AWD vs. 4WD: What’s the Difference and Which Do You Want?

You must know that most cars have four wheels. So why do people differentiate between all-wheel drive and four-wheel drive when running four wheels clearly means you’re driving them all and vice versa? Despite the misleading names, and some misleading historical uses, there is a significant difference between four-wheel drive (4WD) and all-wheel drive (AWD) systems.

What does 4WD mean?

Before we explore specific topics, it is important to understand the basics of each system. First, what is a four-wheel drive? 4WD is often written, but it is also presented as 4×4, a four-wheel-drive system that does what it says: its drivetrain is capable of sending power on four wheels. A 4WD system usually has a transfer case, which the driver must control via a secondary shift knob or electronic selection dial, which provides a lower range for better gearing from the sidewalk and a higher range for improved highway gearing. The transfer case, however, indicates a “True 4WD” system, strictly speaking, qualifying as a 4WD is not mandatory. Four-wheel drive systems can be full-time, meaning all four wheels are always driven, or part-time / on-demand, where most of the power is sent to an axle (almost always with a 4WD vehicle in the back). Chooses to employ another excel for. Increasingly, some 4WD cars can do this automatically (4A or auto mode).

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What does AWD mean?

All-wheel drive, or AWD systems, like their 4WD counterparts, are capable of supplying engine power to all wheels. Similarly, an AWD system can be full-time or part-time / on-demand. However, very few people rely on drivers for all-wheel-drive. It is most common for AWD vehicles to be driven by an axle (usually the front part in this case), unless the vehicle feels or assumes wheel slippage and sends power to another axle accordingly. Those with full-time systems are also able to change the amount of power going forward and backward (this is common among rear-wheel-drive vehicles, especially luxury and performance-oriented vehicles). Unlike a 4WD system, however, AWD systems typically do not have a transfer case that drivers can use to select from an extended gearing range for on- and off-road use.

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Technical term or marketing talk?

The complexities, however, are that these descriptions of 4WD and AWD systems are not entirely consistent with how the terms are used, especially by the marketing weapons of vehicle and parts manufacturers. In fact, in the United States since the 1970s in particular, the term AWD has been used to refer to a permanent drive on each wheel, but without the use of a transfer case. Four-wheel drives, on the other hand, are used to refer to part-time or on-demand systems that use a transfer case. Moreover, although the line has become significantly blurred over the past decade, AWD systems have historically been marketed primarily for vehicles for on-road use, while 4WD systems have been marketed with vehicles for substantial off-road use.

AWD vs. 4WD: Differences

Another consideration that sometimes distinguishes 4WD systems from AWD drivetrains is the type of differential. In an AWD system, especially AWD systems intended for sports, differences are found not only on the front and rear axles but also on a center difference between the front and rear axes. The difference between these modern hubs is often omitted in 4WD systems, especially those intended for use in off-road situations only. Again, this is not a requirement for a system to be considered as AWD vs. 4WD, but it can be a contributing factor.

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Is a Transfer Case Really Important?

Considered by many to be one of the main distinguishing factors between four-wheel-drive and an all-wheel-drive vehicle, the transfer case is an additional range of gears, usually divided into high and low range. This extra gearing allows the wheels to rotate more slowly for a specific engine speed, which improves both driver control and available torque to maximize off-road power. All-wheel-drive systems generally lack transfer cases and are therefore not generally suitable for extreme off-road situations. So to answer the question of whether a 4WD or AWD transfer case is really important, it is important to consider the use of the vehicle.

Electric all-wheel-drive system

For fully electric vehicles with EVs Something Hybrid, most of what you read above does not apply in any way. Instead of relying on differential or transference to send power to the secondary axle, there is only one additional electric motor that powers the secondary axle. For example, the Toyota RAV4 Hybrid and RAV4 Prime feature a front axle powered by a combination of an electric motor and a petrol engine, while the rear axle is powered only by its own electric motor. In computer magic, they work together, but not mechanically. All-wheel-drive electric vehicles similarly rely on individual electric motors that power each axle. The Rivian R1T and R1S go one step further by driving each wheel individually by an electric motor.

In the end, which do you want and / or need?

Your use can help you determine if 4WD or AWD is right for you. If you are planning to cross extreme terrain with rocks, mud, deep sand and much more, you will want a 4WD car. Those looking for better traction and improved stability in adverse weather will generally do well with an AWD vehicle.

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