4WD & AWD: Is there a Difference?

4WD, AWD, potato, poTAHto, it’s all the same thing, right? Well, the main function for both is to create traction, but there are differences between 4WD and AWD.

As a way to advance or military, 4WD was invented so that we could drive through rough terrain in order to infiltrate Nazi territory. 4WD was the primary traction control system used in vehicles until Suburu came out with the first mass-produced AWD vehicle in 1972. Automakers have been adding improved AWD features to their cars ever since.

So what is the difference between 4WD and AWD? Which one is better for me? Let’s run through the basic differences between 4WD and AWD so that you can compare which feature you will need for your next vehicle.



This feature typically isnt on all the time. The driver will need to manually turn on and off the 4WD feature with either a lever, switch, or button. When turning on 4WD, a single transfer case splits the power to make sure all wheels turn evenly. This is great for off-road driving or hauling heavy cargo at low speeds.

However, we don’t recommend using 4WD when driving down the expressway. For a car to make a turn, the inside wheel has to turn more slowly than the outside wheel, which is covering more ground. Since 4WD turn your wheels evenly, the inside wheel may lose traction causing it to spin freely. This, as you might be able to guess, isn’t great for moving forward efficiently.



Unlike 4WD, AWD splits power 3-ways using differentials. This allows power from the transmission to split at different levels between two wheels or the front and rear axles. This method helps reduce your wheels from slipping more than a 4WD vehicle. Also unlike 4WD, many AWD systems are always on and do not have the ability to turn off, which can reduce your fuel economy.

However, AWD systems work to get power to the wheels with the most traction in slippery conditions when different wheels might be getting different amounts of grip from moment to moment. Since AWD reduces power to the wheels with less traction, this feature isn’t recommended for any off-road driving. AWD isn’t quite as robust as 4WD and it can’t match the same levels of traction in extremely low-speed off-roading that the older 4WD systems provide.

So which system is best for you? Here is a quick checklist to help you decide.

Hauling or pulling heavy cargo? X
Driving in extreme weather? X
Off-road driving? X
Sportier handling & traction X
Ability to disengage?  X

It all depends on what you want to do with your vehicle. If you are not planning on doing any off-road excursions and do not have bad weather like us in Chicago, you really don’t need 4WD or AWD. If you live on a private drive with rocky terrain that you have to drive over, 4WD may be the better option.

However, for most people who plan on driving around this winter, AWD would be the way to go. AWD is best for traction on all road conditions and you don’t have to worry about forgetting to turn it on or off when the weather gets bad.

#awd #4wd

If you are having issues with your 4WD or AWD vehicle, feel free to give us a call.

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Written by Spotlight Automotive