear wheels all the time.Requires driver input to engage the system to deliver power to all wheels
Power TransmissionIt uses a center differential (view on Amazon) to distribute power to the wheels.It uses a transfer case to distribute power to the front and rear wheels.
Power DeliveryAutomatically computes which wheel needs power and sends a variable torque to each axle in response.Sends equal amount of power to the front and rear wheels
ApplicationFit for SUVs/crossovers in diverse road conditions, as well as high-performance vehicles requiring superior handling and gripSuitable for off-road vehicles in extreme conditions with very low traction
FlexibilityThe driver cannot choose between AWD and 2WD modes unless it is a part-time AWD system.The driver can select any driveline mode at will and freely toggle between 4WD and 2WD modes.
Fuel EfficiencyLower than 4WDBetter than AWD
(Source: Acko Drive)

AWD vs 4WD Pros and Cons:

AWD Pros

  • An intelligent system capable of detecting wheel slippage or loss of traction and sending power to the affected wheel as needed
  • No driver input is required.
  • It offers sportier handling and traction.
  • Available on a wide variety of vehicles
  • Works well in varying riding conditions
  • Has selectable snow or low-traction modes
  • Perfect for those living in the city

AWD Cons

  • Considered a #2 choice by serious off-roaders
  • It may not be for those who prefer to decide for themselves when engaging all four wheels
  • Increased vehicle MSRP
  • Reduced fuel economy

4WD Pros

  • Best at handling adverse conditions, whether on or off-road
  • Well-suited for heavy-duty hauling, utility work, and difficult terrain
  • It provides more pulling power than AWD.
  • Perfect for those living in remote areas
  • With part-time 4WD, the car runs on 2WD by default which helps save on gas

4WD Cons

  • Considered a #2 choice by recreational riders and daily commuters
  • Often paired with stiffer suspension, translating to a less comfortable ride.
  • Not ideal in all driving conditions
  • Adds to the initial cost of a vehicle
  • Reduced fuel economy

When to Use AWD vs 4WD 

Person Driving 4x4 Off-Road Car

In deciding to use one driveline mode over the other, it is best to consider the below factors:

Safety

When comparing 4WD vs AWD vehicles, no system is inherently safer than the other — even though many consumers choose all-wheel drive cars for safety reasons.

Especially with the implementation of safety regulations, all modes of transportation seem to be on par with one another in embedding precautionary measures in the vehicle’s design and features. For instance, most modern cars now have electronic stability control (a directional stability enhancer) regardless if they are 2WD, 4WD, or AWD.

Traction

Traction is a quality many car owners look for in a 4×4. This attribute is especially useful when traversing slick surfaces and slippery terrain or driving on unsealed roads (often the case for off-roading) and sand.

AWD and 4WD vehicles possess this feature, although there may be slight nuances in traction control between the two — depending on how advanced the feature is and how robust the chassis and tire-and-wheel components are.

Cost

There is not much difference between 4WD and AWD vehicles regarding price. On average, adding 4WD or AWD as part of your trim package usually costs around $2,000–$4,000 on top of the base MSRP.

Note, however, that this estimation would only be true if comparing like models of a specific vehicle and if the said system does not yet come standard in a given four-wheeler.

More than the additional cost, the bigger consideration you should have is how much the standard version of your vehicle is and what its inclusions are.

Another query you may also want to ask yourself is, “Is adding 4WD or AWD dramatically going to improve my vehicle’s drivability and performance?” The answer to these questions may seem apparent, but you should ask them anyway — as they would help you weigh if adding 4WD or AWD would be worth the price tag.

Application

Whether or not having 4WD or AWD is worth it hinges on how you use your four-wheeler. Vehicles are predominantly used for a specific type of application.

Jeep Wrangler, for instance, can easily pass for a daily driver. But it is widely known as a formidable off-roading 4×4. In like manner, you would know that someone who gets a Chevrolet Tahoe has intentions of using it for its towing capability.

That said, the difference between AWD and 4WD will now greatly matter. As a driver, you would prefer having 4WD if you are set to embark on off-roading adventures carrying lots of gear — and probably, even a mountain bike or an AQUAGLIDE Chelan 155 Tandem Inflatable Kayak (view on Amazon).

Conversely, you would want AWD if your terrain and riding conditions frequently change. All-Wheel Drive is efficient in keeping your 4×4 moving through sloppy roads, dunes, muck, or loose surfaces.

Fuel Efficiency

AWD and 4WD systems augment a four-wheeler’s capabilities and on-road performance. Because of this, they would naturally add more weight to a vehicle and more strain on its powertrain.

Depending on the vehicle type, the drivetrain’s added load may not be much. But one thing is certain — the higher load will adversely affect the vehicle’s fuel economy.

Differences in fuel mileage may not be noticeable in smaller cars with either AWD or 4WD. But in bigger vehicles, the disparity becomes more apparent.

In the case of a Jeep Wrangler TJ, 2WD and 4WD versions would have a similar combined gas mileage of 17 mpg (13.8 L/100 km). Meanwhile, an AWD model would have a slightly lower combined gas mileage of 15 mpg (15.7 L/100 km).

Given this example, it would be safe to assume that the disparity in gas mileage would be higher than 11% for vehicles with bigger base models.

Weather

Blue Car Parked on Snowy Road Under Pine Trees

One of the few instances where one system outshines the other is in comparing 4WD vs AWD in snow. Why? Because four wheels that can be independently controlled are much better than two.

Functionally, both systems may seem the same. But when you are driving on snowy or icy roads, you will be able to tell the huge difference between them.

However, AWD being better than 4WD in this aspect is not absolute. Despite its adaptable nature, other factors in play bring out the most in an AWD system when used in harsh weather conditions.

Driver skill and terrain unevenness are a couple of things impacting the effectiveness of the AWD system that immediately come to mind. Season-appropriate tires are also another factor.

Driver Skill

Driving skills influence our bias toward a given drive system. To prove this point, many veteran car owners can do without either 4WD or AWD because they have been accustomed to driving with front or rear wheels that “anchor” them to the ground — a given in 2WD vehicles.

Less experienced drivers may have a proclivity for either drive system as they have yet to develop their on-road adeptness and intuition.

A good example of this is comparing AWD vs 4WD in snow. When asked which is better, riders are often torn between the two drive systems.

Some feel that AWD is better because individually-controlled wheels give vehicles better maneuverability. For others, 4WD is far superior as the system is less prone to hydroplaning and can tackle uneven icy terrain, unplowed roads, and deep snow.

Conclusion – AWD vs 4WD: Difference & Which is Better?

If we were to highlight the difference between 4WD and AWD systems, the best way is to cite their similarities. Why? Because the only thing these two drive systems have in common is their ability to send power to all four wheels in a car or 4×4.

Now that we have that out of route, the next thing to do is determine, “Is 4WD or AWD better?”

Ultimately, your decision will depend on personal preferences, which is absolutely fine! After all, you should temper your decision-making with a bit of intuition and pick whichever option feels right.

As for the information in this guide, I hope you find it useful and that it somehow influences your considerations in choosing a drive system that best suits your endeavors and you!

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