All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) are two drivetrain types that you'll often see as options from most automotive manufacturers. But what's the real story behind these terms?

Both AWD and 4WD give you a better grip and more traction than two-wheel drive, but they're not exactly the same. Whether you're planning to conquer the off-road paths in Ontario's Bruce Peninsula National Park or keep a steady hand in the face of snow or slippery roads, here's a quick guide to AWD vs. 4WD.

AWD vs. 4WD

What are the differences between AWD vs. 4WD? 

For many folks who aren't mechanics, AWD and 4WD can be a bit of a head-scratcher. So, if you're in the market for a new ride or just curious about these drivetrains, it's important to first get a handle on what they mean and how they're different. Here's a simple rundown of the key differences between AWD and 4WD.

All-Wheel Drive Explained

Without getting into technical jargon, the basic difference between AWD and 4WD systems is how they distribute power or torque to each wheel. In AWD vehicles — which can be cars, trucks, or SUVs — the onboard computer directs power to the front axle or rear axle under normal driving conditions.

When the vehicle senses a slip or lack of traction due to bad weather or adverse road conditions, it automatically redirects power through a centre differential (that's a fancy term for a gear that lets wheels spin independently or at different speeds) to the other wheels. This means you don't have to worry about a thing, as the system is always on the job. This always-on feature is also known as full-time all-wheel drive.

Four-Wheel Drive Explained

Four-wheel drive systems work in a similar way to AWD but with a few key differences when it comes to traction and driver control. Most 4WD systems come with a switch that lets the driver choose between two-wheel drive mode or four-wheel drive based on road conditions. This switch might also have options for low-range and high-range gears, which are crucial for tackling rough terrain or off-roading.

When four-wheel drive is turned on, the vehicle uses a transfer case to distribute torque to both the front and rear axle. This lets both axles spin at different speeds, leading to a big boost in off-road performance.

Unlike AWD vehicles, 4WD is typically found only in trucks and SUVs.

AWD vs. 4WD

A Quick Note on Two-Wheel Drive Vehicles

If you’re interested in the differences between 4WD and AWD, you've likely come across two-wheel drive (2WD). Two-wheel drive is another drivetrain type that's standard in most cars, and you'll also find it in some trucks and SUVs. However, 2WD splits into two categories: front-wheel drive (FWD) and rear-wheel drive (RWD).

Front-wheel drive is a drivetrain that channels the engine's power to spin just the front axle. This setup is a staple in many everyday vehicles. On the flip side, rear-wheel drive takes the engine's power to spin the rear axle. This drivetrain is the go-to for nearly all trucks and SUVs, and it's also a favourite for most sports cars.

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Feeling a Bit Lost?

If all this is making your head spin, don't worry. Car manufacturers often use these terms interchangeably, which can add to the confusion. But here's the key takeaway:

In AWD vehicles, the system is always on, giving you better traction and handling no matter what the road throws at you.

In 4WD vehicles, you're in control. You decide when to turn on the system for maximum traction. Remember, 4WD is usually reserved for tough driving conditions, and it's not something you'd typically use on regular roads — unless you're caught in a snowstorm.

AWD vs. 4WD: When and Where to Use it

Picking between AWD and 4WD might seem like a tough call, but it's simpler than you might think.

  • If your adventures rarely take you off the beaten path, an AWD system could be your best bet. It gives you more control than front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, particularly when you're dealing with snow or rain.
  • On the other hand, a 4WD system delivers the torque you need to tackle the roughest rocks, boulders, or any other challenges that come your way. Just keep in mind that 4WD isn't usually the safest choice for regular roads. So, remember to switch back to two-wheel drive when you hit the pavement.

The Pros and Cons of AWD vs. 4WD

Let's dig into the details of both all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive vehicles. To some extent, picking the drivetrain that suits you is a matter of personal preference. But it's also a good idea to weigh the pros and cons of each. This will help you make the best choice for your driving habits.

Pros of AWD
Cons of AWD
Pros of 4WD
Cons of 4WD

Do You Really Need AWD or 4WD?

Now for the million-dollar question: Do you really need AWD or 4WD? Well, it depends. If you live in certain parts of Canada, AWD might be a necessity. But if you're in milder regions, 2WD could give you all the traction and control you need.

Why might 2WD be a good option? The answer is twofold: Over the past decade, there have been major strides in drivetrain technology and a ramp-up in government safety regulations.

These days, most 2WD vehicles come with traction control, electronic stability control, and a bunch of other standard features. While these don't exactly match the grip of AWD or 4WD, they do provide enough control without losing traction, making 2WD a solid choice for every day drivers or commuters.

Cost Concerns

Another key factor in deciding on your drivetrain is cost. Most new vehicles with AWD or 4WD come with a pretty hefty price increase, usually somewhere between $2,000 and $4,000, and the same goes for used vehicles. So, if you're watching your budget, it's worth considering the pros and cons of 4WD vs. AWD compared to 2WD options.

The more complex AWD and 4WD drivetrains can also mean higher repair and maintenance costs compared to 2WD. Plus, many manufacturers suggest replacing all four tires on an AWD system or the two tires on the same axle in a 4WD system if you have a flat. This is because the treads can't differ by more than 3/32 of an inch. If they do, you could end up with serious damage to your vehicle's undercarriage.

What Type of Drivetrain Suits Your Driving Style?

With added traction and peace of mind, many buyers opt for AWD or 4WD without a second thought. Yet the answer will inevitably vary depending on your driving style.

The good news is that you have the option for two-wheel drive, four-wheel drive, or all-wheel drive on almost every type of vehicle. So whether you want a crossover, pickup truck, sedan, or full-size SUV, you'll typically have an option between drivetrains.

Some manufacturers, such as Subaru, make all of their vehicles with standard AWD, while others such as Nissan, Chevrolet, and Toyota offer AWD or 4WD as an option. Luxury manufacturers also have their own proprietary AWD systems, such as Quattro from Audi, xDrive from BMW, or 4MATIC from Mercedes-Benz. And you always have the option of a trusted, proven system such as the 4WD found in the Jeep Wrangler.

Choosing between AWD, 4WD, and 2WD vehicles isn't always easy. That's where Clutch comes in.

Clutch is an online used car retailer and digital alternative to traditional car dealerships. With a customer-centric approach to vehicle sales including financing and delivery straight to your home, car buying has never been easier. Plus, we offer a 10-day money-back guarantee, a complimentary 90-day / 6,000 km warranty, and a 210-point inspection on each vehicle.

No matter what type of drivetrain you choose, you’ll find high-quality and competitively-priced options at Clutch.