At one time, if you wanted a vehicle with four driven wheels, you were limited to just a handful of large trucks and full-size SUVs, most of which were used for work chores or off-road adventure.
But times have changed. Now 45 percent of new vehicles sold in the U.S. are equipped with either all-wheel drive (AWD) or four-wheel drive (4WD). For vehicles that have AWD vs 4WD as an option, 61 percent of buyers choose a model with either. In Omaha, Nebraska with cold and snowy winters, this “take rate” is 90 percent or higher. So the popularity of vehicles that can send power to both the front and rear wheels is indisputable. But what’s the difference between AWD vs 4WD?
Although the overall purpose of both systems is for increased traction, the way in which they function differs significantly. Below you will find how each system operates and their pros and cons.
All-wheel-drive systems employ front, rear, and center differentials to provide power to all four wheels. These systems differ from Four Wheel Drive (4X4) systems in that they use a center differential instead of a transfercase. AWD systems are the newest technology we have today when it comes to employing all four wheels for added traction. These systems work much differently than 4X4 systems do and can offer both advantages and disadvantages to the operator.
All-wheel-drive vehicles do not allow the driver to manually turn them on and off, so they are constantly in use. They work great in slippery conditions as the vehicles computer will automatically sense dangerous conditions and will provide the proper amount of traction to all four tires to keep the vehicle straight. Although they can’t match the level of traction and off road capabilities of 4X4 systems, they work particularly well in normal everyday driving situations.
4X4 vehicles use a drivetrain that employs two differentials and a transfer case to provide power to all four wheels of the vehicle. Four-wheel drive systems are generally used for off road purposes as they have been proven time and again to be the most rugged technology available and offer the best traction in rough conditions. A great advantage to these systems is that typically they can be manually turned off to improve fuel economy.
AWD and 4WD vehicles improve traction on road surfaces. They prevent your car from slipping on roads and getting stuck in mud and snow. Traction control does not help your car steer better, brake more efficiently or take corners better. Even with top-of-the-line traction control systems, drivers must still remain completely alert during bad weather conditions. You should still drive carefully at all times. Please don’t have a false sense of security when it comes to robust traction control on your vehicle.
A couple of things to keep in mind up front: Whether you choose AWD or 4WD, any vehicle can lose traction and spin out if pushed hard enough. And while both systems are designed to increase traction by engaging the front and rear wheels, neither helps you stop better. Having said that, both AWD and 4WD can give you a significant advantage in snowy and icy conditions and may be worth the extra cost, depending on where you live and how you use your vehicle.
Driving in cold weather often means encountering a variety of rapidly changing road surfaces, from soft snow to hard-packed snow to glare ice. AWD systems, which deliver power to all four wheels all the time, or automatically engage four-wheel torque when needed, are best at dealing with these changing conditions. They take the guesswork out of the equation and can act more quickly than a driver to handle variable road surfaces.
On the other hand, 4WD is generally well-suited to navigating deeper snow or other more extreme winter conditions. It can get you unstuck from a snowdrift more easily, manage icy hills more effectively, and get you to work safely before the roads are plowed.
Unsurprisingly, the answer to the AWD vs. 4WD debate is that it depends on where you live and what kinds of driving conditions you encounter, as well as personal taste.
AWD can be found in cars, trucks and SUVs of all sizes, from compact to full-size, giving you the widest possible range of vehicles to choose from. It delivers increased traction under normal winter conditions or light off-roading and provides the fewest compromises in ride and fuel economy on dry roads. And it has the advantage of either powering all four wheels on a continuous basis or automatically controlling which corner gets the torque, taking the decision-making process out of the driver’s hands.
4WD might be the better choice for those who live in remote areas, need to work in extreme weather conditions, or enjoy off-road adventuring. This system often comes in trucks and SUVs with higher ground clearance than average, making them well-suited to managing deep snow, rocky terrain and steep grades, as well as carrying or towing heavy loads. In addition, the models with part-time 4WD and low- and high-range features give the driver the greatest amount of control over where and how the power is delivered.
When it comes to 4WD vs. AWD, automakers keep improving these systems with each new model year. These options are just one of many factors to think about when buying your next car, so take your time and choose a vehicle that fits your lifestyle.
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