AWD vs. 4WD: What’s the Difference?

While many people use all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive interchangeably, they aren’t the same. All-wheel drive and four-wheel drive describe different ways of transferring power to your wheels and have different strengths and weaknesses depending on the driving situation you find yourself in.

Many automakers offer cars that can switch between two-wheel drive and four-wheel drive, depending on how much traction you need (like some Subaru models). So what’s the difference between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive? Let’s take a look!

Main Difference

The debate between all-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) has been around for a long time. While both systems have their benefits, there are some key differences between them. One of the main benefits of AWD is that it is more efficient than 4WD. AWD systems only use power from the front wheels when necessary, saving fuel. In contrast, 4WD systems send energy to all four wheels simultaneously, resulting in decreased fuel efficiency.

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Another benefit of AWD is that it is typically less expensive than 4WD. AWD systems are more straightforward and don’t require as many components, which results in a lower price tag. 4WD does have some advantages over AWD, however.

When it comes to traction, there is no comparison: 4WD beats AWD, hands down. That’s because 4WD vehicles have a differential on the front and the back axles, which splits power equally between the left and right wheels. This ensures that both wheels constantly get energy, even when driving on a slippery surface.

AWD vehicles only have a differential on the front axle, which means that the rear wheels can spin freely if not gripping the ground. 4WD vehicles also offer better off-road performance than AWD vehicles. The additional ground clearance and broader tires of 4WD vehicles give them an advantage when traversing rough terrain.

What is AWD (All Wheel Drive)?

The AWD system is a four-wheel drive system where each wheel has its motor. To change direction, the driver turns the steering wheel. The front wheels turn in the same direction as the rear wheels. When turning right, the left side of the car turns right, and vice versa.

Four-Wheel Drive: On the other hand, 4WD works like any other vehicle with only two wheels. A four-wheel drive vehicle can still be driven on dry roads when only two of the tires are on the ground (but it’s not recommended). If you have one tire on ice or snow and one tire on dry ground, you won’t be able to move until you find an even surface again.


When most people think of vehicles with all-wheel drive, they think of SUVs or trucks. However, all-wheel drive is available in several different vehicle types. AWD systems are incredibly beneficial in inclement weather and can provide extra traction when needed most.

  • There are many advantages to owning a four-wheel drive (4WD) vehicle. However, all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicles also have benefits that should be considered when purchasing.
  • The most crucial difference between AWD and 4WD systems is how power is delivered to the wheels. AWD systems typically use a front-mounted or rear-mounted engine to power the front or rear wheels, while 4WD systems use a central gearbox to send power to all four wheels.
  • AWD vehicles are generally more fuel efficient because they do not need to send power to all four wheels all the time. An AWD vehicle will provide better traction in slippery conditions than a 4WD vehicle because all four wheels are powered.


  • All-wheel drive (AWD) is a type of four-wheel drive (4WD) that uses an onboard computer and several sensors to control the wheels’ power automatically.
  • AWD systems are found in high-end sedans, sports cars, and luxury SUVs. While AWD offers many advantages over 4WD, it also has some disadvantages.
  • One disadvantage of AWD is that it can be more expensive than 4WD.
  • AWD systems use more sophisticated technology, which can be more expensive to manufacture. Additionally, many luxury vehicles come standard with AWD, while 4WD is only available as an option or on a more expensive trim level.
  • Another downside of AWD is that it can be less efficient than 4WD. Because AWD systems rely on electronic controls, they can consume more power than traditional 4WD systems.

What is 4WD (Four Wheel Drive)?

In a four-wheel drive vehicle, all four wheels have their independent motors. Each wheel has its brake pedal, accelerator, and steering wheel. The driver turns the wheel simultaneously while pressing the gas pedal to make a turn.

When turning right, both sides of the car turn right, and vice versa when turning left. Four-wheel drive vehicles are not suitable for fuel economy. The engine must constantly change speeds to match the driving surface and speed. Four-wheel drive is suitable for on or off-road use because it provides power to each side of the car and is less likely to get stuck in snow or mud.

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There are many advantages to owning a 4WD or all-wheel drive (AWD) vehicle.

