AWD vs. 4WD: What's Right for You?

When it comes to AWD vs. 4WD, many factors can affect your decision about which option is right for you. Here's what to consider.


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Gearing up to buy a car can seem like a challenging process filled with countless questions and financial considerations. If you're currently shopping for a new car or truck, you might want to consider which is the better option for your needs—a four-wheel-drive (4WD) or an all-wheel-drive (AWD) vehicle.

When it comes to AWD vs. 4WD systems, both relate to how a car "grips" the road and how they perform in hazardous weather and other road conditions. Both are designed to send power to all of a vehicle's wheels to boost traction. The biggest difference is that 4WD vehicles are typically geared toward off-road applications, as they are better at handling rough terrain. Most 4WD systems around are found on heavy-duty trucks and SUVs.

Both 4WD and AWD typically provide better traction than vehicles without these systems, but there are some key differences consumers should be aware of.

Functionality of AWD vs. 4WD

The main differences in how the two systems function have to do with the fact that AWD systems activate automatically. The vehicle can detect if more traction is required and will send the appropriate amount of power to the tires with the most grip. It varies from system to system, with some sending only a percentage of the power to the other end of the vehicle, while others can send 100% of the available power to whichever corner has the most traction.

Meanwhile, 4WD systems have low and high ranges that are chosen by the driver, either with a switch or a lever. The high range setting is the default, and it comes in handy for hazardous road conditions like packed snow and ice. The low range setting is perhaps the most appealing part of the 4WD system—it gives the most traction during off-roading and low-speed rough terrain driving.

AWD is more widely incorporated into a number of makes and models, which is a huge plus to people who may be on the fence about what type of car or truck to buy. However, AWD and 4WD can be costly, and often impact a vehicles's fuel economy.

What Are the Differences in the Driving Experience?

AWD is able to work well in a number of inclement weather situations, from sleet to full-on snow. However, if off-roading is more your thing, a 4WD vehicle might be a better fit, as it gives you control over how much "grip" to apply.

Traction isn't just important for heavy weather conditions. It's also about speed and how a car handles. While these benefits may be important for some consumers, it's critical to note that powering all four tires simultaneously means a vehicle is heavier, has a more detailed drivetrain, and may be less fuel-efficient.

4WD vehicles are geared for rugged terrain and lots of pulling power (think trucks hauling large loads), so that's also something to keep in mind when you're checking out new cars.

How Does Each Perform in Various Weather and Terrain Situations?

Both AWD and 4WD can help drivers navigate dangerous weather conditions. Because AWD systems activate power to all four wheels simultaneously or automatically engage four-wheel torque as needed, they are excellent at dealing with quickly changing weather conditions. They act very fast, and a driver may feel a bit more relaxed with a system that works seamlessly in this way.

Conversely, a 4WD vehicle is usually stellar at handling extreme weather conditions like deep snow. Vehicles with this type of system can often help if you find yourself on a very icy road or unable to move around a snowbank.

Keep in mind that the biggest determining factor, regardless of AWD or 4WD or something else, is the kind of tires your vehicle is equipped with. If you have all-season or summer tires and you end up in thick snow, even AWD or 4WD will struggle to keep you moving. In severe weather situations cables or chains are often a necessity.

Do You Need AWD or 4WD?

The question of which system is better is personal, and the answer depends on a variety of factors.

One of the benefits of AWD is that it's found on a variety of cars and trucks in all sizes, which gives you a wide range of buying options. People who make their home in remote areas, who enjoy exploring rough terrains, or who routinely experience extreme weather may want to consider a 4WD vehicle.

By examining your lifestyle, driving and commuting habits, and environment, you can determine whether a 4WD or an AWD car is the right vehicle for you.

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Lindsay Martell
Lindsay Martell is a Charlotte, NC-based journalist, copywriter, and voiceover artist. She writes about everything from automotive tech to adult ballet to competitive cheerleading. Her work has appeared nationally across various automotive and entertainment outlets. Her skills are turning complex tech terms into simple, palatable pieces of information. She has covered technology since 2000, and thrives on covering innovative tech trends.