All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) are two types of drivetrains commonly offered as options by most automotive manufacturers. But what do these terms actually mean? 

While both offer grip and extra traction compared to two-wheel drive, they also have distinct differences. Whether you want to tackle the off-road tracks of Banff National Park or maintain control in snowy or slippery conditions, here's a quick guide to AWD vs. 4WD.

AWD vs. 4WD

What are the differences between AWD vs. 4WD? 

AWD and 4WD are confusing terms to many people outside of a car repair shop. So, when you’re buying a car or interested in the aspects of these drivetrains, you first need to understand what they mean and how they differ. Here’s a quick breakdown of the main differences between AWD and 4WD. 

All-Wheel Drive

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

If the vehicle detects slippage or a lack of traction during adverse weather or road conditions, it automatically sends power via a center differential (the technical word for a gear that allows wheels to turn independently or at different speeds) to the other wheels. This takes all the guesswork out of driving, as the system is always engaged. This constant engagement is also known as full-time all-wheel drive. 

Four-Wheel Drive

Four-wheel drive systems function similarly to AWD but with some notable changes in regard to traction and driver preference. Most 4WD systems have a selectable switch that allows the driver to choose two-wheel drive mode or four-wheel drive depending on road conditions. This selector may also have low-range and high-range gear options, which are essential for bouldering or off-roading. 

With four-wheel drive engaged, the vehicle uses a transfer case to send torque to both the front and rear axle. This allows both axles to turn at different speeds, which translates to a major increase in off-road capabilities.

Unlike AWD vehicles, 4WD is usually limited to 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 probably also heard of two-wheel drive (2WD). Two-wheel drive is another type of drivetrain that’s common on most cars, as well as some trucks and SUVs. However, 2WD comes in two types: front-wheel drive (FWD) and rear-wheel drive (RWD).

Front-wheel drive is a drivetrain that uses power from the engine to turn only the front axle. This is common to many types of everyday vehicles. Conversely, rear-wheel drive utilizes engine power to turn the rear axle. Almost all trucks and SUVs use this drivetrain, as well as most sports cars.

Confused Yet?

If you're confused by this, don't stress. In many cases, automotive manufacturers use these terms interchangeably, adding to the uncertainty you may feel. But just remember this:

In AWD vehicles, the system is always engaged, providing better traction and cornering no matter the driving conditions.

In 4WD vehicles, you're the pilot. You choose whether to engage the system for maximum traction. Keep in mind that 4WD is almost exclusively used in severe driving conditions, and you typically won't use this on pavement — unless you're in the middle of a blizzard.

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

When it comes to AWD vs. 4WD, how do you choose which system is better for you? It's easier than you think. 

  • If you rarely go off-road, an AWD system is the better option. It provides more control over front-wheel drive or rear-wheel drive, especially when driving in snowy conditions or rain.
  • Conversely, a 4WD system provides the torque you need to handle the toughest rocks, boulders, or any other obstacle thrown in your way. The only caveat is that 4WD is usually unsafe on pavement. As a result, remember to switch back to two-wheel drive on the road.

The Pros and Cons of AWD vs. 4WD

Let's get down to the nitty-gritty of both all-wheel drive vehicles and four-wheel drive vehicles. To some degree, choosing which drivetrain works for you is a matter of preference. But you should also take a glance at the pros and cons of each. Doing so will allow you to make the right choice for your driving style.

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

Do you actually need AWD or 4WD?

Now for the million-dollar question: Do you actually need AWD or 4WD? It depends. Different geographic regions in Canada may translate to needing AWD. But if you're in milder areas, 2WD will probably provide all the traction and control you need.

Why is 2WD a decent choice? The answer is two-fold: There have been significant advancements in drivetrain technology over the past decade as well as increased government regulation over safety features. 

Today, most 2WD vehicles provide traction control, electronic stability control, and a host of other standard features. While these don't necessarily translate to the grip of AWD or 4WD, these systems provide adequate control without a loss of traction, making 2WD suitable for everyday drivers or commuters.

Cost Concerns

Another crucial aspect of deciding your drivetrain centers around cost concerns. Most new vehicles with AWD or 4WD have a sizable increase in cost, typically ranging from $2,000 to $4,000, as do pre-owned vehicles. As a result, budget-conscious buyers should weigh the pros and cons of 4WD vs. AWD compared to 2WD offerings.

The complexities of AWD and 4WD drivetrains can also lead to increased repair and maintenance costs over 2WD. In addition, many manufacturers recommend replacing all four tires on an AWD system or the two tires on the same axle in a 4WD system if you blow a tire. The reason for this is because treads can have no more than a 3/32-inch difference. Otherwise, you risk significant damage to the underpinnings of your vehicle.

What Type of Vehicle 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. But one surefire way to decide is by taking a drive. That's where Clutch comes in.

Clutch is an online car-buying experience 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:

  • 3-month, 6,000-kilometer warranty
  • 7-day money-back guarantee
  • 210-point inspection on each vehicle

No matter what type of drivetrain you choose, Clutch has your back. All you need to do is sit back and enjoy the ride.