  • One of the most apparent benefits is that 4WD vehicles have better traction than two-wheel drive (2WD) cars in slippery conditions such as rain, snow, or ice. This is because they have more wheels in contact with the ground, providing more traction and stability.
  • 4WD vehicles can also handle uneven terrain better than 2WD cars, making them ideal for off-road adventures.
  • Another significant advantage of 4WD vehicles is that they tend to be more reliable than 2WD cars in difficult driving conditions.
  • The extra set of wheels helps to distribute the load evenly and prevents the car from getting stuck in mud or sand.
  • Additionally, many 4WD vehicles have features like hill descent control and all-terrain tires that make them better equipped to handle rough terrain.


4WD (four-wheel drive) systems offer several advantages over AWD (all-wheel drive) systems.

  • First, 4WD vehicles have higher ground clearance, making them better suited for off-road driving.
  • Second, 4WD systems are more reliable than AWD systems because they have fewer components.
  • Third, 4WD vehicles are typically more expensive than AWD vehicles. Finally, 4WD cars offer better traction in slippery conditions than AWD vehicles.

Critical Differences Between AWD and 4WD

  1. AWD vehicles have four wheels that are connected via a differential gearbox. In contrast, 4WD vehicles have two separate drivetrains, each having its own set of wheels. AWD and 4WD systems use a center differential to split power between the front and rear axles. However, they differ in how the power gets distributed.
  2. In AWD vehicles, the power goes simultaneously to both the front and rear wheels. In 4WD cars, the power only goes to the front or rear wheel, depending on which axle turns faster.
  3. AWD vehicles are generally lighter than 4WD vehicles due to their more straightforward design. They are also easier to maintain since they do not require any special tools to change tires or perform maintenance. On the flip side, AWD vehicles tend to cost more to purchase and maintain.
  4. AWD vehicles were initially designed for off-road use. Their simple design makes them ideal for rough terrain. Because of this, AWD vehicles are often equipped with larger tires and more robust suspension components.
  5. 4WD vehicles were initially developed for on-road driving. They are heavier and more complex than AWD vehicles. This means they are less suitable for rough terrain. To compensate for this, 4WD vehicles have smaller tires and weaker suspension components.
  6. AWD vehicles have been around for longer than 4WD vehicles. AWD was first introduced in the 1950s, while 4WD was invented in the 1960s.
  7. AWD vehicles can be driven on roads, while 4WD vehicles cannot.
  8. AWD vehicles need to be steered using the steering wheel and gas pedal. 4WD cars need to be steered with the transmission and clutch pedals.
  9. AWD vehicles use a single transfer case to distribute power to the front and rear axels. 4WD cars use two separate transfer cases.
  10. AWD vehicles rely on a central differential to split the power between the front and back axles. 4WD vehicles use a center diff lock to prevent the vehicle from spinning.
  11. AWD vehicles do not have a reverse gear. 4WD vehicles have a reverse gear.
  12. AWD vehicles may have a manual transmission. 4WD vehicles have automatic transmissions.
  13. AWD vehicles usually have a higher top speed than 4WD vehicles.

Similarities Between AWD and 4WD

Both systems send power to all four wheels of a vehicle. This can provide better traction and stability, especially when driving in challenging conditions like snow or mud. The downside is that the system is often heavier than two-wheel drive setups, which can hurt fuel economy. The AWD system also typically adds more cost for the manufacturer and the consumer.

How To Choose Between AWD And 4WD?

All-wheel drive (AWD) and four-wheel drive (4WD) are great options for drivers who want extra traction and stability on the road. But how do you know which one is right for you? Here are some things to consider

Comparison Chart Between AWD and 4WD

Comparison All Wheel Drive Four-wheel Drive
Examples Pontiac Vibe, Toyota Matrix, Subaru Legacy GT. Suzuki SUVs (part-time), Mitsubishi Montero (full-time)
Types AWD systems can be automatic or selectable. 4WD is part-time or full-time.
Definition AWD has a central differential and thus is designed to power all four wheels at the same time. 4WD, depending on the type, is designed to automatically adjust the power in the front and back wheels depending on the road conditions.


In short, all-wheel drive vehicles send power to all four wheels, but four-wheel drive vehicles can send power to either two or all four wheels. All-wheel drive improves traction in slippery conditions, but four-wheel drive is better for off-roading. So, which one is right for you? It depends on your needs.