How Do You Know if a Car Is Four-Wheel Drive?

It's not always easy to quickly determine if a car is ready for snow or off-road use.

2024 Hyundai SonataHyundai

QuickTakes:

Car shopping can be like dating. You think you've found your perfect match and then you find out about that one deal breaker.

When it comes to cars, trucks, and SUVs, it might be the lack (or presence) of an all-wheel-drive (AWD) or four-wheel-drive (4WD) system. Whether you're after winter-weather confidence, extra traction in rain, or a little more capability for going off the beaten path, AWD and 4WD can be a big selling point for some, while others might prefer a small fuel economy boost from a front-wheel-drive model.

You don't have to slide underneath a vehicle to see if it has the components that help send power to all four corners. Some cars make it simple with a sticker or badge on the trunk or tailgate. Others have a knob or button inside to activate or lock in 4WD. Many are less obvious, but there are simple ways to find out requiring different levels of effort.

Follow the Virtual Paper Trail

New cars come with a federally mandated window sticker that will convey whether it sends power to two wheels or all four. Even if you're searching for your next car from your computer, you can ask a salesperson to email you a copy of the new vehicle's window sticker before you visit the dealership.

A used car can be less obvious, although some automakers offer access to late-model window stickers online. For instance, you may be able to find it through searching by the 17-digit vehicle identification number.

Additionally, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration offers a VIN decoder that can reveal a few basic details, including drive wheels.

Look for a badge

Ultimately, it can still be worthwhile to inspect the car for yourself. If there are no obvious badges on the rear or sides of the vehicle to denote that it's an AWD or 4WD version, it could be disguised under the automaker's naming system. For example, Hyundai notes the presence of AWD with an H-TRAC badge on models such as their Sonata, Santa Fe and Palisade. There are also instances where no badge exists to specify 4WD or AWD, such as with the Toyota 4Runner, which doesn't have a 4WD badge.

Still, badges can disappear, particularly with used cars. Some owners might like a streamlined "debadged" look, or a missing badge could hint at a repainted or replaced panel. The person who completed the service may simply have forgotten to reinstall the badge.

Inspect the Inside

If the vehicle fails the badge check, try looking at its dashboard or center console.

Some vehicles have buttons, a knob, or a lever to operate 4WD, and their identification is typically straightforward. The GMC Terrain, for instance, has a small drive-mode knob on the center console that adds an AWD mode for models equipped with it. GMC also puts an AWD badge on the Terrain's tailgate.

Others may offer a center differential lock button, which can be activated at lower speeds for improved grip on slippery surfaces. These usually look like an overhead view of four interconnected wheels with a big X in the center.

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Andrew Ganz
Andrew Ganz has had cars in his blood ever since he gnawed the paint off of a diecast model as a toddler. After growing up in Dallas, Texas, he earned a journalism degree, worked in public relations for two manufacturers, and served as an editor for a luxury-lifestyle print publication and several well-known automotive websites. In his free time, Andrew loves exploring the Rocky Mountains' best back roads—when he’s not browsing ads for his next car purchase.